He’s back. You knew it was coming: a breakdown of the samples from the heart of Jay Electronica’s mythical debut, now a Hov-ridden reality.
Jay Electronica’s great magic trick consists of three parts, or ‘acts’.
The first part was called “The Pledge”. The Louisiana emcee showed you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or… a man. He showed you this object – perhaps he asked you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal – but of course… it probably wasn’t. The second act was called “The Turn”. The magician took the ordinary something and made it do something extraordinary. You were looking for the secret… but you couldn’t find it, because of course you weren’t really looking. You didn’t really want to know. You wanted to be fooled.
I think there’s a truth in that bastardised rendition of the opening of The Prestige; one that wasn’t quite intended when Jay Elec set out on his Nolan-indebted three-project mission. The arrival of Act I: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge) was anything but “ordinary,” a 15-minute masterclass in heft and restraint put to Jon Brion’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind score, but the object it revealed to us – the man himself – seemed normal enough. He was prodigious; he was unprecedented; he was potentially the most promising emcee to wade from the online swamp in years; but still, behind all the hype, the moment felt like arrival. Jay Electronica had made his debut, and it seemed that soon the newcomer would become a staple.
That “ordinary something” – Jay himself – did something all the more “extraordinary” than that: he disappeared. The promise of “the new beginning,” to be ushered in by Act II, became but a distant fiction; a long-lost fantasy we entertained for the sheer legend of it. “Exhibit C” reaffirmed his talents, if only to stoke resentment for the enigma who could’ve been a contender, and years of slight offerings – a “Shiny Suit Theory” here, a “Better In Tune With The Infinite” there – seemed to keep a sliver of hope alive.
It even seemed, for a moment, that Jay would never release a record. I’d justified it as an enduring legend, inscrutable and infuriating, that had become an entirely new kind of cultural contribution – in never debuting, Jay was playing his hand into folklore, and in the future, we’d talk with fondness and fatigue about the king who was never crowned. Jay Electronica seemed the Godot of hip-hop, and perhaps that was the point: the cerebral emcee had certainly plotted “a tragicomedy in two acts.”
Act II: Patents of Nobility (The Turn) never materialised, but at the dawn of 2020 – 13 years after the arrival of Act I – Jay announced his debut album. He’d burned through his fair share of release dates in the past, scheming on Christmas 2007, September 2010, July 2011, July 2012, July 2013, July 2014 and January 2017, but there was something different about this time around. Jay wasn’t teasing Act II, instead focusing on a new project “recorded over 40 days and 40 nights, starting December 26,” and the promised presence of Hov throughout – his label head and occasional critic – made things all the realer. No word on what Electronica was doing for the odd 4,500 days prior, but hey, beggars and choosers.
––and so, here we are. Beggars, choosers, winners, losers, cynics, critics, fans: each and every believer and skeptic has witnessed the arrival of Jay Elec, an unbelievable surprise or long-awaited promise depending on just who you ask. The facts of the matter are as follows:
- A Written Testimony is largely self produced, but features instrumentals from Alchemist, Swizz, No I.D. and Texan rock trio Khruangbin.
- Jay-Z is on almost every track, making the ‘solo record’ more of an unofficial collaborative effort, and his appearance on “The Neverending Story” marks his first time floating atop an Alchemist beat.
- It’s as dense as you’d expect, replete with references to – and words from – Louis Farrakhan, a fact that’s engendered controversy.
- It features appearances from Travis Scott, James Blake, The-Dream and James Fauntleroy, as well as additional sampled vocals from Rihanna.
- It exists, and will continue to do so forever.
It’s the fifth fact that really gets me. Jay Electronica burst onto the scene when I was entering high school, and now I’m writing about music for (very little) money. It’s a far cry from the arc that the New Orleans spitter charted when he dropped his first film-laden project, but there’s certainly something magical about the journey we’ve been on together. If Act I was the arrival, then Act II was the disappearance, an admittedly impressive decade-long run of obfuscation, wilful reluctance and wild frustration. A new title though it bears, A Written Testimony falls as Act III in this unorthodox tale. Let me run it back to Nolan’s telling…
You wouldn’t clap yet, because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call “The Prestige.”
“The Overwhelming Event”
Jay Electronica has a penchant for inspired samples – Jon Brion, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Gene Wilder and Ronald Reagan are favourites – but even then, opening his debut record with a flip of the theme from Army of Shadows is a surprise. That 1969 film details the experiences of a French Resistance cell as they defy the Nazi occupation during World War Two, painting a harrowing picture of bravery and conviction far removed from the romantic renderings of contemporary propaganda.
The score was composed by Éric Demarsan, who’d composed just one other score prior, and though he went on to work on films such as Le Cercle rouge and Section spéciale, this marks the first time his music has been sampled.
If Jay-Z is Elec’s right hand man on A Written Testimony, then Louis Farrakhan is his longtime mentor. This isn’t a surprising sample – Electronica namechecked The Final Call, the Nation of Islam’s newspaper, on 2007’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” and sampled NOI leader Elijah Muhammad on “FYI,” that tape’s last track – and his catalogue, as slight as it is, is awash with references to and quotes from the longtime Nation of Islam leader. It’s a relationship that has caused contention, as is often the case with such associations.
This particular flip is sourced from Farrakhan’s 2010 appearance in Atlanta, Georgia, just one of the many cities in which Jay Electronica has lived. If there were any doubt as to his commitment, Electronica’s fealty to Farrakhan is such that in 2017, he quipped that “maybe if Minister Farrakhan said put the album out then maybe I might go home tonight and throw something together and put it out.” Jay-Z, the head of his label, received no such reverence.
“The Ghost of Soulja Slim”
The rampant applause that opens “The Ghost of Soulja Slim” is again courtesy of Louis Farrakhan, though I’ve yet to turn up the source of the sample. There are a few hints that it’s the NOI leader: namely, contemporaneous posts quoting the very same speech that indicate it was taken from the same Atlanta oration as the previous passage, as well as a clip that shows the minister using the exact same “scared-to-death negroes” phrasing. There’s a very good chance that this sample can be found in the video of the 2010 Atlanta speech, but at three hours long, I’m not going to be the man who finds it.
There’s something cinematic about A Written Testimony, and that comes down to the samples: following on from Army of Shadows, Jay steps behind the decks once more to take a detour through Valley of The Dolls. The instrumental that chases Farrakhan’s raucous reception is sourced from “Jennifer’s French Movie,” a cut penned by legendary composer John Williams, just thirty-five years old when the film premiered in 1967. The suite earned him his first nomination for an Academy Award – in the years since, he’s garnered 51 more.
Though it’s far from the first time somebody has spit atop Williams’ work, this marks the first time that anybody – emcee or otherwise – has made use of Valley of the Dolls’ score.
Let’s run a scenario here: Jay Electronica, Jay-Z, in studio, the night of day 19. “The Ghost of Soulja Slim” is coming together, but Elec can’t help but feel that something’s missing. There’s some need that needs to be met; some hole to be plugged, and the pair are stuck. “Hey, remember ‘Shiny Suit Theory’?,” says Jay to Jay. “What about it?,” Jay asks. “Well, I was thinking, what if we pulled out that juvenile cheering sound effect again, you know, for old time’s sake?” Jay pauses, deep in thought. “You mean that joint from Sound Ideas’ Audience Reactions, the one from back in ‘99?” Jay nods. “Sure, why not.”
If you actually want some elaboration, head on down to “Shiny Suit Theory,” which hosts a more serious take on the same sound effect. It’s also on “Universal Soldier.”
Last to enter the mix is the sound of a rolling tongue, sourced from the opening to Miguel De Deus’ 1977 cut, “Black Soul Brothers.” The little-known Brazilian artist has been hailed as one of the most important of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and Light In The Attic Records, which recently reissued Black Soul Brothers, called it “raw Rock-Funk-Psychedelic-Tropicalia.”
The title track to the Brazilian singer-songwriter’s one and only solo LP, “Black Soul Brothers” has been sampled intermittently, with three of the six samples credited to Austrian producer Brenk Sinatra. In the wake of A Written Testimony, two of those samples are now credited to Jay – this isn’t the last we’ll be hearing from De Deus.
The chant at the centre of “The Blinding” hails from the depths of Tanzania, from whence it was recorded and archived by the International Library of African Music, based out of Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa. The song in question, “Mudala Mukamba, Nakangishe,” is credited to Arusi Binti Kasimu With Sukuma Women, and was included on 2016’s Sound of Africa Series 151: Tanzania (Nyamwezi/Sukuma).
This marks the second time that the element in question has been sampled, but the two instances are closely interlinked: AraabMusik released instrumental “War Cry” on 2017’s Dream World, and that composition serves as the crux of “The Blinding,” which was produced by AraabMusik, Swizz Beatz and Hit-Boy.
“The Neverending Story”
The first sole-producer track credited to somebody other than Jay, “The Neverending Story” sees The Alchemist link up with Jay-Z for the first time in their concurrent careers. Alchemist, as most people reading a sample breakdown would know, is a legendary purveyor of flips, and his dusty beats are almost unrivalled. This time around, he samples elements from Litto Nebbia’s “La Caida,” a 1976 track from a pioneer of Argentine Rock. Nebbia was a founding member of the indispensable Spanish-language rock act Los Gatos and, at Buenos Aires café La Perla del Once, he wrote a string of important rock classics.
Even when taken alongside his work in Los Gatos, “The Neverending Story” marks the first time that Nebbia’s work has ever been sampled, in hip-hop or elsewhere. That’s Alchemist for you – inscrutable, persistent and down to dig.
“Shiny Suit Theory”
A lead single that predates the record by a decade, “Shiny Suit Theory” was originally released as a part of Electronica’s post-Roc Nation signing celebrations. It’s a good thing the sample at the centre of the boastful cut is a particularly timeless one, as this certainly isn’t the first time that The Ambassadors’ “Ain’t Got the Love (Of One Girl on My Mind)” has touched down on a turntable. That Philadelphia soul outfit was signed by Jimmy Bishop in the late-’60s, releasing a single record that would later become esteemed in the Northern Soul culture.
It’s a particular favourite of producer Pete Rock, who first used it on “I Got A Love,” a jam from his 1994 record with C.L. Smooth, The Main Ingredient. It cropped up again in ‘13, when an older Pete revisited the flip alongside Camp Lo in “No Hook.”
The cheering children sprinkled throughout the record hail from the Sound Ideas SFX Library, and whilst they’re pervasive on A Written Testimony, these appearances mark the only times this specific effect has been flipped. Sound Ideas have a host of far more pervasive sounds – matches lighting, guns firing, cells closing, cars skidding – that you’d expect to hear in a hip-hop song. Many an emcee would sneer at childish applause, which makes these moments all the more intriguing.
The applause on “Shiny Suit Theory” – the first instance by almost 10 years – chases a Hov bar late in the cut, where he spits “in this manila envelope, the results of my insanity…”. It’s context that fails to contextualise anything, and the more pervasive the SFX becomes, the more I yearn for some sort of explanation.
The audio clip that opens “Universal Soldier,” which finds a reporter detailing the crew of the Enola Gay that dropped the first atomic bomb, Little Boy, on Hiroshima on 6 August, 1945, is actually lifted from a curiously obscure Universal newsreel. The narrator in question is Ed Herlihy, and the item – ATOM BOMB HAVOC – was broadcast on September 10th, just over a week after Japan’s formal surrender. Herlihy’s tenor is striking, particularly the language with which he describes the weapon: a “load of atomic death which exploded with a force equal to 20,000 tons of TNT.”
That might be true, but it’s also a callous characterisation, one at odds with the global nuclear reckoning that ensued throughout the Cold War. Only in the weeks following the attack could such massive and deliberate civilian casualties be presented as combat heroism.
The hulking synthetic hum of the “Universal Soldier” instrumental is well-suited to the retro-futuristic film for which it’s named, and the intriguing sounds at play are courtesy of British producer S.Maharba. The noted ambient producer released “For Someone (Abandonment)” in 2012, sampling three tracks himself – including Wendy & Bonnie’s “I Realized You,” which consequently appears on “Universal Soldier” – and courting some lowkey acclaim. The track got written up by Vice that year, with S.Maharba painstakingly breaking down his process. It’s a good read.
Jay Elec, clearly getting comfortable as a producer as well as an emcee, slows a fragment of Maharba’s “For Someone (Abandonment),” adding booming bass and upping the otherworldly distortion. There’s a kind of magnificent menace to the way it plays here.
It’s at 2:49 on “Universal Soldier” that two of the project’s most interesting recurring samples push up against one another.
The first is the childish cheer that’s previously graced “The Ghost of Soulja Slim” and “Shiny Suit Theory,” and here it appears amongst James Blake’s filtered croon, a hopeful and pious example of faith. If it’s an explanation you’re looking for, then I’m sorry to disappoint.
Ah, there it is again: that distinctive and unmistakably rolling of the tongue, courtesy of Brazilian muso Miguel De Deus. It’s unclear how Jay came into this obscure record, and whilst a repressing might do something to explain his exposure, “Black Soul Brothers” is still an impressively untapped resource. It seems that this might be Electronica’s second-favourite flip, coming in behind that pervasive canned cheering.
Hov is the first to usher in a familiar element on “Flux Capacitor,” interpolating an iconic refrain from New Orleans emcee Lil Elt. It’s no surprise that Jay-Z would be shouting out “Get the Gat,” Elt’s most enduring hit, seeing as Electronica – like New Orleans hip-hop itself – hails from the “Magnolia Projects (not actually) in the Third Ward slum.” That heritage plays into much of Electronica’s artistic identity, particularly given just how difficult his southern drawl made breaking into the coastal hip-hop scene.
Soulja Slim, the No Limit emcee commemorated in the second track, also hailed from Magnolia, and Hova throws out a host of Southern hip-hop references over the course of the record.
Another voice joins the fray at 0:11, this one coming out of London, where DJ Gunshot cut jungle track “Wheel ‘N’ Deal” in 1994. The vocal is something of a preamble to the more typical jungle cadence, but no credit was supplied for the vocalist themselves, so the exact source of the voice remains a mystery. It’s been frequently sampled within jungle and DNB circles, but only crossed into hip-hop in 2006, when producer Dabrye flipped the same vocal passage on MF DOOM collaboration “Air.” This flip, fourteen years on, marks the second hip-hop incursion.
Ah, Rihanna: no need for introductions. “Higher,” sampled herein, was produced by No I.D., a Chicago producer best known as a Common collaborator, Kanye mentor and Hova offsider. Like A Written Testimony, it too was released on Roc Nation, which published ANTI, her eighth LP, in 2016. There are three distinct elements at play: the first enters at 1:23, flipped on “Flux Capacitor” at 0:21, only to be chased by the phrase at 1:33, which first appears at 0:26 on Electronica’s joint. It then circles back around to 1:20 in “Higher,” leading back into the first sample and repeating, creating a complete phrase.
It’s an impressive sleight of hand, and whilst Electronica’s own compositions might be a little busy, he knows his way around a flip. That’s not the last we’ve heard of No I.D., either, with the veteran producer up next.
Hov opens the jam with a Lil Elt interpolation, so it’s only right that Jay Elec throw some love at the East Coast. He does so by taking on one of Hov’s favourite lyrical pastimes – interpolating Biggie – and spits a classic bar from “Juicy,” which finds B.I.G. waxing on the ascension of hip-hop culture.
“Remember Rappin Duke? Duh-ha, duh-ha,” he spits, recalling Biggie’s own memory of a 1984 hip-hop novelty track that saw Shawn Brown impersonating the late John Wayne whilst spitting some satirically boastful bars. It was a gimmick, and Biggie’s ensuing question – “who ever thought that hip-hop would take it this far?” – speaks to the irrepressible rise of fame, fortune and finesse that defined the early ‘90s.
“Fruits of the Spirit”
It could very easily be common courtesy that drives Jay-Z to continually tap No I.D., but just a passing glance at his compositions more than substantiates Hov’s fondness. In producing the entirety of 4:44 alongside Jay, No I.D. showed himself to be pushing cursory age limits alongside the Marcy-born emcee, taking new steps into history with each and every consistently compelling beat.
The slow-burning ambience – handheld percussion aside – is the handiwork of Robert Fripp and Brian Eno, who have collaborated as Fripp and Eno on four occasions. “Evensong” was included on 1975’s Evening Star, the second such collaboration, which saw the King Crimson founder and onetime Roxy Music synth player toy with ambience. In the following years, Eno himself would pioneer ambient music through definitive releases such as 1978’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports, though the ideas were first explored through his rapport with Fripp.
“Evensong” has never before been sampled, as is the case with the entirety of Evening Star, though Eno was previously credited as a producer of Memphis Bleek & Jay-Z’s “It’s Alright,” owing to a sample of Talking Heads’ “Once In A Lifetime.”
The vintage extraterrestrial news bulletin is sampled from a 1956 novelty record detailing… vintage extraterrestrial news. Buchanan & Goodman were a songwriting duo who had a #3 Billboard hit with “The Flying Saucer,” an off-the-wall synthesis of popular soundbites and fictional reporting, and as their biggest hit, it’s a great example of Dickie Goodman’s revolutionary “break-in” technique. In using fragments of hit records to answer the questions and comments posed by the voice actors, Goodman invented an early rendering of modern sampling, taking an idea from music concrete and putting it to work in the mainstream.
The stunningly beautiful closer, “A.P.I.D.T.A.,” is built atop a sample of Texan rock trio Khruangbin. The band, who debuted in 2013, have been going from strength to strength of late, and a recent (and cancelled) spot supporting Tame Impala on their Australian tour is surely a sign of things to come. Their recent EP with Leon Bridges is seeing more success than Con Todo El Mundo, the record from which “A Hymn” is taken, though the band have had a hand in hip-hop for a moment, appearing in flips from inspired producers knxwledge and swarvy, twice.
Gangsta Gibbs jumped on an Adam Snow jam that sampled Con Todo El Mundo cut “Friday Morning,” though Khruangbin didn’t get a production credit like they did on “A.P.I.D.T.A.”
I Don’t Want This Thing To—
A Written Testimony – ironic, given Hov’s reluctance to write anything at all – was purportedly “recorded over 40 days and 40 nights,” a decision that does something to explain just how Jay landed on his feet after stacking 13 years of hype.
It’s simply fortunate that “Shiny Suit Theory,” originally released in 2010, still sounds like it’s pulled from some distant and bountiful future, as it fits well within the unusually contemporary record. The Jay Electronica on A Written Testimony is a far cry from the one on Act I: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge), thanks in part to his considerable production work, which frames his lofty bars with warped takes on exotic palettes.
Electronica’s instrumentals are busy and delirious, ideas competing with one another as the song transitions from flip to flip. It makes for a disorienting listen, but lets on a sort of chaos that underwrites his refined bars; building a musical chassis as unique as it is striking. The curious mix of cinematic sounds, foreign samples and poetically Afrocentric bars makes for an indelible statement, and A Written Testimony sheds a decade of anticipation by being so firmly steeped in the here-and-now.
It’s still worth noting those tenets that endure, such as Electronica’s passion for film. The samples of Army of Shadows and Valley of the Dolls set the stage, and though they underpin just two of the ten tracks within, their role in establishing mood – as well as their reasonably esoteric origins – show that old habits die hard. Esoteric might be generous, sure, but how many other emcees are watching late-’60s French Resistance films?
In the weeks since the release, twenty-two samples have come to light: two scores, two Farrakhan orations, one Tanzanian chant, an Argentine rock tune, two soul cuts, an electronica instrumental, one Rihanna track, a mid-’90s UK jungle jam, some early Eno ambience, a novelty UFO bulletin, a World War II newsflash, children laughing – three times – a Brazilian rolling his tongue – twice – and a slow psych-rock anthem, padded out by Hov’s interpolation of that Lil Elt heater and Elec’s rendering of Biggie’s “Juicy” flow.
If the emcees’ refrains are rooted in their origins, the music is farther flung, incorporating elements of international cinema and Tanzanian tribal tradition; South American rock and Philadelphia soul; sunkissed ambience and heatstruck guitar licks. A lot of variety for 40 days and 40 nights, pushing far beyond the rote soul samples and funk flips that could easily dominate the work of an old soul. Unexpected, but at this point, the only way Jay Elec could surprise is by not surprising at all.
There’s no denying that A Written Testimony isn’t what Jay Elec promised all those years ago, and after years of delays and deferments, Hov’s appearance has proved particularly contentious. His presence on Elec’s ‘solo debut’ makes that something of a nominal title: Hov has the first verse on the album, and so prominent are his verses, he may well actually outstay Electronica himself.
There are some who’d rather not hear Jay at all, tired of his… I dunno, consistent emceeing excellence? The man’s unrivalled. There are others who feel that his presence overshadows what should be the triumphant arrival of a mysterious emcee, in some moments even solidly outshining the man in the middle of the project. The years have seen us project our own wants onto the long-gestating record, and whilst we anticipated just the one Jay, it’s worth considering if a truly solo Electronica project would’ve dropped at all – remember, he’s been impatiently waiting on it for a while, too.
Expectations aside, A Written Testimony is defined by its own striking clarity of vision, made indelible by the barb of Elec’s pen and the presence of Hov’s counsel. It finds the former imparting a wisdom long pursued, his bars sharp vehicles for theology, philosophy, riddles and rhymes, whilst the latter pushes into more expressly spiritual territory, shedding the entrepreneurial skin that’s become as much a hallmark as his versatility. There’s controversy, to be sure – Farrakhan is a lightning rod, and the spirited defence of MJ on “Ezekiel’s Wheel” (“I survived Neverland like the Jacksons / You never swallow slanderous lies for the devil’s satisfaction”) – but if hip-hop is going to contend with divisive ideas, I’d rather these debates than those rote, Akademiks-fanned clout infernos. Hey, at least there were no anti-vaccine bars on this one…
It might’ve taken a generation, but Jay Electronica, the man who burned through years of goodwill, has seized our attention once more. Now that he’s finally here, perhaps it’s time to revisit the question he posed the first time around…
Are you watching closely?