2012 felt like a life-time ago, but I still remember getting excited for the talent displayed in TDE after Kendrick Lamar’s breakthrough in Section.80. At the start of the year, ScHoolboy Q’s Habits & Contradictions provided dark, hedonistic grooves for days (“There He Go”; “Nightmare on Figg St.”) while Ab-Soul followed up with Control System, a mostly introspective album that sometimes suggested he might’ve been the group’s most prodigious when it came to wordplay (“Terrorist Threats”; “The Book of Soul”). Jay Rock, maybe the most old-fashioned rapper of the group and certainly the most street-wise, didn’t come up with a full project that year, but I made note of him anyway when he provided one of the best verses on good kid, m.A.A.d. city. I didn’t think much of 90059, but I thought even less of his previous effort, Follow Me Home. Cutting down on the filler was the best move he could make, but we still had that (“Money Trees Deuce,” the direct to video sequel) and the hometown producers only supplied a few beats worth writing home about (“Necessary”; “Gumbo”). Songs like “Easy Bake,” featuring alley-oops with Kendrick Lamar and a detour for a SZA spotlight, and the Black Hippy posse cut “Vice City” with its ridiculous flow, are certainly songs I’d easily miss if I never heard again, but they also highlighted that Jay Rock’s best work might be as features on other people’s songs or when he features other artists on his own.
“WIN,” the lead single of Jay Rock’s new album if you ignore “King’s Dead” (which I’ll get to later), wasn’t exactly the worst thing in the world, and that’s the highest praise I’ve got for it. I’ve been wary of victory-lap “bangers” that use “triumphant” horn hooks since day 1 (on that note, Kendrick Lamar’s “The Spiteful Chant” – sampling Woodkid’s “Iron” – was a dirge, and one of Section.80’s weakest cuts). People have compared “WIN” to “HUMBLE.”, Kendrick Lamar’s lead single to DAMN., and in turn, have started comparing Redemption to DAMN. because they are the artists’ more mainstream-ready records. Quality-wise, there is no comparison. “HUMBLE.”, which gets a bad rep from people who only want more of To Pimp a Butterfly’s impregnable jazz cuts, came with inventive rhymes, a neat flow switch and an exciting music video (particularly during said flow switch). “WIN” comes with Kendrick Lamar shouting “MOMMY” in the background of the choruses, a particularly heartbreaking moment packaged for memes and nothing else.
It’d be fine if “WIN” were like “Started from the Bottom” (from Drake’s Nothing Was the Same), by which I mean, an outlier and the rest of the album would be what we wanted from the artist. That’s not the case. There’s also the “obligatory” sex-rap cut featuring a mushy-mouthed Jeremih (whatever happened to him?) and Jay Rock going “Fuck you in a car in the back / Fuck you so good, call back / For real, though / How many fucks I give? Zero.” The track recalls ScHoolboy Q’s Miguel-featuring “Overtime” from the mostly phenomenal Blank Face LP (Q has gone back and forth about whether or not the label had a hand in that song’s appearance). And for whatever reason, “King’s Dead” – originally from the Black Panther soundtrack – finds its way here, but without James Blake’s brief interlude or Kendrick Lamar’s climaxing verse. Smart move, I guess, since hearing Lamar rap “All hail King Kilmonger!” makes no sense anywhere outside of that soundtrack. But the fact that he has included that song at all makes me think of label interference, and the fact that he hasn’t bothered to add anything to replace the parts he took out reeks of laziness, and both are emblematic of the album as a whole. Whatever: it’s still fun to hear Future falsetto-sing “La-de-da-di-da, slob on me knob,” I guess?
Those are the album’s biggest issues, but it’s not like the rest is anything to write home about either. In contrast to 90059, Jay taps into bigger-name producers but their beats don’t distinguish themselves (Cardo, Cubeatz, Vinyls, Boi-1da). Hit-Boy brings along a pan-flute for “Wow Freestyle” that ends up sounding like most other woodwind beats in recent memory not named “Mask Off” and certainly nothing like the bangers that Hit-Boy is capable of. Elsewhere, “For What It’s Worth,” produced by Sounwave (responsible for an alarming amount of great Kendrick Lamar songs), sounds non- and the same term can be applied to other beats here (ie. “Knock It Off,” “Broke+-“) to the point that some of these beats sound like Black Panther rejects. There are some memorable ones: “The Bloodiest” – produced by Boi-1da, Jake One, and Allen Ritter – features a pitch-shifted vocal that’s been running through my head for the past few days, and I certainly wasn’t ready to hear what sounds like the Super Mario coin noise to appear on “ES Tales.” Elsewhere, Sounwave and Terrace Martin, provide a lovely backdrop for Jay Rock to rap introspectively on should-have-been-closer “Redemption.” But nothing is at stake here, and that goes for the rapping as well.
Throughout this record, I keep thinking back to ScHoolboy Q’s Blank Face LP, wherein ScHoolboy Q tapped a little bit into the mainstream (“THat Part”; the aforementioned “Overtime”) but for the most part stuck to his vision of dark, sometimes violent grooves (“Groovy Tony / Eddie Kane”; “Blank Face”). That record tapped both 90s’ hip-hop artists/sounds and modern ones, and appealed to a wide crowd. That’s the gold standard, and one of the best albums of that year. By contrast, Jay Rock also taps into the mainstream but doesn’t offer anything – no personality, no color, no darkness. Not even a fucking groove, the nerve! And it’s hard to imagine the mainstream tracks appealing to anyone either, so what’s left is a confused record. The best music is stuff that makes you forget other music exists, and in a month where we’ve been spoiled by good (G.O.O.D) music, a record this nondescript’s just detracting from what we could be listening to instead. The best I can say about Redemption is that at least Jay Rock hasn’t completely lost his mind like Ab-Soul. C PLUS