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Abracadabra: The magic of Jay Electronica

“People do say I’m cocky. Some say I need a good whupping. Some say I talk too much but anything I say I’m willing to back up.” — Muhammad Ali, as sampled in the Jay Electronica song A Prayer for Michael Vick and TI, from What The Fuck is a Jay Electronica

“Guru told me slow down the flow/ The science and the metaphors will slow down the dough” — Jay Electronica, Bitches and Drugs, from What The Fuck is a Jay Electronica 

“The legend of the clandestine reverend from the Bricks/ With a master’s grip to pull a sleeping giant out the ditch” — Jay Electronica, The Neverending Story, from A Written Testimony

“Sometimes like Santiago/ At crucial points in my novel/ My only logical option was to transform into the wind” — Jay Electronica, Ezekiel’s Wheel, from A Written Testimony

One of the things rapper and producer DOOM often says about his recording style, both in terms of his sampling and the overall feel, is that he is after that raw electricity of just two turntables and a microphone. 

That is to say a high finish, or the finish line, is immaterial in hip-hop. More directly, it is to acknowledge that the break, or the breakdown — a product of human touch — is the connective thread between one’s inner sanctum and the communion of the party.

A perfect example of this is the J-Live song Braggin’ Writes, in which the artist sounds like he is rapping while a DJ loops the sample manually (he is actually doing both himself). 

In a version of the song, J-Live projects (or in fact, mixes) his voice to sound like he is rapping to a live audience, amping it up as if to cut through static and the ambience of a crowd. 

In some mixes, if you listen closely, you will find that his voice has been mixed to echo, as if it is bouncing off the walls of a club, therefore bending rather than straightening time. 

As the song reaches its crescendo, with his flow almost doubling up as his cuts become more syncopated, the sound of a rapturous audience is faded in.

One could argue that this aesthetic, so connected to the essence and magic of hip-hop, finds full life in the twin releases by Jay Electronica; full-length albums coming several months apart in 2020 after delays and false starts stretching back more than a decade.

Both A Written Testimony and Act II: Patents of Nobility (The Turn) have been slated by critics as disappointments, while being lauded by others as classics, despite Act II being a leak of an album due out 10 seasons before. 

Generally, many have been caught up in the revelry of the mere existence of A Written Testimony, a feat of “highway robbery” (in the words of headliner Jay Electronica), symbolised by the presence of a revitalised Jay-Z on every song and a sense of timing so internal from the main rapper that he doesn’t seem to need beats (in the traditional sense).

The incompletion and the silences in Jay Electronica’s output are both purposeful and circumstantial, with the line between the two simultaneously blurry and distinct, much like his rapping cadence. 

For example, A Written Testimony is lo-fi by design, a refusal to apologise for offence taken, with many reading the omnipresence of Jay-Z (his label owner and friend) as evidence of Jay Electronica being dragged to the studio kicking and screaming. Act II, supposedly the product of an internet leak then turned into a grudging official release, is portrayed as the inverse; an abandoned project never meant to see the light of day.

But given its mixtape aesthetic, a format that signifies incubation and a lack of sheen, then the absence of high finish here, too, is deliberate, alluding to the spontaneity sacred to hip-hop as an energy current. 

Although the focus of this “review” has been on sonics, lyrically, too, Jay Electronica’s purpose seems to be designed more to confound than to expound. His verses are littered with references to (hip-hop as) magic or as some kind of a priesthood. 

Responding to a question on the degree to which the “[il]legibility of blackness” informs his lyrical approach, Earl Sweatshirt (in a discussion with his mother Cheryl I Harris, available on Youtube through Uproxx), says, “… Slave communication had to be encrypted. You gotta code … I can paint the picture very clearly, if I know what I’m saying, like all the way.”

The irony of hip-hop’s ubiquity is that it has rested on these codes becoming public fodder, amplified as they are through the megaphones of commerce and the internet. In this context, the reductive readings of Jay Electronica’s music from lauded critics such as Peter Rosenberg and Anthony Fantano, speak to how culture — especially popular culture — remains a pivotal frontier in the perpetual fight for black personhood. 

Jay Electronica’s insistence on “stay[ing] off the radar”, in other words marooning (even in the age of [rap]genius), goes beyond the much-caricatured writers’ angst and self-doubt. 

It is, put simply, an act of rebellion and a recognition that confessions are, in essence, always a betrayal of something.   

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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