“Body of work, babe. It’s all body of work at the end of the day.” So said noted pop culturist Chris Rock to GQ around the release of D’Angelo’s third album Black Messiah when quizzed on whether D was a great artist. According to Rock’s gospel, an oeuvre of just two records didn’t cut it no matter how deep the music’s greatness. So lord knows what he made of Jay Electronica, a rapper who for well over a decade boasted a solo output of just a handful of tracks, yet carried a sense of mythology more suited to Spartan heroes or Scottish aquatic monsters.
Where did this modern day myth come from and how did it grow? Electronica’s official line a decade ago was that he had no idea. It’s true that he hasn’t exactly lived the life of Jeremiah Sand, setting up camp in the middle of nowhere with his acolytes. Jay has never been a recluse like D’Angelo was during his lean years—you could go to one of his shows or hit him up on social media. And he seems an amiable fellow without the electrifying, spiritual presence of Prince. Yet his story seemed touched by fantasy. To piece together Electronica’s life before the age of 30 you’d need a squad of private detectives, spiritual mediums, and The Goonies. Legend has it that he left his home city of New Orleans on New Year’s Day 1996, aged 19, beginning a wandering journey through hip-hop epicentres such as Philadelphia, Atlanta, Washington D.C., Detroit, and New York. One adventure saw him connect with J Dilla, notably strict when it came to choosing collaborators, which more or less came to nothing. (Electronica did use Dilla internet beats for a few tracks, including “So What You Saying.”)
The cultivation of a legend hit overdrive with the release of Electronica’s debut EP Act I: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge) in 2007. About a third of the project is dedicated to Just Blaze talking about Jay curing his boredom with hip-hop and Erykah Badu calling him “some kind of mythical creature who would have a bow and arrow on his back and wings under that bow and arrow.” Act I was heralded as seminal, important, and a masterpiece. It certainly feels artistic—Jay was rapping over drum-less Jon Brion samples taken from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; the tracks have been referred to as “movements.”
(I’ll admit, when I first heard about this guy I thought his name sucked and wasn’t appropriate at all. A part of me was like, “Wow, he doesn’t even need a decent rap name so he must be good!”)
The birth of the Electronica myth was made possible not just by the quality of the music, but like so many things, because of timing. Jay emerged just as a certain profile of hip-hop purist was crying out for an artist with classic fundamentals: lyricism, mic skills, and affinity for samples. To many he was a soothing antiseptic to the Auto-Tune artists who were suffering an intense backlash.
Then… nothing happened. Album deadline after album deadline passed; Electronica’s momentum crumbled into dust. Yet the mythology around the man only grew as Jay’s movements and motives became harder to read and his inability to complete a a full-length record became the stuff of lore. In the space where actual songs might have existed grew a legend—there are no limits to the potential quality of music you don’t hear.
When I saw Jay live in 2015 it all seemed to make sense. He connected with the crowd, but was so scattered and giddy that he couldn’t finish a song. This was a character who would win many converts on his journey, I thought, but maybe never have the focus to finish an album. The would-be saviour of hip-hop would live like a rap Jules Whitfield. He would simply walk the earth.
Then, like a miracle, 2020 saw the release of not one but two Jay Electronica records: the newly recorded A Written Testimony and belatedly unveiled Act II: The Patents of Nobility (The Turn). Finally, we have a large enough discography to be reasonably described as a body of work. A big part of the mystery has been revealed; the man behind the curtain finally exposed. Has the atmosphere of myth surrounding Electronica died down? If anything it has intensified.
How has Jay managed this? Firstly, and most obviously, there’s the quality of the music. Is A Written Testimony a classic? I know that I like it more and more with every passing month. The production is that of a high-end product, yet the album remains rooted in the core tenets of classic hip-hop, meaning it never feels like Electronica is throwing out music crit bait or chasing classic status. Take “Ghost of Soulja Slim”: with its Parisian-flavoured sample and drums that come down hard, this would have been a classic single if the artist had bothered to give it a standalone release.
The title of the album suggests Electronica’s personal opus and his bars carry a sense of the divinity, like the musings of a man with a direct line to a spiritual realm. His close affiliation with the Nation of Islam is mixed with references to the Marvel Universe. The news cycle forms Electronica’s writing too: “Fruits of the Spirit” packs in references to the Flint water crisis, I.C.E., and attacks on Palestine into just three lines. Electronica writes like a sage with deep wells of knowledge in religious history, journalistic practice, and comic book scripture. Turns out, the crevices of his mind are just as kaleidoscopic as we imagined.
Act II: The Patents of Nobility (The Turn) answers even more questions. Specifically, what the mysterious album we waited 11 years for sounds like. (Call it the rap version of The Beach Boys’ Smile.) Perhaps the least surprising aspect of Electronica’s 2020 is that Act II does feel in the vein of Act 1. There’s the strange samples, Jay disappearing for long stretches, the somewhat lossy nature of the recordings. It doesn’t quite feel complete, but that’s part of the charm.
Increasingly, Jay’s mythos stems from the fact that he never seemed to do anything obvious. A Written Testimony might as well have been presented as a joint album with Jay-Z. It’s as if a frustrated Jigga—Electronica’s boss at Roc Nation—pushed him into the studio and promised he’d walk him through the process one step at a time. And the release of Act II is already a hip-hop mystery. As Reed Jackson’s deep dive on the subject lays out, the album leaked online after a group of Discord users raised $9,000 to buy it from a hacker. After being officially released to Tidal in the aftermath, Act II was quietly removed, possibly down to sample clearing issues. Electronica has since said that the “finished version” of Act II will feature verses from Kanye West. We don’t really know for sure what the final form of the project looks like, maybe we’ll never know. That’s Electronica. Things are never simple.
What we do know is that phase one of his career finally feels complete. A body of work is with us to pour over; Jay Electronica has finally revealed himself. He’ll probably continue to walk the earth until disappearing into a puff of smoke, the mystery never quite solved. The good news is the quality of music we now get to bump while fiddling with the Rubik’s Cube.