Two Albums Later, Jay Electronica’s Mystique Remains

Any music industry professional, journalist, or even fan knows that an artist’s story is just as important as their music. And as long as we’ve known who Jay Electronica is, that has rung true. From the beginning of his career to the recent leak (and subsequent release) of his decade-plus-delayed solo album, Act II: The Patents of Nobility, the man born Timothy Elpadaro Thedford has been one of rap’s most mythological figures. 

Before Jay Electronica rapped a single word on his debut mixtape, Act I: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge), which he released on MySpace in 2007, we heard producer Just Blaze and singer-songwriter Erykah Badu share personal stories and accolades about him. Over meditative piano keys, they told their respective stories about how they met Electronica, giving glimpses into what sounded like a warm but oddball personality. They also shared their perspectives about what he could mean to the music industry. Badu (who was in a romantic relationship with Jay) called him “peculiarly intelligent,” comparing him to an alien, and said she wanted to start a label just to sign him. Just Blaze beamed about his musical curiosity, and said he saw Electronica as a bright spot in an industry that had otherwise fatigued him. “The reason I had kinda gotten bored with hip-hop in general is because people don’t like to take risks, and they don’t like to try anything different,” he said, in his signature scratchy voice. “But he was one of the few artists that was just willing to go all the way to the left with it.” 

We didn’t know much about Jay Electronica yet, in terms of the bones of his life story, where he was from, his family history, and his formative years. But we knew that two artists who we respected had all but declared him as a savior at a time when hip-hop felt stale to some. Once the music began, it did sound like something we hadn’t heard before, certainly not in affiliation with those two: songs that were high on film samples and low on drums, with lyrics that were both abstract and vividly specific all at once, loaded with internal rhyme schemes and poetic language. The EP felt like a short film itself, a prequel to a feature.

Jay Electronica’s story was more fully crystallized on “Exhibit C,” an autobiographical opus that he debuted on a Shade 45 radio show in 2009, before releasing it that December. Over a triumphant, thunderous beat by Just Blaze, Electronica tells his story himself, instead of leaving it up to others. He explains how he grew up in New Orleans, weathered homelesses and substance abuse while nomadically living in Brooklyn, Philly, and Detroit, and eventually found redemption after embracing the pro-Black religious teachings of the Nation of Gods and Earths (otherwise known as the Five Percenters), and later, Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. The song was gripping, transcendent, and most of all, encouraging. If Act I was a premonition from prophets we already trusted, “Exhibit C” felt like the messianic figure announcing his own arrival. At a time when some thought rap was losing its way, it seemed Jay Electronica could steer it back in the right direction. “Exhibit C” caught fire and prompted a bidding war between labels, before Electronica signed to Roc Nation in 2010 and promised his official debut album, previously announced as Act II: The Patents of Nobility, would be coming soon.

The leak and subsequent release of Act II prove that the quality of the music was never in question.

For much of the following decade, Jay Electronica’s album release date got lost in a sea of pushbacks, interview fodder, and other distractions. But as his album felt more distant, his mystique became more resonant. While rap moved toward a model that rewarded artists for incessant access and prolific output, Jay Electronica operated in scarcity and reclusiveness, disappearing for months at a time and opting to make his few public appearances actually mean something. He sporadically released emotive loosies like the diaristic depression dialogue “Dear Moleskine” and the memoir “Better In Tune With The Infinite,” and had a sparse list of guest verses on songs with Mac Miller, Reflection Eternal, and a few more acts. He gave a historic headlining performance at the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival in 2014, with a surprise appearance by Jay-Z and pro-Black imagery provided by suited members of the Nation of Islam, with a few sporadic show dates that followed. He appeared in tabloids for his reported affair with Katie Rothschild, the heiress of the Rothschild banking family empire. He’d also shared social media diatribes about how he was better than Kendrick Lamar. 

But where was the album as we all waited? In 2012, Questlove told The Champs podcast that Act II was finished, but that Jay-Z felt it needed a single. After his Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival performance, Jay Elec said he was getting over a recent relapse back into drug addiction. But every explanation was followed by more disappearing and more reclusiveness. Years earlier, The Alchemist told a story about how Electronica missed an evening studio session, only to show up at his home the next morning and ask to go on a walk. And as Jay Electronica told less of his own story, media and fans took bits from the news and filled in the blanks for themselves. Albums like Dr. Dre’s Detox became mythological zeitgeist for their nonexistence, and Jay Electronica did the same. People wrote thinkpieces and pontificated online about how the album was never supposed to drop in the first place, comparing it to the plotline of The Prestige, the Christian Bale-starring film about a magician from which Jay Electronica’s projects were named. Some criticized him as one of hip-hop’s biggest letdowns. Others continued to revere him as one of rap’s most profound scribes, attesting his scant output to an eccentric artist’s nature and a quality-over-quantity approach that rap would be better off adopting. If the album never arrived, there were still fan-made mixtapes and playlists that would forever chronicle his genius.

2020 has been the most prolific year of Jay Electronica’s career, a fact that is both odd and fitting all at once. In February, he took to Twitter to announce that he had recorded his debut album over 40 days and 40 nights, and that it would be released 40 days later. He followed up with his promise this time, and previewed A Written Testimony on Instagram with a studio listening party as rap stars beamed in anticipation in the comment section. When it dropped that night, on March 13, rumors and unclear tweets were confirmed: Jay-Z delivered the assist of a lifetime, appearing on virtually all of the album’s songs in a way that mirrored Ghostface’s involvement on Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx (although, unlike Ghost, all of Jay-Z’s features were uncredited). While Jay-Z uses the album to spit some of his most inspired and invigorating pro-Black verses in years (months after receiving backlash for Roc Nation’s NFL partnership while the league blackballed Colin Kaepernick) Jay Electronica adheres to the album title literally, using it to profess his love for Allah and confirm his allegiance to Minister Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. In some ways, the album attempts to walk the conscious-meets-commercial line that one would expect from a Jay Electronica major label album, but on its own terms. There are features by The-Dream and Travis Scott, but they don’t fall too deep into each of those artist’s usual tropes, and Jay Electronica produces many of the tracks himself. His biblically-inspired rhymes are still sharp, and he gives explanations for the pushbacks without dedicating too much time to them. The album’s pro-Black ideology felt timely as the country protested the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other unarmed Black people, and its spontaneity matched a year that was marred by a pandemic, historic job loss, and a flood of seemingly apocalyptic news headlines. 

Despite all of its strengths, though, it didn’t deliver the indisputable, bulletproof closure some would expect after a 13-year wait. Jay Electronica’s lyrics were still beautiful and biblical, but to many, he sounded like a featured artist on his own album. He’s the third voice that listeners even hear on the album, as the intro is a clip from a speech by Louis Farrakhan and the first verse on “The Ghost of Soulja Slim” is a stunner from Jay-Z. Some criticized Electronica for timidly giving up too much space on what was supposed to be his debut album, and argued that Jay-Z’s verses stole the show compared to Jay Elec’s more nuanced rhymes. And for once, the sense of unknown wasn’t there anymore: after years of Jay Electronica’s debut album being an urban legend, it was finally something we could hold in our figurative hands. 

Act II is certainly closer to the Jay Electronica that fans fell in love with in the late 2000s than what we heard on A Written Testimony.

To some listeners, like myself, Jay Electronica delivered what he (and his supporters) promised: a debut album that bucked tradition in pursuit of a bigger mission. Some were simply happy that he finally dropped anything at all, hoping it would start a pattern of more releases. But to others, he was the conscious version of a singles artist, whose small doses were more potent than a full LP could ever be. The real, laboriously crafted Act II would’ve been aligned with the Jay Electronica they loved more than an album put together in barely more than a month. Whether due to a mixed musical response or listeners being frankly infatuated with bigger issues that existed in the world at the time, it seemed like A Written Testimony came as quickly as it went: from one of the most anticipated rap albums of the past decade to a mere footnote in a year of chaos and a career of false promises, only given a few days in the news cycle. 

This month, the mystique of Jay Electronica returned. A crew of group buyers allegedly paid a hacker $9,000 to liberate Act II: Patents of Nobility (The Turn) from its dusty hard drive. The album that Electronica had promised over a decade ago was leaked online, prompting his team to burn the midnight oil to clear samples and release the album on Jay-Z’s streaming platform, TIDAL. The tracklist is astoundingly an identical match to the one he shared on social media in 2012, with all the same track titles, minus the notable appearance. “Thank you to all my day ones who never lost faith. Please forgive me for leaving y’all hanging all this time,” he tweeted, in response to the leak’s positive reaction. “I actually tried to block this from coming out, but Allah is the best of planners.”

Both albums have their specific strengths and conditions, and it feels dishonest to compare an eight-year-old album to a new project put together in less than a month and a half. But Act II is certainly closer to the Jay Electronica that fans fell in love with in the late 2000s than what we heard on A Written Testimony. The old TV and film clips are back, adding both his familiar thematic flair and a sense of the unknown. Hearing references to Blackberry Messenger, Tumblr, and Vimeo show just how old this album is, but the music hasn’t lost its luster. Previously-released songs like “Road To Perdition,” “Better In Tune,” and “Letter To Falon” feel just as powerful as they did before, their rhymes still respectively boastful, somber, and reflective. The Jay-Z-assisted “Shiny Suit Theory” is given new sheen when paired with “Dinner At Tiffany’s,” a preceding song that uses classical strings, piano keys, and vocals by Charlotte Gainsbourg, before ending with gorgeous transitional notes. “Memories and Merlot” tells tender stories about Bible lessons with his mother as a child and a revealing date over wine as an adult, while “Welcome to Knightsbridge” features boastful verses around a clip of Diddy gassing him up. Jay-Z has one guest verse, Diddy has one guest vocal clip, and singers appear on a few songs, but there’s no room to question who the star is this time. The album doesn’t appear to have the spiritual resolution that A Written Testimony has, but a higher power is still in the picture: “Allah” is listed as a co-composer on each of the songs. 

There are moments of Act II that feel incomplete. According to the original tracklist, “Rough Love” was supposed to feature Kanye West, but the version here only has one verse, and its aggressive sexuality could match thematically with the energy ’Ye exhibited on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s “Hell of a Life.” Elsewhere, “Night of the Roundtable” is also unfinished, with Jay Electronica placing scatty mumbles in spots where lyrics could replace them later. The mix on the album is low as well, lacking the Young Guru sheen from A Written Testimony. On other albums, feeling incomplete would indicate a lack of thoughtfulness that takes away from the music, but with this being a leak of an album we’ve anticipated for over a decade, these blemishes feel like patina on leather or scratches on a family heirloom. We got an album that he was hesitant to give us. It’s a reminder that this is not just an album, but part of Jay Electronica’s story—a story that goes beyond what we pieced together in lieu of his own silence.

On A Written Testimony’s “Ezekiel’s Wheel,” Jay Electronica gave a brief explanation for why he pushed his album back for so long. “Sometimes I was held down by the gravity of my pen/Sometimes I was held down by the gravity of my sin/Sometimes, like Santiago, at crucial points of my novel/My only logical option was to transform into the wind.” And on “The Blinding,” he mused, “When I look inside the mirror, all I see is flaws… In the wee hours of night, tryna squeeze out bars/Bismillah, just so y’all could pick me apart?” The leak and subsequent release of Act II prove that the quality of the music was never in question. As a matter of fact, the album could have been more resonant had it dropped when Jay Electronica was a hip-hop hotrod. He had his own hurdles and insecurities to overcome before he was comfortable sharing them with us. The releases of A Written Testimony and Act II are unlikely to bring back detractors who had lost interest, but hopefully both releases (and his own personal work) give Jay Electronica the confidence to finally release music in gaps that are less than a decade apart.

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