Status Ain't Hood

Status Ain’t Hood: Jay Rock Stands In The Shadows Of Giants

It’s ridiculous to talk about Black Hippy, the California rap supergroup, as if they were the Who, but let’s do it anyway. If Black Hippy are the Who, then Kendrick Lamar is the Pete Townshend, the showy creative genius who’s always testing himself and his audience, attempting grand and ridiculous gestures and actually pulling them off, forcing everyone else in his genre to try harder in the process. (In this goofy-as-fuck extended analogy, a triple-time Kendrick verse is the rough equivalent of a Townshend guitar windmill.) Schoolboy Q is the group’s Keith Moon, the hard-partying hedonist whose undeniable talent and self-destructive drive seem completely inextricable from one another; it’s like the same thing pushing the two of them to be great at music is also pushing them to inflict harm on themselves. Ab-Soul clearly wants to be the Roger Daltrey, preening and yelping out in front of everyone else, but it’s increasingly becoming apparent that he’s the least talented member of his group. (I caught some of Ab-Soul’s set at Coachella, and yeesh. That guy needs to sit down and think a little harder about what he’s trying to accomplish.) And that leaves Jay Rock as the John Entwistle of Black Hippy: The quiet guy who stolidly and unpretentiously holds down the low-end and looks vaguely unimpressed at everything erupting all around him. The Who needed Entwistle; he was the only thing keeping them grounded for a while there. But Entwistle was always going to be the least famous member of the band. So it goes with Jay Rock: A perfectly talented low-key rap hardnose who happens to be part of a crew that’s always striving for transcendence in one way or another.

Black Hippy aren’t a band, of course, and they aren’t really a rap group, either. They’re a loosely aligned crew, the type whose separate parts all function just fine on their own. These days, people barely mention Black Hippy when they talk about Kendrick Lamar, since he’s grown into such a transcendent star that he’s come to fully overshadow his whole affiliation. To a lesser extent, you could say the same of Schoolboy Q, a guy who seems completely happy lurking in the lower rungs of rap stardom. They both used their team as a launching pad, and they’ve both moved beyond it. The year before last, I saw all four Black Hippy members play an SXSW showcase together, but it wasn’t really a group show, and they only barely shared the stage. Instead, it was a succession of short solo sets, which seemed like the ideal setup for a group like this. When all four Black Hippy members showed up on Jay Rock’s “Vice City,” it was the first time they’d all been on a song together in a few years. Still, it’s tough to talk about Jay Rock as anything other than a member of Black Hippy. He just hasn’t done that much on his own, and he doesn’t have enough of a distinctive persona.

It wasn’t always this way. During a more hospitable time for snarling tough-guy rappers, Jay Rock seemed like the member of the crew best positioned to break out. Thanks to “All My Life,” his 2008 single with Lil Wayne, he was the first member of the group who I’d heard of. There wasn’t anything especially interesting about “In My Life”; it was just a hard, satisfying coming-up-from-nothing song with a total unknown holding his ground alongside Wayne when Wayne was still on fire. And when I first saw Jay Rock and Kendrick Lamar rapping alongside one another, something clicked; these two, in their formative years, made more sense as pieces of an exuberant young rap whole than they did on their own. It didn’t last that long. Jay Rock signed with Tech N9ne’s thriving Midwestern indie Strange Music, a smart move for a guy who didn’t really have any chance at pop success. Tech N9ne has a thriving cult fanbase who will keep anyone on that label afloat without ever turning them into stars. But then Kendrick and Q became stars, and it took a few years for Jay Rock to return to TDE, the label that now has the whole Black Hippy crew on its roster.

Still, even though Rock is now with TDE full-time, it’s not entirely clear that TDE wants to be in business with him. Jay Rock’s new album 90059 has apparently been ready for release for a while. But instead of announcing a release date, or dropping it as a surprise, the TDE label heads decided to put it up for pre-sale on iTunes, saying that the fans were now in control of the album’s fate and that they’d release it once they decided that there were enough pre-orders to establish that there was a demand. That’s an incredibly strange way to release an album. It’s like a Kickstarter campaign with no transparency, and it asked fans to pump in money without any guarantee when, or even if, they’d get anything for it. Label heads can talk about this like it’s some revolutionary new way to put the audience in charge, but it really seems more like, at best, a skeezy way to ensure big first-week sales numbers. And it makes it look like they have no faith in Jay Rock. Maybe they don’t. Would any label ever put its faith in a John Entwistle solo album?

The scheme apparently worked, though, since TDE quietly released 90059 on Friday. And while they were messing around with the release details, it doesn’t seem like the label heads messed with the album’s actual content too much. There’s nothing pop about 90059. Jay Rock has been a reliable guest-verse assassin lately, lending autority to songs from guys like YG and Ty Dolla $ign. But they don’t repay the favor on his album, and they’d be out-of-place if they did show up. 90059 vacillates between full-blooded old-school West Coast gangsta rap and woozy, contemplative new-school stoner-rap. Opening track “Necessary” excellently echoes 2Pac’s “Ambitionz Az A Ridah,” while closer “The Message” gives us languid horn samples and Jay Rock thoughtfully considering the tennis shoes thrown over telephone wires. It’s a relatively brief and unambitious album — 11 songs long, practically EP-length in rap terms. The only famous guest from outside the TDE camp is Busta Rhymes, who does the thing where he enthuses endlessly about the guy on the song with him. Jay Rock proves himself to be a hard and durable rapper, capable of switching up flows without ever pushing himself too far outside his comfort zone. When he tries to come unhinged on the title track, it doesn’t quite work; it’s like he’s trying out his Cappadonna impression. But that’s the only real weak spot on the album.

In the end, 90059 works as a low-stakes, deeply enjoyable little rap record. It’s easy to imagine it getting lost in the shuffle, but when it’s on, it absolutely works. TDE used to specialize in this sort of low-key success. Albums like Ab-Soul’s Control System or Isaiah Rashad’s Cilvia Demos were endlessly solid front-to-back efforts, and it felt like TDE’s core of rappers and producers could crank out albums like that forever. Maybe they still can. But it gets a little harder to quietly perfect your craft when the world is staring at the guy standing next to you.

FURIOUS FIVE

1. T.I. – “Peanut Butter Jelly” (Feat. Young Thug & Young Dro)
An underrated great thing about T.I. is his ability to play smooth, regal traditional-rap badass while still sharing songs with bugged-out, transgressive boundary-pushers. That was true when he introduced us to color-wheel-obsessed husky-voiced fashion plate Young Dro nearly a decade ago, and it’s true now that he’s regularly making great songs with unlikely foil Young Thug. T.I. can jump on songs with these scene-stealers and play the background without losing his cool. It’s inspiring. Da ‘Nic, the surprise-release EP that Tip gave us on Friday, is some of his strongest work in forever. And it reaches his peak here, when Youngs Thug and Dro show up to see who can come up with the fastest, most joyously strange verse and T.I. still comes out looking like the coolest guy in the room.

2. Juicy J – “Shut Da Fuc Up”
Juicy J is a middle-aged rap star who will never get too old to throw beautifully ignorant, horribly mastered, subwoofer-annihilating mixtapes out into the world. His new 100% Juice is a lot of fun, and its best moment comes with “Shut Da Fuc Up,” a song that had me rapping along the first time I heard it, before the first chorus was over.

3. Sage The Gemini – “Anti” (feat. Iamsu!)
Gleaming, efficient party-rap from the Richmond, California HBK Gang crew, who will continue to crank out catchy-as-fuck bangers like this, whether or not critic dorks like me ever wake up and take notice. It’s amazing how Sage can just flatly repeat the same phrase over and over and it’ll always work as a hook.

4. Chinx – “Yay”
With the possible exception of “I’m A Coke Boy,” Chinx never released a single this catchy and forceful and immediate during his lifetime. So it sucks that a song that could’ve really made the man’s career isn’t coming out until after he’s dead.

5. Turk – “Still A Hot Boy” (Feat. Boosie Badazz)
While Lil Wayne, Juvenile, and B.G. — the other three members of Cash Money supergroup the Hot Boys — were enjoying fame, Turk was going to prison for shooting a Memphis cop. Now that he’s out, his music has a grizzled intensity to it that you won’t hear from someone like Wayne. “Still A Hot Boy” has a heart-pounding sense of purpose to it, especially when fellow Louisiana rapper and ex-convict Boosie shows up.

IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO