It’d be hyperbolic to say this has been the biggest month in hip-hop history, but the sheer wattage of Beyoncé and JAY-Z, Kanye West, Nas, Kid Cudi, Drake, Future, and Pusha T all releasing major new efforts within the span of a month has to be something of a record. This is not even taking into account the regular stream of interesting stuff from slightly lesser-known emcees: Freddie Gibbs, Westside Gunn, Rico Nasty, and so on. Pity poor Jay Rock, then, a gutsy, unflashy emcee who was being positioned as Top Dawg Entertainment’s big summer 2018 release. Kendrick Lamar’s long-time imprint has steadily proven itself to be the most reliable in modern hip-hop, not just via the world-uniting masterpieces of its biggest artist but also turning Schoolboy Q and SZA into stars, and releasing quieter, critically beloved works by Isaiah Rashad and Sir, among others. Watts native Jay Rock got prominent placement on the label’s big Black Panther soundtrack, with a headlining single alongside Future, James Blake, and Lamar himself. When they announced a June 15 release date for Rock’s third album, zero of the major releases mentioned above were on the calendar. Give TDE some credit, then, for standing its ground even as hurricane Adidon swirled around them. Like a lot of other outlets, it’s taken us a full week to even mention the record.
Part of this is due to Redemption itself, which mirrors Jay Rock in its appeal: emotionally direct rather than technically virtuosic. It is also not exactly Everything Is Love, in terms of “fun.” “The devil thought he had me, I was on back burners,” is the first line on the album, and throughout Jay fixates on a specific sort of paranoid despair, chasing bottles of Henny with painkillers. His favorite move is to not move at all, finding a good flow and digging into it, often delivering tiny clipped phrases like a boxer practicing his jab (“Pay your fare, play it fair, here’s a scale, weight it here,” from “Rotation 112th”; “Off the porch, tendencies, two for one, ten a piece,” from “Knock It Off”). Throughout, he stews on a motorcycle accident that almost took his life in early 2016, frequently imagining his own funeral, almost wistfully. He eyes women with a suspicion that quickly curdles into misogyny (“For What It’s Worth”); the closest thing he has to friends are the “Troopers” who’ll go to war with him. TDE’s in-house roster of producers lay their typically rich musical foundation, equal parts G-funk and Dungeon Family, but turn it into something swooning and fatalistic, from the bulldozer bass line of “ES Tales” to the narcotic pianos of “OSOM” and “Broke +-.” Barring an extremely horny and regrettable Jeremih collaboration, it’s all joyless, soul-bearing paranoia, enlivened entirely by TDE’s uniquely soulful curation and, of course, Jay Rock himself, whose voice here cracks with hurt and determination. They even cut “King’s Dead” in half, as if it were too triumphant for this new context.
But the album’s closing trio swoops in with the redemption promised by the album title. “WOW Freestyle,” a mic-tossing showcase with Kendrick Lamar, perfectly illustrates Jay’s place in the TDE roster, breaking into Kenny’s final verse like the Kool-Aid Man to howl, “Fuck your plan, I’m-a burn that castle!” The SZA collaboration “Redemption” equates the rapper’s miraculous recovery from that motorcycle accident with a broader spiritual healing, and a pledge to do better by the women in his life. And on album closer “Win,” we see what all those dark nights of the soul and long nights practicing his left hook were leading up to, a furious assertion of dominance that pretty much casts all those old bad habits—trapping, womanizing, partying—instead as the hard-earned spoils of success. He’s one of the only rappers alive who could make a chorus like “Fuck everything else / Win, win, win, win” into a feel-good mantra, but as he repeats that hook’s cadence with typically Jay Rockian conviction, it grows increasingly vivid (“I walk in room / They eyes wide, wide, wide”). It’s a hell of a journey—bleak but ultimately inspirational—and a spotlight on Jay’s resilience. He’s weathered much worse than a packed release calendar.