This article previously appeared on Crossfader
Genre: West Coast Hip Hop
Favorite Tracks: “ES Tales,” “Redemption (featuring SZA),” “WIN”
Hip hop is weird place for an artist that’s too old to be a newcomer but not established enough to be an old head. Often it requires the artist to get broader, to reach a more mainstream sound at the risk of being forgotten or, even worse, becoming boring and mundane. It’s a very hard tightrope to walk. On REDEMPTION, Jay Rock’s third studio release, he walks that tightrope to greater heights with an album that feels larger and more important than anything else he’s released thus far. Rock has come far after his nearly fatal motorcycle crash back in 2016, an experience that has brought him a newfound respect for life and interesting insight on the same token. REDEMPTION showcases that maturation, his journey from those fleeting moments to the present day.
Immediately, REDEMPTION is more turnt up than his previous releases, which bodes well for his skill set. While his previous highs as a rapper came from feature verses on tracks like “Money Trees,” or “I Just Wanna Party,” those songs saw his verses burst out like a shot of adrenaline to liven up the entire experience. He brings that exact same energy straight out the gate on the opening track, “The Bloodiest,” where he rides trap drums while speaking about his accident and his struggles getting back to where he was. The first verse is more reflective, sharing with us the hospital bills and experiencing the fake love from people in his life. But after the first hook, Rock immediately hops back on the beat to remind the world he’s made it out on the other side, rapping, “Jay Rock and I’m back, bitch.” In that moment the track comes to life in a new and exciting way, and there are several of those triumphant moments throughout the album to match.
REDEMPTION is Rock’s most accessible and wide-ranging project yet, but he’s still not afraid to get down and dirty. The grimiest part of the record is “ES Tale”—the only word to explain the beat is nasty. Blaring bass and SUPER MARIO BROS. ring sounds take the album to an early phase of his career, rapping about the struggle of growing up in Watts, CA. But like he does with the rest of the record, he takes a broader approach to the struggle. With unrelenting realness with lines that are a punch to the gut, Jay Rock portrays what life was like in his early years, alongside insight into the lives people have there. These kind of visual lyrics are what originally gave Jay Rock his recognition, and it’s impressive to see him not compromising his storytelling while continuing to find new and innovative ways to share his story with the listener; it’s reminiscent of Pusha-T, who also has the ability to come back to the same sordid subject matter while making it seem worthwhile every time.
But the most impressive part of REDEMPTION might be how vulnerable it sounds. The fantastic single, “WIN,” is an anthem for redemption and reassurance, but on the rest of the record he isn’t afraid to put doubt in his own bravado. With previous Jay Rock records, he was more interested in introducing the listener to his relatively air-tight ego, with a persona defined by gangbanging and street hustling. But now, through tragedy, he isn’t afraid to poke holes in the life he was previously living. The most fully realized version of Jay Rock’s new growth is on the SZA-assisted title track, “Redemption.” A lot like “The Bloodiest,” the opening verse is very reflective, offering visuals of what the aftermath of the motorcycle crash looked like. With some haunting imagery, it builds an effective set-up for the second verse where he speaks to the woman in his life who was always there offering him support. He admits to his own faults, both in life and in their relationship, by saying he was, “ego trippin’,” disloyal, and so much more. Showing vulnerability isn’t something the old Jay Rock was kin too. He’s matured just as much as an artist as he has as a person, and you can see that on almost every song, including “OSOM,” which reunites him with fellow 2010 XXL alum J. Cole; it’s the same old low-energy production Cole has been producing for the last three albums, but Jay Rock brings a different aura than his companion, actually rapping about something that feels like it has substance.
The aforementioned anthem, “WIN,” is the biggest of all exclamation points. He channels all the previous drive he was working with, and it culminates in the song LeBron and many more athletes will be working out to and Instagramming this summer. The track comes after probably the most dense portion of the album and re-energizes the mood of the project. Just like the rest of REDEMPTION, “WIN” is straight to the point and concise. While previous Jay Rock releases always felt like there was a lot of glut to them, with songs that offered nothing to the project as a whole, on this outing he trims most of the fat and it elevates the end product while putting him in the best place to succeed. Hopefully he continues this newfound respect for life, growing as a person as well as an artist.