I’m not going to lie, I really bought into the Jay Electronica hype. After hearing Exhibit C years and years ago, being a rap fan through and through, I thought he was going to be the greatest. Not everyone can rap surahs in a perfect flow over Just Blaze beats. The DJ played the song in the first concert I ever went to as a teenager, and I poorly attempted to rap it word for word.
I was old enough to know that this man was like Andre 3000, Nas and every member of Wu Tang wrapped into one. But I was young enough to be so impressionable that I thought this guy was going to change rap. Act 1 just had a very mysterious feeling to it that gave you that feeling. So I eagerly awaited every bit of news, every track and every feature. But eventually it just got old. Eventually, after the last time he dropped a loosie and ghosted, I gave up. I didn’t care anymore.
When A Written Testimony dropped I liked it but it sounded lacklustre. Don’t really revisit it much. But this album is a unicorn; I genuinely didn’t believe it existed, so keeping with the general theme of 2020 as a crackhead year in general, I shouldn’t have been surprised that it was suddenly trending out of the blue. So I broke my rule of avoiding leaks and downloaded it. I didn’t even think of writing on it until I saw Jay Electronica himself planning on getting it up on TIDAL.
A Written Testimony from earlier this year was good but sounds like Jay Z was bored, just woke up from spinning his own copy of Act 2, and knowing Elec didn’t want to release it, held his hand and forced him to try and recreate it. That album sounds like an imitation of what Act 2 is. It’s good, but lacking.
First thing that strikes me with this album is one question - why didn’t this come out? The reason I ask is that it sounds 99% finished. It picks up where Act 1 left off, with all the mysterious skits, distorted vocal clips and cheering children sound bites to boot. And it’s great.
The album can’t restore the 2011 Jay Electronica hype, but I’m legitimately impressed with how fresh and relevant it sounds. That’s half because of how good and unique it is, and half because of the state of US hip-hop since he emerged. This album is nearly 10 years old, but thanks to the likes of Freddie Gibbs, Griselda, Jay Z and Earl Sweatshirt, it sounds living and current.
On Act 2, he’s drawing from deeper places. If Act 1 introduces you to Jay as the man of mystery, Act 2 is like stepping into his house. It’s like really getting to know the Motorcycling, Rothschild dating, elusive hermit and looking at his collection of eccentric paintings and old photos - and glimpses of punched up walls and shattered glass in his hallway.
Starting with the intro, with quotes from none other than Ronald Reagan, this track sums up what this album is. It’s minimal, sentimental and powerful. It tells a story of Jay waking up and appreciating life as a gift; but as he moves through his day, he’s weighed down by his troubles. The keys and upright bass guitar make it peaceful and sentimental, but the narrative hangs heavily on your heart. And that goes for the whole project, it sounds small and personal but grandiose and expensive at the same time.
There are a lot of highlights on the album. New Illuminati is epic, Bonnie and Clyde, with the otherworldly French vocals and guitars is unexpectedly cool, sounding weirder than Madlib at his weirdest, most lofi moments.
Memories and Merlot is just beautiful. The beat is illustrious and with the melodic flows and picture painting, it just feels like Jay lighting a wood burning stove and telling you a story over a drink. It’s powerful.
Night of The Roundtable is a clear standout, featuring a vocal snippet from Jay-Z talking about the boundaries in music, over some intense pianos. Jay Elec’s lyrics are insightful and personal, and his singing is surprisingly impassioned and really good.
The appeal with Jay is the lyrics; he’s got a powerful, New Orleans inflected delivery but a slow and poetic flow. But he’s not just rapping about what everyone else raps about; while your average rapper will call out his opps, his haters, or his label, Jay will do all of this and add the Illuminati, The New World Order and Satan himself to that list, and somehow not sound insane doing it. There are so many standout bars on the project, but one standout comes from ‘Road To Perdition’, where he says ‘I call it as it happens, the art of quality rapping / One autobiographical chapter could start up the rapture’.
But what separates Act 2 from his previous (or later) work is how dark, personal, and depressed it is. It’s all over the album, the intro, Shiny Suit Theory, Road To Perdition, Night of The Roundtable... it goes on and on. It takes the dark, coming of age story you get in Exhibit C and expands on it, goes into every detail, cross examining it before the jury. It’s moving, motivating, relatable and in the end, musically inspiring. And also before it’s time. No one was rapping like this in 2012/13, at least not for a whole album.
There’s a good mix of everything you want from Jay Elec - abstract, out-of-this-world stuff, straight bars, and solemn, emotional songs. All wrapped up in this theme of cinematic mystery.
It’s not perfect though, in my opinion. The one thing I don’t like about Act 1 - that the skits are good and add structure, but kind of interrupt the rapping this man is supposed to be doing - equally applies here. Rough Love and Run and Hide, in my opinion, aren’t great songs either.
It’s also dated, and sounds a little rough around the edges as you would expect for a 5-10 year old leaked album. The BBM and Tumblr references would’ve been great in 2012 but stick out like a sore thumb today. But just like everything there’s two sides - this album couldn’t have been as (attemptedly) well structured and sequenced as it is if it was made in the streaming era.
My closing thoughts are this - as a religious man, I don’t enjoy religious music. I can’t stand Kendrick singing “This what God feels like!”, and I didn’t particularly like the last Kanye West album.
As a Muslim I have a different relationship with religious music, and as a result I find the two polar goals of making real, enjoyable music and praising God to be two tough things to reconcile. I think that Jay Elec manages it here in a way I find pretty good.
There’s lessons from Islam here, conversations about the Bible with his mother, and all sorts of religious references; but at the end of the day it captures a real spiritual, rather than religious experience. That is, a man at his rock bottom trying to make his way through life finding the strength through something bigger than himself. That rock bottom is potent but the strength is just as infectious.