As far as goon rappers go, Jay Rock is the brightest and damn sure the most intelligible. He comes from a sullen background comprised of thick clouds of gun smoke, but he doesn’t let the creeps translate into his music. He’s endlessly charismatic without brandishing a smile or shoving his persona down our throats on social media — he’s just there. He may appear slack-jawed with an ultra-serious resting face, but there’s something pubescent and jovial in his demeanor that translates to his style of rapping, one that eschews expectations frequently. His new album Redemption radiates panache and expense in its lush sound, framing his energy as the bridging factor between his generation and the next. While it’s a solid technical showing, and some of the best music that Jay Rock has made to date, the lack of redefined parameters that the Top Dawg Entertainment label is typically known for make it a safe showing in a time, and especially a musically-stuffed June, that may see it fade into the background.
Jay Rock commands a particular kind of energy that sparks even the most standard of rhyme schemes and cadences into something so hair-raising that it seems self-aware, i.e. “King’s Dead.” Out of the triumvirate of opposites on the album’s lead single, his by-the-numbers approach grounds the song to Earth as his subordinates float whimsically along; while they have the creative fun, Rock spits in all smiles, even as he pushes forward with full steam on the instrumental — almost as if he’s poking fun at himself. This delicate dance is jocular and shows that he knows how to have fun. Redemption finds Jay Rock doubling down on this self-aware modus operandi and using it to push his sound in different directions atypical to his pre-established, conventional formula.
Whereas gangster rappers of his ilk typically are unwise to, or flat out against, the workings of pop culture’s teeth in hip-hop (the conventions pressed upon rappers to create songs that cater to all genres by watering down unique elements), Rock embraces them, then challenges them. Lush, hulking production on “The Bloodiest” sets the stage for an album rife with self-awareness and reorganizing. Jay’s pop culture references and “watch the snakes” raps are common mainstays in this subset of the genre, yet in the hands of Rock they’ve been given a new lease on life. His delivery snaps every word as if they’ve never been spoken before, the product of restraining on-the-verge yells and invoking with a cunning delivery that would make Pepe Le Pew proud.
A duality manifests itself early on; there are the rotund, irate bass-busters like “WIN” and “Rotation” that see Jay talking loudly and confidently, whether about his past or about the ways to master the present. Then there are the smoother, grainy textures of “Tap Out” featuring Jeremiah and “OSOM” featuring J. Cole, that are softer and more sensitive. In between these, you’ll find hybrid cuts like the boom-bap inspired “ES Tales” and the minacious ode to trained-to-go friends “Troopers.” The decision to structure the album in this way helps to make sense of its blatant attempts at hijacking contemporary ideas — whether it’s to say something intelligent about them (a la J. Cole’s KOD) or it’s to establish relevancy, it’s hard to tell. For instance, the melodic raps that are so popular in today’s game appear here on the choruses of “Troopers” and “Knock It Off.” It doesn’t take anything away from these cuts per se, but Jay Rock is one of the higher-tiered artists. You think he’s above it, but, alas, not everything may be what it seems.
Even with the obvious effort to appeal to a younger audience and the willingness to explore and have more fun than before, what endures as the project’s most important takeaway is consistency. The 13-track album (Jesus, in the wake of G.O.O.D. Music’s seven-track project release rollout, 13 now feels extremely long) is free of blatant missteps, but, on the flip side, largely absent of standouts either. The whimsical, sneaky “King’s Dead” perhaps is the most adventurous here, with Future’s tongue-in-cheek vocal performance much better than the subsequent memes have made it out to be. “WIN” borders on mundane, as if Top Dawg walked into the studio and said, “Look here, Rock. We need a late 2000s sounding motivational song that we can get athletes to get behind. Don’t do anything too groundbreaking, athletes just listen to the beat anyway.”
By the time that the album wraps up, the exorbitant sounding beats and spitfire pace of Jay’s lively delivery will have won you over. Jay stands at the crossroads of gangster rap’s traditional past and a vibrant future that can be shaped in any way that he sees fit. Here, he moves away from the traditional sound that has become his shtick in TDE and goes after a more contemporary aesthetic that works, but it's a little jarring. It leads to a technically-sound album without any obvious flaws that detriment from it.
But the problem that truly arises is that TDE is much higher than crafting straightforward, contemporary jams. This is the label of Kendrick Lamar — rap’s most nontraditional artist since Biz Markie, Ab-Soul — the conscious mind of the collective that practically invented “opening the chakras,” and ScHoolboy Q — another gangster with a playful vein that prioritizes a laugh over following conventions. None of the aforementioned artists have ever played by the book and released a standard album. Is Jay Rock the first to embrace the current game’s meta? What does that say about his place in the powerhouse label? On that note, do we really find out exactly what’s being redeemed? Pools of visceral street raps do hold a candlelight to the dreary pitfalls of a life privy to street violence, but where’s the comeback narrative that the album promises? Closing the album with “WIN” is Jay’s victory lap, it’s message relaying that he’s now bulletproof in his pursuit of glory. But when did he hit bottom? Where’s the story?
All of this may sound needlessly pessimistic because, technically, Redemption is truly good. The eccentricity of Jay Rock’s goofy delivery leads to some of the best rapping that you’ll hear this year. He steps out of his comfort zone on more than one occasion and you’ll find nary an indicator that he’s nearing his mid-30s. But at the same time, the lack of true innovation that’s become commonplace for TDE’s forward-pushing machine is absent. While it’s not Jay’s responsibility to alter his message to be more in line with his label mates, it’s still very noticeable.
The case of Redemption is a peculiar one — without any glaring missteps, it’ll remain in the conversation for more than a little while. Without any obvious standouts, it might have trouble transcending the flurry of June releases that have come out and will continue to come out over the next couple of weeks. It’s uncharted territory for Jay Rock and TDE to be squished into a month packed with other artists fighting for the spotlight. If only Redemption was a little tighter, we wouldn’t be pondering it’s staying power.