Jay Electronica’s A Written Testimony, the most brilliant and aggravating album of 2020, presents listeners with the starkest possible choice about 30 seconds in, when the voice of Louis Farrakhan, soft at first, rises out of heavenly swells of string and synthesizer. “I don’t want to waste any time. I ask the question: Who are the real children of Israel? And I’d like to answer it right away,” begins the minister, a notorious anti-Semite and homophobe and leader of the Nation of Islam, a Southern Poverty Law Center-designated hate group. “The honorable Elijah Muhammad has said that almighty God Allah has revealed to him that the black people of America are the real children of Israel and they—we—are the choice of God.”
Deep, man. In come the pianos and choirs—the song is titled “The Overwhelming Event,” and at this point, frankly, you would be more than justified in turning the whole damn thing off, rightly insulted at the expectation that a virulent bigot’s supersessionist rhetoric be in any way dignified, or trivialized, as some kind of noxious down payment on the enjoyment of art. But Testimony is one of the most anticipated releases of the year, and few would deny Jay Elec’s genius, so you would also be more than justified in continuing to listen, as I did.
Any doubt as to whether Jay is just toying with Nation of Islam rhetoric for edginess’ sake is dispelled on the next track, “Ghost of Soulja Slim.” “Don’t you come out to defend our enemy!” Farrakhan bellows to the “scared Negroes,” by which one assumes he means the multitudes of African American opponents of the NOI, over hard beats and raucous applause. “You sit down, and you shut up, and tell your master to come on out and deal with this!” Shouts of happy children herald the end of Farrakhan’s deranged sermon as the beat drops.
Jay Elec delivers his first verse, along with the rest of the album, in a voice-of-God baritone, every syllable pronounced with purpose and total clarity. “I came to bang with the scholars/And I bet you a Rothschild I get a bang for my dollar,” he intones. Perhaps this is an innocent reference to a reported tryst with a Rothschild heiress whose marriage Jay is alleged to have helped break up in 2012, but other lines in the alluringly spare Jay Elec canon show that he views the affair as having some higher significance. From 2016’s “The Curse of Mayweather”: “I showed up to the game with no practice like Iverson/Now they want to keep me in exile like Gaddafi’s son/’Cuz they told me that the Rothschilds rule the world/So I went over to England like a black god and got me one.”
Jay Elec is far too smart to just outright say what—rather than who—it was he bagged in England, or to spell out what he thinks it means for a proud follower of the NOI to sleep with and then homewreck the prototypical rich Jew. Here on “Soulja Slim,” that psychosexual fascination with the Jews is slyly glanced at without being named. “The Synagogue of Satan wants to hang me by my collar,” Jay raps in the very next line after the Rothschild name check. Only the very obtuse could miss the reference in that one: In a 2018 speech, Farrakhan asked his followers, “I wonder, will you recognize Satan? I wonder if you will see the satanic Jew and the synagogue of Satan?”
Elsewhere on the album, Jay raps about driving through the desert listening to Farrakhan lectures along with “Serge Gainsbourg or Madonna or a podcast on piranhas,” just one of the album’s many effortlessly dexterous internal rhymes. “Du’a’s up for the honorable Louis Farrakhan/Who pulled me out the grave and pointed me towards the Sunnah,” he raps on “Flux Capacitor.” “Satan struck Palestine with yet another mortar,” Jay frets on “Fruits of the Spirit.” By now, Jay hasn’t earned the assumption that he’s only talking about his objections to specific Israeli policies here.
What makes the record a mainstream hip-hop event isn’t the skill of Jay Electronica or the constant invocation of Farrakhan, who has long been selling himself as a “peacemaker” in the rap world. Rather, it’s the tacit blessing being bestowed on both men by Jay-Z, the titan whose Roc Nation label released A Written Testimony and whose Tidal streaming service has extensively promoted the album.
Jay-Z, one of the dominant figures in hip-hop, and therefore in American life, appears on eight of the 10 tracks on A Written Testimony, and Jay Elec can hardly believe his luck. Having Jay-Z as a sidekick on his full-length debut, he raps, is like winning the lottery—and he’s right. His weird tapestry of Farrakhan acclamation is legitimated and popularized through Jay-Z’s presence. More than that, A Written Testimony has some of the best rapping of Jay-Z’s entire, nearly three-decade career. Thanks to Jay Elec, Jay-Z, now 50 years old and an elder statesman of whom little is now expected in the way of actual art, is possessed of a new sense of poetry and purpose.
A Jewish fan—or at least this Jewish fan, who has been listening to Jay-Z since he was 11 years old—can’t help but wonder whether this breakthrough was really worth it, though, and wonder at what Jay really believes in his heart. Does he buy into NOI’s rhetoric on some level, a possibility for which there is at least some evidence, or is he simply supporting a friend and artistic collaborator whose work he wants to boost? Put another way: Is Jay-Z guilty of worse sins than moral deafness? Given the depth of his participation in Testimony, the answer might not even matter much.
Thanks in part no doubt to Jay-Z’s co-sign, Testimony features guest spots from a festival bill’s worth of all-stars including Travis Scott, James Blake and Khruangbin. Assuming this year ever ends, it’s likely to make a slew of critics’ top-10 lists. And while the NOI stuff is potentially awkward for everyone involved, reviewers are already downplaying it, or hearing only what is most convenient for them to hear.
The album review in Pitchfork, the tastemaking music website, seems less about the record than about the author’s fear of spelling out the record’s very obvious and extremely nasty messages. Music this good couldn’t possibly be saying the horrible things I hear it saying—could it? No: It must be that it’s saying the exact opposite of the terrible things it’s saying! It’s easier for everyone that way. Thus the reviewer writes that Jay “balances his mysticism with the down-to-earth perceptiveness of someone who has wandered the globe seeking refuge from sin. … The grandiosity is his sales pitch, but the real selling point is the empathy within.”
Impressive. Yet, it is difficult, and perhaps impossible, to square this vision of radical understanding for other people and their faith and their experiences with the actually existing album. The reviewer also writes that Jay is “the rapper closest to the Nation of Islam and also the most cagey about his ideology.” In fact, Jay isn’t cagey at all—and past a certain point it is patronizing not to take an artist at their word when they say what their actual beliefs are. As Jay rapped at the end of “Mayweather: “They scared of Jay Elec and man, know why?/Because I might turn the R-O-C into the N-O-I.” He loses that coyness on Testament: “The teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad’s my backbone,” he raps on “Universal Soldier.”
The Pitchfork review isn’t totally off, though. In its ideal and sometimes-existing best version of itself, A Written Testimony is about the 43-year-old Jay Elec’s confrontation with sin, and with his own failings and frailty. This is a perennial theme in hip-hop and indeed in all music and art, and it’s a good one. “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 in my novel/My only logical option was to transform into the wind,” Jay raps on “Ezekiel’s Wheel.” During such moments—and there are a lot of them, enough to almost make forgiveness possible—one is tempted to think of Jay’s Farrakhan admiration as a coequal member in the full panoply of human weaknesses, no worse than greed or sloth or the other imperfections that make us who we are.
It is tempting to think that way because this approach is necessary in order to salvage the album as worthwhile art. Maybe, a forgiving listener wonders, one of Jay’s sins is believing in the wrong utopia, which is perhaps the most fascinating of all possible errors, ripe ground for artistic inquiry! One problem with that approach is there’s no evidence anywhere on the album that Jay has any doubts about his NOI-based utopia. A Written Testimony is self-aware about everything—everything but the giant, glaring question of the artist’s essentialist worldview. Jay glories and promotes a demented anti-Semitic ideology propounded by one of the ugliest, most conniving purveyors of raw hatred in American life, and then offers no real reflection on what that might mean.
Maybe listeners should not have expected anything more from Jay, whose career is something of an artistic tragedy. Jay’s output has been limited—he had released a short mixtape and a handful of singles before Testimony, a scarcity which fed an unusually valid sense of mystery around the rapper—but it’s always been clear that his skills are basically limitless. He is the total artist, a multilingual lyrical athlete, a mystic, a vocal dynamo with a lush sense of musicality and a firm command of his powers, a voice whose every pronouncement lands like a judgment and someone whose larger themes and concerns usually aren’t trivial. But these skills are marshaled toward a hate-filled oblivion, making Jay a small man of small thoughts, his vast artistic imagination incapable of taking him, or us, anywhere that matters much.
And on some level, he knows it. “The Curse of Mayweather,” the aforementioned song from 2016, was an inadvertently complete exposure of Jay’s actual self. An unforgettable statement of artistic purpose, it is among other things a diss track aimed at the Pulitzer Prize-winner Kendrick Lamar and one of the most blistering batteries of insults a rapper has ever unleashed (“How are you gonna compare a king to a gnome?/How are you gonna compare Jango Fett to the clones?”). Kendrick’s likely sin was the following line on “Control,” an unreleased yet notorious 2013 Big Sean track in which Jay and Kendrick both featured: “So many bombs,” Kendrick says of his own lyrical prowess, “make Farrakhan think Saddam’s in this bitch.” This was a blink-and-you-miss it reference to the possibility Farrakhan was so tight with Saddam Hussein, who he met multiple times, as to have special knowledge of the Iraqi dictator’s human rights abuses. In public memory, the beef was about Kendrick including Jay in a list of rappers he wanted to surpass during his verse in “Control,” which led to Jay unleashing on Kendrick during a 2016 Periscope broadcast. Is it that Jay couldn’t abide an insult to Farrakhan on a song in which Jay also appeared, and took three years to wreak lyrical vengeance?
Kendrick’s verse on “Control” was almost cartoonishly boastful, but in the years since then the L.A. rapper has proven he is not a small man of small thoughts. To Pimp a Butterfly, his 2015 masterpiece, was the work of a generous spirit, one of the most ecstatically humanist documents in recent American music. The record’s lead single riffed on the works of Chinua Achebe; the album closed on a mesmerizing 10-minute, spoken-word track and also practically resurrected jazz as a mass medium. But Kendrick’s work isn’t abstract or pretentious. There is still firsthand narration of life among the American underclass and the pleasures of being a living rap god; as “Control” demonstrated, Kendrick can tout his own superiority as well as anyone who’s ever done it.
One relevant example of Kendrick’s humanism is a recording of a voice message that appears in “Fear” from his Pulitzer-winning 2017 album Damn., in which a Black Israelite cousin of Kendrick’s quotes from the Book of Amos, and explains how “the so-called Blacks, Hispanics, and Native American Indians are the true children of Israel” and closes with an emphatic “shalom.” Unlike Farrakhan’s ramblings, and the exceedingly more sinister denials of Jewish peoplehood that open A Written Testimony, the snippet speaks to the vastness of the artist’s world rather than the pettiness of his obsessions. Diverse channels of faith and experience have formed Kendrick, and as a result he turns away from almost nothing and no one. Is that why Jay Elec finds something intolerable about him?
And we, in turn, are under no obligation to tolerate Jay Elec, whatever virtues his debut album might have. The blame shouldn’t be Jay Elec’s alone, though. At least on paper, boosting Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam not long after an unprecedented and inevitably deadly string of attacks on Jews centered in Jay-Z’s native Brooklyn should be a legacy-defining lapse for the mogul, something that would require substantial apology and reflection in order to rectify. But both Jays are unlikely to be called to account. A Written Testimony debuted at No. 12 on the Billboard 200, and is now ahead of releases from Billie Eilish, Eminem, and Harry Styles. Pitchfork gave the album an 8.4, good for its coveted Best New Music laurel. Collaborating on an extended love letter to Louis Farrakhan is unlikely to diminish either rapper’s public stature, but it diminishes them all the same.
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.