Earlier this year, Louisiana rapper Jay Electronica released his debut album A Written Testimony, aided heavily by the presence of Jay-Z, the very man who jump-started his career back in 2007. Testimony wasn’t supposed to be his first album – it came 13 years late, despite the rapper’s constant insinuation that it would come any moment. But Testimony wasn’t what anyone was expecting. It didn’t disappoint, it was just what one would expect from a buzzy rapper on their debut, and while it did feature Jay-Z on practically every track, that didn’t matter so much as it still contained top-notch bars and a rapport between the two that was undeniable.
So the sudden leak/release of Act II: The Patents of Nobility (The Turn) comes as quite the surprise. Within this sequel to his first mixtape – 2007’s Act I: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge) – Jay has assembled a wealth of previously heard and released tracks like the Jay-Z and The-Dream featuring banger “Shiny Suit Theory”, originally released in 2010 (and then again earlier this year on Testimony), as well as other randomly dropped singles such as 2017’s “Letter to Falon”. All resemble their original versions, so hardly anything has been tweaked after all these years. Given the nature of this release – whether it was purposely leaked or not – it’s hard to tell if this version of the album is what Jay originally intended. Nevertheless, it’s here.
The main difference between Act II and Testimony is the greater presence of the star himself, Jay Electronica. While there are guests on it, we’re largely hearing Jay himself throughout.
The proposed trilogy draws influence from Christopher Nolan’s 2006 magician spectacle The Prestige, so many of the themes presented on Act II relate to magic – hence the introduction piece “Real Magic”, which features former president Ronald Reagan spewing extremist rhetoric before Jay lays down the trajectory, “Sometimes I don’t know what to say / This is genuine miracle / I woke up today / so I got up to pray.” His previous connections to the Nation of Islam have always been present in his music, it was all over Testimony, and religion still fuels his witticisms on Act II.
“Real Magic” segues seamlessly into the never-before-heard “New Illuminati”, where Jay raps over a tribal beat “Busting bottles / fucking models / and ducking paparazzi / Killuminati / and fuck Bill O’Reilly and Rudy Giuliani.” Clearly this was written some time ago; O’Reilly is hardly ever paid attention to after his dismissal from Fox News, and everyone knows how much of a bumbling buffoon Giuliani is – but it’s still relevant to call out hate-mongers, no matter what decade we’re in. While the references seem outdated, it’s interesting to hear these thoughts a decade later and help to fill in the gaps to what Jay was going through while we waited for the album.
A double shot of Gainsbourg early in the running lends a hand to elevating Act II to being a more intriguing listen than its predecessor. First Jay samples Serge’s famous Brigitte Bardot duet “Bonnie and Clyde” for his own “Bonny and Clyde”, before he enlists the Frenchman’s daughter Charlotte to soothe us on “Dinner at Tiffany’s”. This double header gives Act II a lovable diversion; it brings the mood down, and while Jay raps in between Serge and Bardot, the tandem works beautifully with the rhythmic guitar strings underlying their vocals. “A two-faced handshake rejects the gesture / Turn the other cheek and caress the sceptre,” Jay rhymes, continuing the theme of distrust in the world from supposed allies. The elegant Charlotte Gainsbourg plays a much larger part in “Dinner at Tiffany’s”; much like her father on the previous track, Charlotte sets up the tone of the next few minutes by delivering the introduction in French but transitions to English for the rest of the song, “Heaven, we find / Overturned, out of line / Leaving all of your innocence / bouncing out of time.” This isn’t like Testimony, where it felt like most of the album was Jay-Z’s; Gainsbourg’s detour into the string arrangements is a welcome segue to the powerhouse single “Shiny Suit Theory” – the original leaked tracklist revealed that these two songs were intended to be combined.
Act II continues its trip down memory lane as we’re treated to the soulful voice of LaTonya Givens on “Better in Tune”, which came from a Twitter request back in 2014 and has been floating around the bootleg circuit. Jay loves these extended monologues, tossing in Professor Marvel from The Wizard of Oz and Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad at the start, before taking hold of the track with a very subdued and ballad-esque performance. Save for a few sporadic appearances, Givens has sadly been absent from the spotlight, so it’s nice to have here presence here enriching the already sentimental vibe, adding the outro “Yesterday, yesterday is gone / Tomorrow, tomorrow is on the way,” before fading away.”
The new songs that everyone’s been waiting for haven’t necessarily been worth the wait. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the clap-stomp of “Welcome to Knightsbridge”, it has some insightful bars from Jay – “The Vatican preaches Jesus / then they creep up with the swine / and enslave the people of God / and have them sweep up at the shrine.” The supposed Kanye spot on “Rough Love” is absent, but the track feels hollowed out and recorded last minute. There’s little polish or even mixing it seems to keep the flow of Act II going. Album closer “10,000 Lotus Petals” is simply a beautiful instrumental track that further implies a lackadaisical approach to the art.
Not much can be said that hasn’t already been said about the other “official” singles preceding Act II’s release. “Run & Hide” feels tacked on towards the end to just give the album a longer runtime, having been released with a video back in the early 2010s. “Road to Perdition” and “Letter to Falon” dropped out of nowhere in the 2010s, and always seemed to accompany Jay’s message that “the album’s on the way,” but those promises were never kept.
When it comes to massively delayed albums – not the Kanye West kind – the anticipation can be maddening, especially when the promise gets broken year after year. As time passes, people start to care less and less about what Kevin Shields is saying about the next My Bloody Valentine album. No one gets their hopes up for that long rumored fourth album from Television. It took nearly a decade to get Guns N’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy and by that time the expectations were so diminished the album was written off before it even came out.
Act II isn’t immune to this trend. It’s a solid album – an extremely unique one for its time, even – but the long gestation period did not make the heart grow fonder for it. Instead, expectations were simply not met. It’s great to finally have it, but puzzling as to why it took so long to arrive – especially when within 24 hours of leaking it was made available on Tidal (but not on any of the less expensive streaming services). Act II is a time capsule for what hip-hop was achieving in the late 2000s. As Kanye West took over with wild production risks and an ear for classic soul, hip-hop evolved throughout the 2010s, but Act II is missing that evolution. It’s an album with several highs, no real lows, but some definite shrugs. The new material that is here doesn’t outweigh the fact that over half of the album has been out there – for free – for some time, and the need to publish it to Tidal just further fuels the money machine that kept everyone dangling for its release for over a decade.