Jay Rock was the first rapper from Top Dawg Entertainment to sign a major-label record contract.
They were a young, inexperienced label with a growing roster of homegrown talent. Rock was their flagship artist, the one leading TDE into the music industry. His deal with Warner Bros. brought the benefits of visibility and allowed a bright spotlight to glow over the Watts, California rapper. Yet, before he could truly capitalize with the release of an album, unforeseen circumstances derailed all the promise of what could’ve been.
The learning experience was necessary for the label's growth, but Rock’s first deal falling apart snatched the fire that was propelling his soaring rocket.
There’s no blueprint to follow after your first record deal goes sour. It takes time to recover and recalibrate, no different than the period of time after suddenly being laid off from a job. Jay Rock fell back from the spotlight and became more of a backbone than the face of TDE. He was the foundation that gave Top Dawg the solid ground to build their empire. As the label flourished and the young talent became stars, Rock maintained a following of die-hard fans who anticipate and support his every release.
I thought the new Jay Rock album would be another independent TDE release. To my surprise, Rock returned to a major label by signing a deal with Interscope. Following the success of the single “King’s Dead,” this is the most attention surrounding Rock's name since the 2008 release of his Lil Wayne-assisted single, “All My Life (In the Ghetto).” With a popular record and the backing of a major machine, this is Rock’s second chance to become bigger than an underground mainstay.
Will Redemption, Jay Rock’s third studio album, be the project that breaks him through to the other side of rap stardom? The stars are aligning in his favor, but the music and how it’s promoted and received will truly decide what happens next.
In usual 1-Listen fashion, the rules here are the same: no skipping, no fast-forwarding, no rewinding, and no stopping. Each song will receive my gut reaction from start to finish. Let the show begin.
1. "The Bloodiest"
Pretty intense buildup. I’m pumped for this drop. WOO! The drums have BITE! I feel like I’m Holyfield boxing Tyson in ‘97. Jay Rock sounds good. He arguably has the best voice out of all his TDE contemporaries. He has the weight and personality to really sell the imagery he paints. Every word is delivered with this vigorous raw energy. The pocket is getting murdered. This is an excellent intro. I'm loving his second verse flow. I wish the hook was a bit more thoughtful, but it carries the exhilaration of the verses. “Bitch where!?” is said with the strength of a thousand Clark Kents. I’m all in. This is a strong start. Punching us in the chest from the very start.
2. "For What It's Worth"
A man’s voice. I wonder who this is. It’s sad and soulful. The Interscope budget was spent on production, and I’m happy. “Trying to solve my problems off this fifth of Henny.” Loving the openness. Introspective Jay Rock is giving me life. It’s interesting to hear him contemplate all the pros and cons of potentially murdering a man. He’s weighing the possibilities. I wonder if this woman’s voice is a sample; it sounds like it. I wish it was only one verse. The change in perspective in this second verse didn’t grip the way the first did. I do like how Rock's level of fame allows him the interest of those who saw him on TV. He may not be the most famous, but he’s far from some unknown one-hit wonder. This is a good record. Slows things down after the thunderous intro, but it’s a keeper.
3. "Knock It Off"
“Dear God…” lol. Funny little interlude. This should’ve been the second song! THE BEAT HITTING HARDER THAN DRAKE SPANKING ADONIS FOR BLASTING GRINDIN’. Melodic flow Jay Rock. It’s a bit elementary but I’m vibing. I love how he adjusted his vocals. The weight of his voice doesn’t sound heavy at all. He’s playing with flows, sounds, and styles. There was a time when Rock would just growl on beats, but now he’s really coming into his own as an artist. Man, after hearing this second verse, “Knock It Off” sounds like the kind of music Future would make if he grew up in Nickerson Gardens and not Kirkwood. Still, it works for Jay Rock. This is one of the most infectious records Rock has ever made. I never thought Jay Rock of all rappers would be making my shoulders shimmy. This is different, definitely a touch of a more modern sound, but it works! I would run this back.
4. "ES Tales"
Interesting to see how flexible his sound has become. Someone is singing. A deep voice. DEEP. There's a whiskey weight to his voice. Oh shit, the beat just dropped. This sounds menacing. This is giving me flashbacks of “Cartoon & Cereal.” THIS BASS IS RIDICULOUS. Straight gangsta rap. Menace II Society raps. Ski-mask on, Glock cocked music. This is the music IHOb is going to be playing when you arrive at 2 am, drunk, demanding pancakes. After all the Bs they’ve tweeted over the past week, IHOb better promote Jay Rock’s new album. I would punch a man twice my size if I entered the club and this song was playing. It’s controlled chaos. Rock is walking through this hellfire with such ease. OH THIS IS FIRE. Breakdown! Raw production by Teddy Walton and Aaron Bow.
5. "Rotation 112th"
Jay Rock switched it up again. This beat makes me want to Krump. The last time I wanted tp Krump, E-40 was telling me when to go. This is way out of his comfort zone, but Rock is stomping on this beat with metal Timberlands. I love the wordplay. Not necessarily what is being said but how he’s saying it. Packing these words into the flow is not an easy trick. The misstep here is not getting Ty Dolla Sign to breath some Hennessy gospel into the hook. He would’ve been perfect. That sorta sounds like Ty. Probably one verse too long. He’s aiming for the clubs with this. I like it enough to play it again. The bridge at the end sounded like Gucci Mane. "Rotation 112th" is sonically what a Gucci and Juicy J collab would be in 2018.
6. "Tap Out" ft. Jeremih
Whoa. Another record with some crossover promise. Jeremih is rapping. He sounds smooth as silk. This is the radio record directed toward the women. I like the beat, it has some knock. I love the tempo. It has a nice bounce. I sorta wish this would’ve been how Q structured “Studio.” I have to say, “Tap Out” sounds like a record that Kendrick turned down from DAMN. Actually, Redemption is Jay Rock’s DAMN. He’s stepping into the modern soundscapes, with flows and melodies that are fitting of the moment. I wouldn’t say “Tap Out” is a skip—the song isn’t bad—but it doesn’t quite feel rewarding enough to stand out.
7. "OSOM" ft. J. Cole
Ha. Cole and Kendrick spend years teasing a joint album only for Kendrick to appear on Cozz’s Effected and for Cole to return the favor on Jay Rock’s Redemption. I wonder what this will sound like. I love the beat and how Rock’s singing sounds. I’m going through the motions with him and he’s selling it. Another introspective verse. He’s talking about signing his first deal. The anticipation. The excitement from the hood. He's snapping like it’s a poetry reading. Next to Q, Jay Rock has to be the most improved artists in the TDE camp. Every album he has stepped it up. COLE! This is hard. This flow definitely leans on the KOD style more than classic Cole. Is this told from someone else's perspective? All the drug references. Cole's singing. That verse is conceptually weird. I have no idea what Cole was talking about. Rock is back. This record is HARD. We need to publish an absurdly detailed investigation into all of Jay Rock’s food references. By far my favorite singing performance from Rock. It’s so smooth.
8. "King's Dead" ft. Future
The singing from the baritone voice. “There’s no king of the projects.” I like the interlude into the record. Why is this beat so fun? You just want to bounce out your skin when the drop comes in. I love this Jay Rock verse. Especially when he switches up his flow. I’m glad they took Kendrick off, hopefully more people are able to appreciate this figure-eight performance. Future’s verse is a flawless trick. The entire thing is genius. He may never get the praise for being such an innovative rapper, but Future really is a mountain mover. He doesn’t cover a vast range of topics, but he has found an infinite amount of ways to refresh and recycle all his old concepts into new ideas.
Cardo! His drop is in my top 10 favorite producer drops. Nice keys. Singing Rock. He sounds like someone else. I’m not sure who, but definitely not Jay Rock. I wish this had Anderson .Paak. I like the idea of this song more than the execution. Yep, Redemption is without question Jay Rock’s version of DAMN. and KOD. It’s funny to hear rappers experiment outside their usual space to fit the wider musical, modern zeitgeist. I can see this being a sleeper hit. The song isn’t bad, but it feels unnecessary. One of those records that made the album with the hope that it would blow up. I’m not sure if it will.
10. "Broke +-"
Keys. Daunting keys. Feels like music you play after midnight. Nice drums. Rapping Rock. “Truth is mostly taboo” is a bar. Jay Rock’s raps always sound written. Lyrics that are said with thoughtfulness. Eh, not sure about this hook. I tend to hate when rappers have to spell something out for me. Diddy is the only exception. Second verse is poignant. Bullseye precision. “Have you ever been broke, sick of forever losing” if this song existed in the world of FX’s Atlanta it would be the perfect theme song of Earn’s entire second season.
11. "Wow Freestyle" ft. Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick! “Back when Top had the Red Charger.” I hate how all trap beats with wind instruments sound like an off-brand version of “Mask Off.” Kendrick is doing a full gymnastic routine with his flow. He sounds so good on trap songs. He just tagged Jay Rock in. Eastside Johnny and Cornrow Kenny haven’t missed. Every collaboration is a reminder that the two have been killing beats together since 2005. This is a fun record. Reminds me of “Backseat Freestyle.” The back and forth is killer. They have completed a flawless fusion dance. The Goku and Piccolo of TDE.
12. "Redemption" ft. SZA
When it comes to TDE album releases, a flawless SZA hook is the only guarantee. I miss the days when every album came with a Black Hippy collaboration. Those were good days. This is gospel trap music. They could’ve dropped the drums and had Rock rap over only the keys. “Instagram is a dead man’s best friend” might be one of the realest bars I’ve heard all year. SZA sounds like she is singing from a studio built in heaven. So angelic. The second verse is about a woman he’s been with. It’s sweet. Honest. Motorcycle bar. This is his first album since the accident. How did I almost forget. I wonder how that must feel, making an album after a near-death experience. Redemption probably means a lot to him.
This beat is ridiculous. The horns. The drums. It’s a lively monster. On first listen, I didn’t like the song much. I thought Rock’s hook and flow were just too simple. But now, I’m pumped up. This is victory music. I wish I could graduate from high school a second time just to cross the stage while this is playing. “Win” should be the official soundtrack of every championship. Not just sports, but everything. Play this during the Chess Club championship. Play this during 5th grade field day. Video game competitions. Wherever there’s a winner, “Win” should be playing. I love that he ended the album on such a high note. Also, Kendrick’s uncredited vocals are a gift. I wouldn’t mind a Jay Rock album with background vocals from Dot throughout the entire project. Yeah, this is the music of champions.
Redemption (first listen) final thoughts:
Consistency has never been an issue with Jay Rock. He’s cut from the cloth of rappers who always deliver strong, enjoyable projects. There’s no denying his ability to build a good album, but there has yet to be that great body of work that defines him; that one defining album that can stand above all as a testament to his greatness.
On first listen, Redemption has potential to be that album for Jay Rock. It’s a body of work that shows every side of the artist; the layers of his artistry are all highlighted throughout the album's 13 tracks. Rock didn't make a hard, gangsta rap album, or pander to radio with a collection of records that all resemble “King’s Dead.” Redemption is a well-balanced diet, served up by an artist who refuses to be pigeonholed.
Leaning into melodic, modern sounds is a decision that produces more hits than misses. In effect, Redemption allows Jay Rock to do what both Kendrick and Cole did—crossover into the present without completely losing himself. It’s not the Jay Rock of old, but a veteran rapper embracing the rules of rap in 2018.
Without completely rewriting who he is, Jay Rock evolved his artistry. He’s more than just the surgical lyricist who makes underground classics for the hood. This album may not result in newfound stardom, but it does give Rock an opportunity to reestablish himself. Redemption is a satisfying reintroduction.
By Yoh, aka Yohdemption aka @Yoh31.