Jay Rock's "Redemption" (Review)
Few modern rappers have endured commercial holding patterns as brutal as Jay Rock did between the years of 2005 and 2015, the former the year he was signed and the latter the year he released his sophomore album. Rock waited a full six years for his Top Dawg debut, Follow Me Home, to drop, during which even a 2008 single featuring Lil Wayne and will.i.am couldn't help it get off the ground. Following that experience of having an album ready years before the world heard it, he was clearly anxious to get a follow-up out, but that took another four years. The mere fact that Redemption has shown up less than three years after its predecessor, and without any delays, should be viewed as well... a redemption of Rock's rocky career arc.
This whole process has aged the Watts native, and he was already jaded thanks to his involvement in gang activity before he got his recording gig going. He arrived at 90059 a much older soul than the tough-talking 26-year-old we heard on Follow Me Home, and following a near-fatal motorcycle crash, he sounds even more wizened on Redemption. Whether in the streets, in label boardrooms, or hospital bed, this man has seen some shit.
Like most rappers who came up banging red or blue in L.A., Rock still uses gang life to serve as the foundation of his music, letting it inform his code of ethics and interpersonal politics. The widening difference between him and an artist like YG though, is that his experienced, measured tone can explain the realities of that environment to almost anyone. Where YG is brash, Jay Rock is clinical. Compare the former's "FDT" to this section from the latter's "ES Tales":
Black lives matter, out here, no way
Cops get promotions while the family gotta pray
It's fucked up, can't explain, babies all in a dump truck
It's all about that money mane, miss me with that Trump stuff
Whether sharing his actual beliefs or adopting those he grew up around, Rock fully embodies a perspective from the inner city looking out, less celebrating his outlook than walking us through how he got there. It's a method that recalls one of rap's great storytellers, Scarface, who Rock has actually grown to sound like at times. He takes meaningful pauses between wordy bars on "For What it's Worth" and "Broke +-," he favors down-home piano instrumentals— although he doesn't delve quite as far into trauma as the Houston OG, he's increasingly posing himself as a Wet Coast spiritual successor.
Accompanying this increased maturity are far fewer neck-snapping beats than we heard on 90059, which are instead replaced by some that are more muted and in tune with where the rest of rap is right now. For every "Bloodiest," a RZA-style taste of samurai noir, there's a "Rotation 112th," a song that uses similar sounds but to much more pop-friendly ends. You don't usually think of an artist getting poppier as a sign of maturity, but on Redemption, Rock seems to have settled into a place in which he can play around with some modern sounds without losing his essence. It's like a dyed-in-the-wool '60s hippy deciding in 1977 that he can enjoy a few disco cuts in the club without being a sellout.
Along with "Rotation 112th," both "Knock It Off" and the Jeremih-assisted "Tap Out" skew towards airier, more youthful spaces. But with the exception of the last one (a pretty straightforward bedroom jam), the tracks still find Rock decidedly in street mode, though being more playful with his delivery. Throughout Redemption, he does a great job of balancing propulsive, form-forward rapping with straight up bars. See the moment in "The Bloodiest" when he leaps out of a tightly-syncopated flow with a cathartic whoop, "Jay Rock and I'm back, bitch!" See the moment in "Broke +-" when he impossibly threads together the sentence, "The vision my pugilistic moves insisted food come from them tools he so choose to use." You usually have to choose between rappers when deciding whether you'd rather hear low calorie chest-beating or thought-provoking lyrical mazes. With Jay Rock, at this point in his career, you don't.
Redemption contains a pretty well-rounded scope of emotions and moods, despite having no discernible thematic throughline. Honesty is one explanation for that, though I suspect that honest rap albums far outnumber well-rounded rap albums. Another possibility is a combination between experience and confidence, and it certainly seems like most rappers are dwarfed by Jay Rock in those departments. Maybe "King's Dead' was planned as a lead single for this album, but now that it's inseparable from the Black Panther soundtrack, it takes some gall to throw Future's squeaky Slick Rick and Juicy J interpolations right in the middle of an otherwise intensely personal album. In any other situation, I'd complain that it was included to boost streams, but A) Jay Rock pulls it off and B) his career's gone through the wringer; I can't hate on anything that'll make Jay Rock more successful. Less seamlessly included is "WIN," the boisterous second single, which is intended as a conclusion but feels more like a bonus track tacked on the end. Perhaps its celebratory tone is meant as an optimistic postscript to the internal struggles that precede it?
Jay Rock is someone who everyone wants to see win, but also someone whose career has always been one tired-sounding project away from returning to obscurity. He will probably never eclipse Kendrick, ScHoolboy, and now SZA, as TDE's cash cows/critical darlings, but in crafting his second consecutive quietly-amazing album, he's at least proven that everyone responsible for stalling his career is a damn fool. The world deserves to hear him continue to grow into Watts' leading social and cultural critic.