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There’s a line on Jay Rock’s new album, Redemption, where the gravel-voiced, Watts-bred rapper compares himself to, of all people, Marlon Jackson. Specifically, he raps a line saying: “I’m just part of a winning family, call me Marlon Jackson.” It’s a telling summation not just of his career so far and his place in the Top Dawg Entertainment hierarchy, but of his perception of his career and his place within TDE. He knows how he’s viewed by those outside of the family circle. Or rather, not viewed — he, like Marlon Jackson within the Jackson 5, is an oft-overlooked, sometimes maligned, yet critical facet of the team, the consummate good soldier. Redemption doesn’t just represent an aim for his immortal soul but also for his reputation. In a just world, the introspective reinvention he manages on this latest collection should bring him just that.
It’s evident in everything from his promotion strategy to his release record. While TDE cash cow Kendrick Lamar is four albums deep into his catalog on the label, not including “mixtapes” like Overly Dedicated and EPs such as Untitled Unmastered, and Schoolboy Q will be releasing his fifth studio album later this year, Jay Rock’s Redemption will be only his third album despite having been there at least as long as any of his compatriots. While Kendrick’s albums have never debuted outside Billboard 200’s top five since his “debut” Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, by contrast, Rock’s last album, 90059, a heartfelt ode to his hometown and upbringing in the Nickerson Gardens housing projects of Watts, peaked at No. 16 and sold less than 20,000 in its first week. Rock’s music has been, well, as solid as his name, but that hasn’t translated to sales or widespread acclaim — yet, he continues to soldier on, quietly grinding away in the shadows at the margins of TDE’s runaway success.
For all the attention he doesn’t receive, that comparison to the sixth Jackson child continues to feel apropos, but not just for that one similarity. Both performers may not have received the same level of shine as their compatriots, but they occupy integral positions within the framework of the group. Neither can be taken away without losing something in the process. For the Jackson, it would be many of their signature dances, as Marlon was the chief architect behind such moves as the iconic “funk shovel.” For TDE, Rock represents something more nebulous. If Kendrick is the soul, Ab-Soul is consciousness, and Schoolboy Q is the attitude, Rock is something along the lines of the group’s heart, the unseen motivator driving all the other parts to their fullest potential.
On Redemption, TDE performs something like heart surgery, laying bare the engine that has secretly driven the TDE machine to its unchallenged success. Not only is it Rock’s most introspective, confessional material yet, it reveals how hard he works to step up his craft. Lyrically, Redemption is leaps and bounds over his debut, Follow Me Home, and displays more technical, efficient songwriting from 90059, as illustrated by the aforementioned metaphor from “Broke +-.” “Wordplay” might not have been something the blunt-force rapper was best known for on earlier works — the idea of “play” seemed foreign to him as he mean-mugged and growled his way through almost brutal, street-centric tales with a delivery like a thrown brick. Those stories are still present here on tracks like “ES Tales” and “Rotation 122th,” but they are leavened later on by the sheer joy of hearing Rock trade bars with Kendrick on “Wow Freestyle,” a looser, more lighthearted offering than anything he’s ever tried before. The beats, handled in-house by Sounwave and externally by a surprisingly versatile Cardo, display even more range than the murky, underground soundscapes he’s used to.
Of course, the highlight is none other than the title track. Over a soulful composition, he interrogates his life choices and the trauma of his recent, near-fatal motorcycle accident. He’s never sounded more vulnerable, addressing the unreciprocated support of his partner, who helped him through his recovery, while SZA provides a lilting chorus that floats over the gospel-influenced piano keys of the downtempo beat. He wraps things up with the triumphant bombast of Kendrick-assisted single “Win,” closing on a high note while expressing his final intention for his third album, which he’s sure to accomplish. Winners just outwork the competition and no one works harder than Jay Rock.
Redemption is out June 15 via Top Dawg Entertainment.