Jay Electronica: The Strangest Career in Hip-Hop
For decades, a consistently contested debate has been raging across the hip-hop community: who is the GOAT? There have been many popular picks (Eminem, Jay-Z, Nas), and deservedly so because they have had long influential careers and have sold millions of albums. Another rapper I have seen in the conversation is Jay Electronica. A rapper from New Orleans, Louisiana, he has arguably been the most elusive figure in hip-hop music ever. Known for his work with the likes of Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Chance the Rapper, Electronica has cemented himself as a veteran of rap and as one of the greatest lyricists ever, but he has sparked both reverence and frustration in the rap community.
Brewing in the underground scene for many years, Jay Electronica released his debut mixtape via MySpace, Act 1: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge) in 2007, a singular 15 minute track with no drums and that showcased his abstract and idiosyncratic lyricism. Two years after his debut release, he distributed two singles, “Exhibit A” and “Exhibit C”, with “Exhibit C” getting particular praise as a lyrical masterpiece about his come-up and dealing with homelessness, as well as his affiliation with the Five Percenters, a Black nationalist group based in Islam’s teachings. These two singles sparked an interest in Electronica from Jay-Z, who signed Jay Electronica to his label Roc Nation a year later. Jay Electronica’s first song for Roc Nation was “Shiny Suit Theory” in 2010, a song featuring Jay-Z and singer The-Dream. Continuing Jay Electronica’s drumless discography, the song features Electronica talking about his rising stardom in the rap industry, his affiliations with Diddy, and his connection to Islam. However, this song is most notable for Jay-Z’s verse—known as one of his best, with HOV rapping about his dominance over the rap game and his transition from struggling rapper to global superstar: “Went from warring to Warren, under covers to covers.”
“Shiny Suit Theory” would prove to be the start of a sincere friendship and musical connection between Jay-Z and Jay Electronica, but would be Jay Electronica’s only song as a lead artist for a full decade, only choosing to appear as a guest on a few songs in the 2010s like Big Sean and Kendrick Lamar’s “Control” and on Chance the Rapper’s mixtape Coloring Book. For the entirety of the 2010s, fans tried to find any detail they could to know the whereabouts of Electronica’s full-length debut album, ultimately to no avail. Rumors surfaced that Electronica was done with rap, had a falling out with Jay-Z and was dropped from his label, or had severe writer’s block, the latter of which Electronica would later confirm. In March 2020, Jay Electronica finally released his debut album A Written Testimony, an Islamic rap collaboration with Jay-Z released right when the COVID pandemic started to upend the world. The album, released the same year that Electronica’s contract with Roc Nation was rumored would’ve expired in, received considerable acclaim among music publications but generated a divide among fans, who praised Electronica’s and Jay-Z’s lyricism and rapping ability, but were split on if the album was a true Jay Electronica album because some songs on the album were not even new, like “Shiny Suit Theory”. Nevertheless, Jay Electronica has not put out work under his name since A Written Testimony, only choosing to appear on songs by Kanye West, Westside Gunn, and Russ and releasing one of his old mixtapes on streaming platforms, leaving fans to wonder if they will have to wait another decade for his second album.
Jay Electronica has undoubtedly had the strangest career in hip-hop of all time. A figure as abstract and mysterious as his lyrics and music, Electronica has made connections with the most prominent figures of the music industry today. However, his music and his persona remain distinctly underground, eschewing yearly album or EP releases and instead opting to be a figure in the shadows of the rap game. Jay Electronica’s technical ability can be rivaled with many of the rappers in the running for the GOAT title, but is his lack of an expansive discography and his absence from the spotlight a crutch for his running? Or, is it all of these things, as well as his acclaimed releases, that truly establish him as a serious contender for greatest of all time?