Act II: Patents of Nobility (the Turn) by Jay Electronica — A Review

October 2020 - Act II: Patents of Nobility (the Turn) is Jay Electronica’s new, old album, originally recorded in 2011–12 and shelved until leakers forced Jay’s hand to release it in October 2020.

The album’s title track, Patents of Nobility, samples an old advertisement selling the Dick Tracy Two Way Wrist Radio, a 1960s toy for kids. The advertisement plays a Jetsons-like vision of a could-be future. Today we don’t have flying cars and the future ended up nothing like what those kids would have imagined at the time. On this album, Jay Electronica imagines an alternate present inspired by yesterday’s Afrofuturism. It might look a lot like today’s world, but it’s a little unusual.

For an album completed almost a decade ago, Act II doesn’t sound stale or obsolete. And, to be clear, it doesn’t sound current either. It’s just different. It follows none of the music trends that were popular around the time it was made. That standalone quality makes it perfectly vacuum-sealed for us to now listen and consider through today’s lens. This album is Act II, presumably a sequel to Act I. In today’s context, Act I became A Written Testimony, Jay Elec’s March 2020 studio debut, which came out at the start of the pandemic. And there has since been a lot of unrest and some great music released in the 7 months since the global pandemic started to be felt. The album delivers complex themes, fitting the current socio-political background; it has some stylistic surprises, and it has the lyricism and charisma that we expect from Jay Electronica.

Jay Elec’s world in Act II is like a mash between Orisha, the magical and traditional kingdom at the heart of Toni Adeyami’s 2018 book Children of Blood and Bone, and Wakanda, from the Black Panther film, with proud and futuristic advancement. In short, it’s black-centered with some surrealism. Track 1, Real Magic, starts with an electronically distorted voice of former president ronald ray-gun, shooting off laser beams of bullshit. That same sample of reagan is retread with even more electronic distortion 10 songs later. Satirically mocking the oppressor who waged war on black and brown communities all over the globe — an actor who served as the face of Western imperialism and capitalism’s exploitative greed. The album flips the frame of colonization and sits in a place of medieval Afrofuturism like a parallel dimension. He talks about kingdoms and knights and hectares of land and fortresses. The gentle harp on track 6, Dinner at Tiffany’s, sounds like it could as easily be heard while having dinner at Winterfell instead. The European woman on that song sings for 2 minutes and it’s a little confusing why. The payoff comes in the last 5 seconds, when we reach the sample that becomes the foundation for the next track, Shiny Suit Theory. It’s an amazing build-then-transition that is an example of Jay Elec co-opting the cultural narrative from the imperialist present.

For an album so layered and good, it’s crazy that Jay Electronica sat on it for 8 years. In 2013, Kendrick Lamar ethered the whole rap game on “Control,” the song by Big Sean that featured Kendrick and Jay Electronica. On it, Kendrick overshadows the other two also-good verses by calling out every single notable rapper by name with the message: I am sitting on the throne, and if you come at me, you best not miss. So was the delay from that type of pressure he felt from peers? Or was it being a perfectionist himself who didn’t feel ready? Or could it have just been the weight of expectations — that he was supposed to drop this album and then start winning Grammys and then become the next superstar?

Maybe Jay Electronica felt like he was in a box and didn’t want to be confined by perceptions of what a rapper should do. Night of the Roundtable, track 14, delves into that desire to express freely. The song samples a Jay Z interview talking about how rap, like other forms of art, is an expression that has the range to cover all feelings like sadness, joy, anxiety, and love. Having that range is important to Jay Electronica and his verse on the song echoes that:

It took a lifetime to learn how to live / Another lifetime to learn how to give / It took 34 trips around the hot sun to land me here / That’s why every ear that hear understand me clear / I’m not a rapper… / I’m like an angel on a mountain top / The healing power of God is felt in every fountain drop / [scats and sings]

It’s complicated! And when he scats at the end of that verse, it’s like he’s saying he feels something that he can’t articulate yet. Hailing from New Orleans, Jay Electronica’s scatting is in the tradition of Louis Armstrong and the powerfully expressive bayou Jazz musicians who influenced the local music he grew up on.

One theme that’s expressed consistently is defiance to the status quo world order. Welcome to Knightsbridge, track 12, has the cadence of an army marching to a thumping beat. This army stands under the black flag of Brooklyn. Perhaps this army is still serving the elite, but it’s the black elite, who plan to overthrow the Illuminati and then take their name as well as their crown. It’s like the strength of the Black Panther Party without the socialism of it. Jay Electronica and other Roc Nation soldiers aren’t really fighting the prison abolition battle that modern rap radicals like Noname are, but they are putting on for black power and representation in party leader Jay Z’s vision.

At the end of the day, this album was intended to show that Jay Electronica is the best rapper in the game, and the theme matters less than thinking, “Yo, he just killed that verse!” Bonnie and Clyde, track 5, features some French singing, and that matches the sound of the album by co-opting eurocentrism to be black serving instead of black exploiting. But mostly, this French singer and the sick beat is just a vessel that lets Jay Electronica flex the lyricism that makes him special.

Just like I told you on “Extra Extra” / You fuckin’ with the young black Professa Tesla / A two-faced handshake, reject the gesture / Turn the other cheek and caress deceptor

These four bars is just a casual flex. It’s like Damian Lillard hitting another 30-foot three pointer when the Blazers are already up 12. It’s an effortless five-syllable rhyme scheme that’s boasting, defiant, full of imagery and swag. It has internal rhymes and uses words that seemingly don’t rhyme but do. Charismatically showing off and shrugging his shoulders, as if to say with a wink, “I do this in my sleep.”

Whereas March 2020’s A Written Testimony carries the weight of skyscraper expectations from a decade of waiting, October 2020’s Act II: Patents of Nobility (the Turn), is free from all of that. It’s no longer the debut album of a guy summing up everything he is about. It’s a guy who’s being himself, exploring curiosities, maintaining a spiritual connection, and thinking about visions for an alternate present. A decade after it was promised, 8 years after it was finished, and the second album of his that we got in 7 months, it somehow still hits. Act II will go into the Jay Electronica canon, fleshing out a body of work that’s finally proving all that hype was justified.

8.5 out of 10