Monday, September 14, 2015

Jay Rock - 90059 Review

As we’ve learned from the past couple years Hip-Hop powerhouse TDE has a weird way of marketing their albums. For those that follow them on Twitter, Anthony "Top Dawg” Tiffith helms the handle, rife with ludicrous statements, only some of which are backed by actual action. Once criticized for stating six albums would be released by the end of 2014, TDE reveled in four, a merit still worth commending. However, between long-time Black Hippy members and newest additions Isaiah Rashad and SZA, one pivotal emcee, Jay Rock, hibernated for unknown reasons, witnessing Kendrick Lamar’s rise to Hip-Hop’s plateau, Schoolboy Q’s presence on the charts, and Ab-Soul’s growing conscious rap following, all of which released two albums each following Rock’s last LP appearance with 2011’s Follow Me Home. The reason for the four year gap unknown, but with five singles leading into the Fall, Jay Rock has finally stepped back into the limelight with 90059, an album deeply connected to his home roots in Watts. And while it does flourish in that setting, advancing past the Los Angeles streets proves troublesome as Rock, unbeknownst to him, clings to the last remaining years of Gangsta rap’s common tropes and blunders plucked from his mixtapes around the turn of the decade.

On the surface though 90059 is a quality album. Where it falters due to a lack of knowledge over cohesion and original content, Rock and a handful of local producers thrive on mastering a tandem between the rugged emcee and his surroundings. As one could surmise from the title, 90059 focuses on his hometown, or at the very least echoes sentiments largely heard traveling between ears whilst walking through it. ‘Wanna Ride’ is distinctly clear in this regard, a track that poses as a ride-along vibe joint while discussing Rock’s embrace of his life selling drugs, as does ‘The Ways’ in which Rock attracts the attention of a drama-inducing female, using her advances for sexual gratification. Of the 11 tracks only some fail to create a palpable reason for existence (namely ‘Gumbo’), it’s largely how they work together where the album stutters. The content, that being drugs, girls, violence, and street life, has been played to death, and in an age where Hip-Hop is slowly advancing past that 90059 comes off as massively stale, even if just by a few years. Even similar albums, like Dr. Dre’s Compton, provides a unique viewpoint that Jay Rock’s unable to make, essentially leaving 90059 as a mixtape best left for a Watts swap meet.

That’s not to say anything here is bad, quite the opposite really. For a Gangsta rap album there’s a great deal of quality here, with few songs lacking in terms of impact. Opener ‘Necessary,’ while a bit prosaic to start, blossoms into a coarse banger with a punchy, stream-lined bass and a peculiar, but well executed set of zany synths prancing behind Rock as he unfolds what’s expected to come. The production throughout 90059 might be, at times, its biggest calling card and also its largest defamer. The bulk of the credits here are given to relatively no-name beat smiths residing near Rock’s hometown. Hell, the most credited name here, J. LBS., currently has less than 300 followers on Soundcloud. What results is a collection of musicians giving their best to their biggest shot without actually having the skill to make something memorable. Some exceptions exist, namely ‘Easy Bake’s’ second half where wavy, distorted vocals and smooth hi-hats cruise gently behind SZA and Rock who accentuate its high points beautifully, and the title track which melds supple drums and a decrepit piano to sound like Mobb Deep’s ‘Shook One’s Pt.II,’ only partially ruined by Rock’s strange attempt at an ODB-inspired chorus.

There’s also ‘Vice City,’ which succeeds production-wise off its sheer simplicity, acting as a facilitator to Black Hippy that somehow doesn’t get repetitive. Speaking of ‘Vice City’ though it’s easily the best song here, thanks to that flow. It’s unique, unnatural, addictive, fun, and brilliant. At first I thought it would just be a goofy Kendrick chorus guided by that flow, but hearing each rapper put their spin on it was a treat. Every one, including the often inconsistent Ab-Soul, killed their verses, with Rock’s surprisingly being my favorite. Hearing something that distinctive sandwiched between prototypical Gangsta rap made its presence even grander, being the first Black Hippy track since 2012 helped too. While those verses were the most noticeable, Rock and others compensate a fair amount elsewhere. There’s not a bad verse here, just nothing that would standout in a crowd. Rock’s too locked down into a style to help deviate from his norms, causing redundant verses across tracks without much originality to sew in. The choruses work in the same fashion. When he sings them they’re usually substandard, like ‘Telegram (Going Krazy)’ or ‘Fly On The Wall,’ but when others join in, especially Vic Smitty uncredited on closer ‘The Message,’ things fair much better.

Speaking as a whole there’s nothing much I can say about Jay Rock’s latest LP than it’s just good. While that may be enough for some, including Rock, failing to hear anything substantial from him in four years only to get 7 new tracks by 90059’s release comes as severely disappointing. Nothing here screams going above and beyond, even the skits attempting to intersect the tracks are lazily done, especially the exhausted trope of a radio DJ midway through ‘Easy Bake.’ Jay Rock’s 90059 reminds me of Fashawn’s The Ecology, another highly-anticipated West Coast record to release this year only to be left in a state of insignificance, despite my initial praise. Coming off a string of mixtape releases that bolstered his name half a decade ago, Rock’s lack of evolution, or even acknowledgment of his absence, pits a sour taste in my mouth, one that witnesses an emcee creating something entirely redundant in the genre he absorbs. And yet, as top-end Gangsta rappers go, the finished product is something that possesses quality music-making but lacks a touch that’ll preserve it amongst its litany of counterparts. 

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