Gangster rap was the best and worst thing to ever happen to west coast hip-hop. Up until the late ‘80s, L.A. was essentially a blank spot on the map—all eyes and ears were seemingly permanently focused on New York City. Following the groundwork laid down by Ice-T, Kid Frost and a handful of early pioneers, that all changed when N.W.A. roared Straight Outta Compton, followed by Ice Cube (solo), Dr. Dre (solo), Tupac, Snoop Dogg, Warren G and too many more to name. Seemingly overnight Los Angeles was the epicenter of a hip-hop’s most powerful movement and the city of angels became synonymous with gangster rap.
It was a golden age for L.A., but over the long run gangster rap’s explosion limited Los Angeles hip-hop. On the national stage L.A. became so closely tied to the image and sound of N.W.A./Dre/Tupac etc. that decades later Angeleno artists are still struggling to emerge from that shadow. It was only very recently that the “new west coast” movement emerged and has begun to find large-scale success, which is why Jay Rock’s headfirst dive back into his hometown’s rap roots is so interesting.
While his Black Hippy compatriot Kendrick Lamar has taken those gangster rap origins and morphed them into something more universal, political and poetic, Rock doesn’t hesitate to go back to the same template his Watts forefathers were developing when he was still in diapers. The exact release date of his debut album Follow Me Home may read 2011, but its heart beats with 1988.
If Follow Me Home has a manifesto it’s "Hood Gone Love," a declaration of Rock’s loyalties to the block that raised him. With Kendrick throwing down on a guest verse, "Hood Gone Love It" is the sound of the next standing on the shoulders of those who came before with Jay at his more lyrically complex, revealing a deeply personal undercurrent that runs throughout his music. Well, maybe not all his music. "I'm Thuggin" is as aggressive and blunt as the title suggests, and the funk-heavy "Elbows" is Rock at his grimiest, but he’s really at his best when he’s interlacing some lyricism in between the high caliber rhymes. The two sides of his rhymes come together perfectly on "No Joke," a stream of consciousness that displays a flow and narrative ability absent on the more banging "Thuggin" and "All I Know Is." Throughout the album, Rock shows that there’s more to him that you can first hear, but not much more, and that’s exactly what can make him compelling. There’s no artifice here, no fantasies or gimmick. What you see is what you get, and that’s a sadly rare situation in today’s game.
“No Hollywood s**t, no club s**t.” That’s how Rock described "Follow Me," and while it’s mostly true, it’s not entirely true. Of course, I’m talking about the Chris Brown-assisted "Westside," and while the street’s feelings about Brown are debatable, there’s no debating that you don’t grab Breezy for a ladies jam unless you’re aiming for some radio play. Context aside, how does "Westside" sound? Good, not great—the same straightforward, gravel-voiced flow that makes "No Joke" just doesn’t work as well on the sweeter "Westside"—he sounds much more at home on the more booty-focused "Boomerang," and on the lusher, Rick Ross accompanied "Finest Hour."
Follow Me’s best balance of Rock's thug core with his more mainstream ambitions—however limited those ambitions may be—can easily be found on "All My Life," a soulful yet street oriented single that’s almost three years old now but still serves as the best indication of heights Rock is capable of reaching.
If the original intention of gangster rap was to honestly and unflinchingly portray the violence, brutality and occasional hope of the neighborhoods they grew up in, then Rock’s holding true to that tradition. We may be past the apocalypse for inner cities that was the Reagan Era, but you don’t have to go far outside of Beverly Hills to find gang tags, and crying mothers in L.A. Listeners may be able to follow Rock home and live vicariously through him, but for thousands that is their home. There’s no leaving, and those are the people who Follow Me Home was truly made for.