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Chasing Money Trees: Jay Rock’s 90059

Jay Rock
90059
Top Dawg Entertainment

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It wasn’t supposed to happen like this.

LA hip-hop supergroup, Black Hippy, was supposed to be my generation’s N.W.A. or Wu-Tang equivalent — a crew that fully lived up to their promise and became a vital piece of music history.

Their run of ridiculously good material from 2010 to 2012 positioned them as one of seldom few movements in popular music that fully earned the initial buzz they received. Hell, if anything they deserved more. Overly Dedicated, Setbacks, Longterm Mentality, Follow Me Home, Section.80, Habits & Contradictions, and Control System are all West Coast classics that defined the region’s new sound, and imbued in gangsta rap a level of artistry and social consciousness that previously only appeared sparingly. And the quality and cultural importance of good kid, m.A.A.d city — the record that effectively punctuated Black Hippy’s two-and-a-half year murder spree — can pretty much go without saying.

They had hip-hop on complete lockdown. Hell, each of the four members even has perfectly complementary images and musical aesthetics: Ab-Soul is the cerebral jack-of-all-trades, Schoolboy Q is the master of club/party records, Kendrick Lamar is the introspective poet, and Jay Rock is the cutthroat thug. Anyone with any appreciation for rap music could find something to like amidst their wealth of material.

All this plus a Dr. Dre cosign meant that they couldn’t have had a better shot at taking the game by storm. But then for the most part, they completely dropped the ball. They didn’t release a single thing in 2013, and Schoolboy Q released the pretty good (but not good enough) Oxymoron in 2014 while Ab-Soul dropped the terrible These Days a few months later. And, after 2011’s Follow Me Home, there was still absolutely no sign of a Jay Rock solo project until early this year.

To Pimp A Butterfly, of course, is a masterpiece, but Kendrick’s opus registers as a huge anomaly compared to the rest of Black Hippy’s output.

But back to Watts’ own Jay Rock. It’s been four years since this guy has put together a record, and about three-and-a-half since he’s even put out a single. In other genres of music, absence makes the heart grow fonder. When it comes to rock, metal, punk, electronic, and even pop, we’ve come to mythicize the image of an artist at hand spending five to twenty years recording the same melody 15000 times, or holing themselves up in a studio, adjusting the mixing board by nanometers to come up with the perfect mix. D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, My Bloody Valentine’s mbv, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Don’t Bend, Ascend! are just a few recent examples of extremely well received records that broke a decade’s long (at the least) silence.

In hip-hop, however, the rate at which an artist releases music is almost as important as the quality of the music itself. All MCs, good and bad, pride themselves on their ambition and dedication to rap music (and, of course, brag about it all the time on wax). Thus, releasing music at a steady clip (though overwhelming is preferred) is an integral part of a rapper’s artistry. Those who can’t back up their brags by releasing compelling material and building a high profile simply aren’t cut out for the job.

That’s why Jay Rock’s long not-awaited sophomore record, 90059, was going to underwhelm no matter what.

Even removed from Rock’s shaky relevance, however, a lot of the tracks here are just plain middle-of-the-road. 90059 gets off to a less than impressive start with “Necessary” which kicks off with some incredibly lazy sing-songy vocals from Rock before it dives into the song proper, where a shifting beat clashes with the Black Hippy spitter’s straightforward delivery.

The next track, “Easy Bake,” also starts out awkwardly, as a take-no-prisoners banger of an instrumental starts blaring, only for Jay Rock to deliver his bars in uncharacteristically dispassionate and muted fashion. The lyrics themselves demonstrate some tough as nails greatness, but lines like “Mind your business, I minds mine, let’s get rich, my n**** / Take our families on trips, my n**** / But if you try me then you’re wig I’ma split, my n****” don’t register as especially hard-hitting when they’re delivered by a guy who sounds like he just took a double dose of Ambien.

The track picks up when Kendrick Lamar arrives on scene and spurs Jay Rock toward the hyped delivery the instrumental deserves as they trade bars on the last verse. Things get even better when the track suddenly transitions to a nice (but all too brief) pop-rap cut anchored by some funky-as-hell wah guitar riffing and some wonderful vocals courtesy of Rock’s TDE label-mate, SZA.

Notice though, that both these highlights are provided by Rock’s features and not the man himself. Again, it’s not that his verses are bad, but he’s just not bringing his A-game, and after four fucking years he has no reason not to, especially considering how incredible some of his features have been in the last couple years (check Schoolboy Q’s “Los Awesome” or YG’s “I Just Wanna Party”).

Still, Rock more than holds his own on a few of 90059’s cuts. “Telegrams” is an excellent downtempo jam that seems to float 500 miles high as some hypnotic and downright angelic synthesized vocals loop, only to be brought crashing down to earth as Rock enters the mix with an impressive internal rhyme scheme and a heavy bassline in tow.

And “Money Trees Deuce,” which might be the records best cut, emulates the stylings of its classic, good kid, m.A.A.d city predecessor to great effect. Urgent brass and haunting vocal samples underscore the crushing pathos in Rock’s lyrics: “Candles lit, pour out liquor, hope it take the pain away / I ain’t tryna pay my way, I’m just tryna pave my way.”

Despite the highlights, however, plenty more questionable decisions plague the album. Black Hippy assembles, Voltron style, for their first posse cut in over two years on “Vice City.” Their last two group efforts — the “Black Lip Bastard” and “U.O.E.N.O.” remixes — are legendary new-school hip-hop bar fests. “Vice City” has some nice verses from Ab-Soul and Schoolboy Q, but the crew is undeniably toning down their formidable lyricism in favor of making a track for parties and clubs. Individually, each member of Black Hippy makes at least some amount of straightforward and accessible music, but it’s disappointing to hear them do so during one of their once-in-a-blue-moon team ups.

Rock also tests out some Drake-esque flows on “Wanna Ride” and “The Ways” (the bridge on the latter of which sounds identical to the hook on Drizzy’s “Back To Back”). And wouldn’t you know it, a tough guy from Watts imitating a sensitive guy from Canada who, in turn, tries to imitate a tough Guy from Watts sounds incredibly off-putting.

I also have to mention 90059’s title track. I don’t like to get too hyperbolic as I write these reviews, but I can say pretty confidently that the chorus on this song is one of the worst hooks I’ve ever heard in my life. If I had to describe it, I would say it’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard meets a man with strep throat having night terrors meets knives in my ears. But really there’s nothing I could write that would capture how bad it is, so I’ll just leave you to discover the horror on your own.

When it comes down to it, though, I am genuinely glad Jay Rock has finally come out with some new material. He is, in essence (if not always in practice), a very good MC, and I can only hope that he does more to live up to his potential now that the pressure of coming up with a full project is finally off.

So while 90059 isn’t a particularly good album, it does seem a decent enough place for Rock to begin to start over.