Few albums last year were as aptly titled as Jay Rock’s Redemption. Since being the very first signee of the then-nascent label Top Dawg Entertainment in 2005, his career has often been characterized as being stalled or grounded in order to make way for the projects of his label mates, a group that includes Kendrick Lamar, SZA, ScHoolboy Q, and Ab-Soul. These representations could’t be further from reality. “We all came up in the kennel together as little puppies,” Jay tells us a few hours before hitting the stage of the Berlin stop of his ‘Redemption’ tour.
“We can't feel bitter about one another because we all came up together. We came up from the ground up. We built this thing from the ground up, so why would one of us be bitter [at] one another? That's crazy.”
“I mean, shit, what I learned from them is just hard work,” he continues while reflecting on their relationship. “Hard work and dedication. We all learned that from each other. We all hungry. That was the whole goal, you gotta stay hungry. Once I see something that Kendrick did that's dope, it makes me want to do something doper. If ScHoolboy seen something that I did that was dope, it'll make him want to do something to try to top that. Friendly competition, but all in all, we motivate each other. That's what it's about. “
Redemption, more than being Jay’s most definitive statement of purpose and artistry yet, is a record that ultimately finds its power in the life-altering trauma that inspired it. On February 15, 2016, the day that he was to attend his first ever Grammy ceremony with Lamar, Jay was involved in a severe motorcycle accident. The crash left him physically shattered and the ensuing recovery process took an equally extreme emotional toll.
“You start thinking about a whole lot of things when you're laid up with broken bones,” he says, “Having blood transfusions and going through shit like that. You're like, ‘Damn, what the fuck did I do in the past? Or in my past life?’ Or unaware that I probably did something, and this is my payback for what I've done.”
It wasn't an easy headspace for Jay to shake off. “After the accident, when I was in the hospital I was kind of uninspired,” he says. “I was unmotivated 'cause I was just angry about a whole lot of things. But then something clicked in my head like, ‘You know what, you've just got to get back on your feet, man, and get back to it.’ So, that's basically what this whole album is about. I got a second chance to do what I love to do. And that's music. I just base it around that, God giving me a second chance at doing what I love to do. That's why I feel like it's like a redemption for me.”
The tumultuous two-year span that informed the album was a dramatic redemptive narrative by any measure, but in many ways, the entirety of Jay’s career has been one of trials and tribulations leading to his current moment of triumph. An early affinity for music was developed in tandem with Jay becoming involved in “gang-banging and doing all of that silly shit.” He speaks candidly yet gravely on his dangerous upbringing:
“I came from a dark place. Anybody who knows where I come from, I come from the most dark of places and I've been through the most dark of times of my life. But, when I do this music I always shed light. Because that's what kind of gave me the inspiration.”
Far more than inspiration, music became Jay Rock’s salvation. It gave him an outlet to escape the brutality around him during his adolescence. “You always get distracted,” he says while reminiscing on this period, “Especially growing up in the streets, you're always going to get sidetracked and get distracted. It's a whole lot of things going on, so I had to take it upon myself to really just take [music] a lot more serious. I had to just put my foot down and stay in the studio.”
This process of self-recovery through art was mirrored during Jay’s initial stages of crafting Redemption, but his family played a huge role in bringing him back from the brink. “I just started looking like, a lot of people depend on me,” he says, “I’ve got family and loved ones that's dependent on me. I started looking at that, and I can't let them down. So I have to get back on my ten toes and do what I've got to do.”
The sheer quality of the song craft alone on Redemption would have notched Jay his biggest win to date, but he just so happened to nab the biggest song of his career well before any promotion cycle began. “King’s Dead,” created as part of Kendrick’s curated Black Panther soundtrack, absolutely blew up across 2018, earning acclaim as one of the year’s essential tracks. Even with Kendrick, Future, and a wisp of James Blake on board, Jay Rock wholly owns the show, unleashing a set of verses that embody his unique rapping cadence. (He refuses to elaborate on describing his infamously meandering flow, knowingly concluding that “my flow is my flow.”)
It was embedded even further in public conscious with its zany accompanying video, which Jay says “was one of the dopest videos I ever did right there.” A variety of quietly offbeat tableaus comprise the visual, the peak of which is perhaps the shots of Jay and Kendrick sitting atop an enormous palm tree. “We didn't have no ladder,” he says when prompted for details, “They put my in a little harness and had a little crane pull me up on a little platform thing. They pull you up, and then I just got up in there, just sitting in a palm tree.”
As fate would have it, we spoke to Jay a mere 48 hours before he attended the Grammys for the first time (take two). “King’s Dead” took home the award for Best Rap Song, giving Jay his first Grammy and solidifying the track’s place in the cream of the pop culture crop. Even more impressive was the fact that he was competing against himself; his Redemption track “Win” was nominated in the same category. I mention that the circumstance feels almost too metaphorical to be real – a roller-coaster journey to the top of his industry that ends in literally competing against his own work.
Humbly smiling, Jay half mutters to himself, “A blessing man. I hope I beat myself too.”