“I be that n***a they call Jay Rock / I’m a rapper.” In a time where the phrase “I’m not a rapper, I’m an artist” is all too common, Jay Rock is comfortable in his own skin. When Kanye West made the cover of Time magazine this year, A$AP Rocky took to Twitter to announce that the cover made him “proud to be a rapper,” while his last album also distanced himself from the genre. Chance the Rapper and Kendrick Lamar have made crossover projects into funk and jazz, and Tyler, the Creator wants to be a film director … Even Drake transcends hip hop every now and then to remind us that he can also be a new-wave R&B artist.
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But make no mistake, Jay Rock is a “rapper” in the most traditional sense, and 90059 is a “rap album.” He’s not a technical wordsmith of the Kendrick Lamar ilk, a conspiratorial psychonaut in the form of Ab-Soul, or a bucket hat-donning party-boy like Schoolboy Q, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Most known for a verse on a song that isn’t even his, Rock is carried through 90059 by a level of honesty that makes even the most boring artists (yes you, J. Cole) worth listening to.
Though the album does have its fair share of fillers and audio sandpaper, Jay Rock at least presents himself as a regular dude. More specifically, he takes pride in maintaining a level of authenticity of keep-it-real-ness that makes hip-hop as much sport as art; the video for “Parental Advisory” even includes shots of him bench-pressing in his front yard. While it’s unfair to ask an artist to fit your arbitrary model of “entertaining,” the least they can do is provide some sort of transparency in answering who they are and where they’re from behind the mic. 90059 sees Jay Rock at his best when he lets his guard down to let us know the importance of keeping your guard up in South Central LA.
He wastes no time on “Necessary” where the hook sees him murmur, “You gotta do what you got to just get over the hill / When you live in America, either kill or be killed.” The production on “Easy Bake” features the types of shrill string accompaniment that West Coast vets like Dr. Dre would be proud of, the type that could be used in an IMAX feature film. It’s a shame, however, because the song is packed with the type of played out rappity-raps you’d expect from a high-schooler: we get it, you started from the bottom and now you’re cool on the Internet.
Fortunately, Rock stops himself five minutes into “Easy Bake” (perhaps a few minutes too late), mid-sentence, to cut into one of the standout tracks, “Gumbo.” It’s everything that screams contemporary West Coast rap rolled into a track that I can only imagine would knock in a ’64 Impala. While the song does have some rather generic “I’m real” bars, Rock interestingly opens up about his hood vantage point. “Keep my chin down, nose clean, and my guard up / Charged up, cause this ghetto got me scarred up.” Key word being “scarred.” The sensation of being left physically and emotionally wounded by your neighborhood is not new to rap music, and if anything, it’s something that’s been consistent with contemporary art made by young black men in America. However, the widespread nature of gang violence and racial tension shouldn’t diminish the value of this man’s individual expression.
Enter “Money Trees Deuce”: the culmination of Jay Rock’s black experience as well as his position as underdog in the Black Hippy collective. The title itself is an allusion to the song that we all know him from … is this his attempt at taking the spotlight? Is it Jay Rock’s turn? Though 90059 unfortunately has a lot of forgettable tracks, he really hits the nail on the head with this one. If you only get to listen to one song, this is the one you need to hear. He sets the stage with horns ominously bringing in the track, and at this point in the music video he’s already running from police.
“Gotta get it, ain’t no options out here / Her n***a just killed my partner out here” is about as cold and explicit as you could ask for. You might be inclined to think, “Yeah, we’ve heard it before” when you hear a rapper talk about dead homies, but this isn’t Ricky from “Boyz n the Hood.” These are real tales from a real person from a real place. Yes, Jay Rock can be unimaginative and boring; he is “just a rapper” and 90059 is “just a rap album,” but it’s still important to give his stories the respect they deserve. After all, rap music has always been about giving voice to the voiceless.