Monday, September 14, 2015

album review: '90059' by jay rock

I think I've talked before that a good rap posse often has people falling into specific roles, to add variety or cater to different audiences - and for Top Dawg Entertainment, filling out that roster is surprisingly easy. Kendrick Lamar is the leader, Schoolboy Q is the gangsta, Ab-Soul is the weird one, Isaiah Rashad is the more laid-back fun-loving one, and SZA is the girl/pseudo-spiritual one. 

And this leaves Jay Rock, the California MC I've always been inclined to brand as the bruiser, the former Blood gang member who will drop ruthlessly hard bars to cater to a tougher rap audience. You could argue that he shares the most in common with Schoolboy Q, but Jay Rock always struck me as harder. Combined with the gruff intensity of his delivery, it's no surprise that he managed to snag a major label deal with Warner Bros off of a slew of high-powered mixtapes - a deal that went precisely nowhere. He eventually wound up signing with Tech N9ne's imprint Strange Music to finally release his debut album Follow Me Home. And while the album was far from bad, it was the sort of record that showed the signs of many delays and revisions, especially in the disjointed midsection and the inclusion of the one 'hit' he had at the end of the album 'All My Life (In The Ghetto)' with Lil Wayne & Far from bad - with solid West Coast-flavoured production and Jay Rock's aggressively potent bars, it's still a good record - but it lacked the cohesion and power that would later characterize TDE's later releases throughout the next few years.

And yet across every guest appearance on those TDE records, Jay Rock was spitting his ass off, showing real lyrical improvement in terms of his bars and punchlines and the hype for his sophomore release was palpable... and yet it kept getting pushed back or delayed indefinitely. After an exit from Strange Music last year, singles finally began trickling out at the beginning of June and we all had reason to believe that Jay Rock was going to deliver, but I admit I was a bit skeptical, if only because the extended recording process and delays might have led to the same lack of cohesion. But now it's finally here: does 90059 deliver?

Here's the thing: the long development time does show on this record, as it can feel a little cobbled together and scattershot around the edges, pretty much across the board. But dip in past that... yeah, I'd chalk this up to being another damn great hip-hop album in 2015. It's not perfect - there are definitely some questionable decisions across the board with this record, but I'd argue the core of it really does appeal to me and thematically holds together surprisingly well, even though I'm not sure I'd slot it into the upper echelon of TDE records.

So let's start with Jay Rock himself, and I'll definitely give him this, he shows off a surprising amount of versatility on this album from his flows to even some of the vocal affections he puts on for his hooks, all with that hard-edged charisma that actually can take a step back and sound more contemplative like on 'Fly On The Wall'. And I was surprised how far he pushed this, from the Ole Dirty Bastard demented flow on the title track that I understood in context more than I liked, to more of an upper register flow that honestly didn't flatter him at all. It shows up twice on this album, first on 'Easy Bake' and second on 'The Ways', and while it might be a stab at more 'mainstream' flows, Jay Rock is such a strong MC when he's got his lower cadence that it does get distracting. Where he reaps more rewards is handling his hooks under the alter ego Lance Skiiiwalker - honestly, he's not a great singer, but honestly, it's not that distracting, and it's not like other people handling hooks on this album like SIR on 'The Ways' or Isaiah Rashad on 'Wanna Ride' are that much better - although I will say the hook on 'The Message' from Vic Smitty was pretty damn great in its own right.

This leads to a criticism I didn't expect to make: the guest stars. I'll say it, as much as SZA does a surprisingly good job with her verse on 'Easy Bake' as a counterbalance to Jay Rock - although Kendrick's interplay earlier on the song was way more compelling with the interweaving blues references - why do you bring Isaiah Rashad onto your album and only give him a hook with no verses? And then for the Black Hippy collaboration track 'Vice City'... I wanted to like this a lot more than I did. Yes, I get the intended subversion of rap vices and Kendrick and Jay Rock definitely delivered, but despite good flows from Schoolboy Q and Ab-Soul, neither of them really delivered the insight or satirical punch, with Ab-Soul's verse feeling surprisingly sloppy with the best reference being to The Book Of Eli, that pretty mediocre post-apocalyptic movie from five years ago. And as much as Busta Rhymes sounded great against the production on 'Fly On The Wall', his verse was really more just congratulatory of Jay Rock's success coming from 'the biggest fly on the wall' - good reference, but I would have liked if it had continued the story of that song. 

Now before we get to that story, let's talk about instrumentation and production. Now I've been pretty critical of TDE production in the past for being a little too dreary, washing out their melodies and lacking in energy, but Jay Rock pulled some quality together, drawing together a choppy, fragmented melodic backdrop that built to some great menace to support hard bars. Sometimes it doesn't quite work as well - the changeup to the atonal piano on 'Necessary' really didn't work for me, and nor did the oily warbles that ran through the background of 'The Ways' or 'Easy Bake', the latter which felt suffocated by the bass - but for the most part it really clicks. I dug the menacing strings with the blubbery guitar line on 'Gumbo', the sly little guitar melody that sneaks behind the chorus of 'Telegram (Going Crazy)', and the unstable eerie vibe of the piano and beat on the title track. And pretty much the last three songs are all incredibly solid on production: the dusty, old-school minimalism of 'Fly On The Wall' that had such a great vintage flair, the distant horns on 'Money Trees Deuce' against the sparse beat as we got the sequel to one of Jay Rock's best ever verses, and then there's 'The Message' that brings more soul to a skittering watery synth that cascades against those horns and it lends the album a surprisingly bright, albeit uncertain moment to end out the album.

This takes us to lyrics and themes - and here's the thing, on the surface it's very easy to paint Jay Rock as just another gang-inspired gangsta rapper who spits about hustling, violence, and women - but I'd argue he gives more insight than you'd typically give him credit. The violence, for one, is presented as a necessity more than something he enjoys, only used when necessary and he's quick to ask God to forgive him because he's just trying to stay alive - even though even he seems aware it's not much of an excuse. And it's far from glamourous - the title track in particular highlights in bleak, incredibly vivid detail the horrifying picture of the poverty in Watts, with dreams of success repeatedly broken in the suffocating violent madness of it all. And Jay Rock is smart enough to frame his story 'Fly On The Wall' to highlight the would-be gang member came from a good home, posing the questions what would make him do these sorts of things and that there isn't always a clear answer, and I like that he acknowledges he keeps a foot in that world to speak authentically about it, even as he acknowledges it can make him sound like a fool. Then there's Jay Rock's issues with women, where you can definitely tell he's trying to insert more nuance but I'm not sure how well it always flies. When he calls out the girl for sex on 'Easy Bake' after buying her things, SZA is quick to counter back for more of a long-term guarantee it'd be worth it. And while 'Telegram (Going Crazy)' does have moments where Jay Rock blasts his girl's friends - which smacks of gaslighting - and still doesn't think all that highly of her, stepping just shy of calling her a bitch, I can appreciate that he is trying to stay true to her and he just hopes that she can not put their drama on social media, which I can respect. It's definitely clear that hedonism is Jay Rock's biggest vice, though, not just because its prominent role on 'Vice City' - where he compares screwing some girl so hard she's got 'war wounds' - but also because it's the element that brings down the would-be gangsta on 'Fly On The Wall'. But to be fair to him, even though these women might be twerking with their kids in the room or stripping, there's less moralistic judgement and more just an acknowledgement of their hustle, doing what they can to get by. If we're looking for the strongest theme of this record, it's that hustle and hard work to get money and get out of the trap, and Jay Rock's best bars on songs like 'Money Trees Deuce' or the classical myth imagery on 'Gumbo' or the sports imagery on 'Necessary'. And then comes 'The Message' with the starkest hit of all - it's hopeful, but uncertain whether or not that change will actually come, or if it does come, whether people will be able to see it, a gutpunch moment that Jay Rock plays with real sobriety.

In short, I think this album is going to get underrated by a lot of people for having more of an off-kilter, scattershot vibe in the instrumentation and some of the vocals and lyrics that on the surface might touch gangsta cliche, but don't be fooled. 90059 is a smarter album than it'll get credit for, and I like it more with every single listen. For me, easy 8/10 and a high recommendation. Folks, Jay Rock delivered something that will take a fair few listens to really appreciate beyond the surface, but when you look in, you'll find the seasoning in that gumbo.

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