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Jay Electronica’s ‘A Written Testimony’ is a lesson in defeating anxiety and pressure

‘When I see Jay Electronica needing that nudge to ultimate fulfillment, I see LeBron James’

Self-doubt is the killer of creativity and a destroyer of drive. I’ve felt it. I’ve known it. After hearing Jay Electronica’s album, A Written Testimony, I know he’s felt that doubt, too. And he’s felt the failure of knowing that avalanche of uncertainty has crushed the brilliance that lay below it.

In fact, so much of his album – a collaboration with Jay-Z which was finally released late March 12, 11 years after he rocked the rap world with “Exhibit C,” one of the greatest single rap songs made – revolves around the pressures of following up that moment of greatness with a worthy body of work.

The New Orleans MC, widely regarded as one of rap’s preeminent lyricists even though he’s only released a handful of songs, had been the brunt of jokes for the past decade for his reluctance to release music. Within the first three songs of the album, he explains himself. From “The Blinding”:

“Extra, extra, it’s Mr. Headlines

Who signed every contract and missed the deadlines

40 days, 40 nights, tryna live up to the hype

It’s the road less traveled, it’s the one who missed the flights

Hov hit me up like, ‘What, you scared of heights?

Know your sister tired of workin’, gotta do her something nice’

I’m like, ‘Don’t he know I stay up for Fallon late nights?’

She need bread, she need rice, she need threads, she need ice

Either tell it to my bank account or say it to the dice.”

In one verse, Jay Electronica laid out what happens when art collides with the need to provide for a family. When the greatness that once lifted one up becomes an anchor that drowns us in our own expectations. There’s a sadness in the way that Jay Electronica talks about his greatness: “The thing he need like a hole in his head is publicity/ Though he shine like a Christmas tree,” he raps on “Ghost of Soulja Slim.”

Musician Jay Electronica performs onstage during the 2014 BET Hip Hop Awards at Boisfeuillet Jones Atlanta Civic Center on Sept. 20, 2014, in Atlanta.

Photo by Brad Barket/BET/Getty Images for BET

Maybe it’s the way modern celebrity takes its toll on the elite, but Jay Electronica’s retreat from society is a trait shared by those who are also once-in-a-lifetime in their talent. Dave Chappelle ditched his Chappelle’s Show at the height of its popularity. Andre 3000 has almost completely stopped making music. “My focus is not there,” he told Rick Rubin last year. “My confidence is not there.” Eddie Murphy is now returning to the spotlight after years away from trying to recapture his comical otherworldliness. Even Michael Jordan had two separate retirements from basketball after winning championships.

Jay Electronica, of course, isn’t in the same atmosphere of the people named above – yet – because he never allowed himself that chance. He made a perfect song in his first attempt. How do you follow that up?

Maybe that’s why Jay-Z was there each step of the way, offering up his verses on every song, making this a joint album in everything but the name. The sound bites and references to the Nation of Islam throughout the album had social media erupting with memes of the two rappers as Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. If you see Jay-Z as the wealthy, charismatic slick talker and Jay Electronica as the unassuming, brilliant everyman, then it works before any further interrogation tears the faulty analogy apart. But Jay-Z and Jay Electronica remind me of a different duo.

When I see Jay Electronica needing that nudge to ultimate fulfillment, I see LeBron James – a star who also faced impossible, crushing expectations to be the best – sitting in front of the media with his buddy and teammate Dwyane Wade – a made man who had already reached his pinnacle in the sport and earned a championship – by his side. Because as great as James was and would prove to be, he still seemed at his most comfortable shoulder to shoulder with a peer who understood his goals. Sometimes, it felt like Wade was James’ security blanket, especially during those early Miami days when the world was collapsing on his herculean traps.

A Written Testimony has that same feeling, like Jay Electronica needed the seasoned veteran who has seen it all by his side for him to stand in front of his microphone and finish the project that has terrified him for a decade. It’s less that Jay Electronica needed Jay-Z lyrics to make a great album, but it feels more like he just needed Jay-Z’s presence to alleviate the pressure to be great.

Here’s how Jay Electronica finishes his verse on “The Blinding”:

“When I lay down in my bed it’s like my head in the vice

When I look inside the mirror all I see is flaws

When I look inside the mirror all I see is Mars

In the wee hours of night, tryna squeeze out bars

Bismillah, just so y’all could pick me apart?”

The entire verse punched me in the chest. Because for about five years of my writing career, the final thought I’d have before putting my head on my pillows was, “What if I wake up without anything to write about?” I’m not nearly as good at anything as Jay Electronica is at rapping, but it’s still irrational to think that suddenly I’d forget to do something I’ve been trained to do. But doubt is often as irrational as the fear that births it.

And when the need to feed a family is on the line, the screams of uncertainty become too loud to notice any brainstorms.

I’ve watched Jay Electronica perform live three times since 2010, and he’s performed pretty much the same small catalog of songs throughout that 10 years. He didn’t have any more songs to offer. It would sometimes be awkward watching him try to fill up an hour or 90 minutes of headline stage with about 25 minutes of actual music. The last time I saw him was in Atlanta a year ago. At the end of his show, he walked out to the crowd and offered to take selfies and shake hands with the audience. It was as if he felt like he still owed them something after his show, like he wanted to give them more but didn’t have anything to give. Embarrassed isn’t the right word for how he felt in the moment, but it was something like it.

Now he has something more to give the fans. Many of them won’t appreciate the journey it took for this to happen, instead focusing on the time it took for him to finally release the album. But anyone who has or is struggling with loosening the grip of self-doubt, expectation and pressure should understand. This is what overcoming feels like and the beauty that the final product can bring.

It just takes time.

David Dennis Jr. is a senior writer at Andscape and an American Mosaic Journalism Prize recipient. His book, The Movement Made Us, will be released in 2022. David is a graduate of Davidson College.