Everything About The Rock’s First Official Rap Verse Is Funny
I can still remember hearing that Wyclef Jean was going to have the Rock on his single. This was 21 years ago, when Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was on his fourth or fifth reign as WWF World Champion. The Rock wasn’t a movie star yet — he’d make his debut as a terrible CGI effect in The Mummy Returns a year later — but he already seemed like he might be the coolest person on earth. The Rock had been a shit-talking, egocentric heel who’d become a crowd favorite simply because he was so good at egocentric shit-talk. I would watch Monday Night Raw with a bunch of other dorm cafeteria workers, and everyone would yell at the TV when the Rock wasn’t on. As in: “Put the Rock back on!” The man seemed like he could do anything. Was the Rock going to rap? Did Wyclef know something that we didn’t? It seemed vaguely plausible. After all, egocentric shit-talk is a pretty important skill for just about any rapper to possess, and the Rock had that.
At this point, the Wyclef run was still happening, and it seemed like he could help usher in a new star. The whole Canibus experiment hadn’t quite worked, but Destiny’s Child had their first hit with Wyclef’s “No, No, No” remix. The Fugees were still a fresh memory. Lauryn Hill had become a cultural phenomenon, and Wyclef himself wasn’t that far behind; The Carnival, his 1997 solo debut, had been a widely beloved hit. I couldn’t wait to hear the Rock on a Wyclef song. But then “It Doesn’t Matter” came out, and “It Doesn’t Matter” was hilarious garbage.
The Rock, it turned out, was not going to rap; he was just going to yell some of his catchphrases, which seemed even more absurd in a non-wrestling context. (“It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a fresh Bentley!”) This also happened to be the exact moment when Wyclef Jean fell the fuck off — the moment when he thought it would be a good idea to put Kenny Rogers and Pharoahe Monch on the same track or to use The Ecleftic: 2 Sides II A Book as an album title. The Rock didn’t lose any of his momentum by showing up on “It Doesn’t Matter,” but the dream of the Rock’s rap career was simply not to be.
In retrospect, I should’ve known this would go badly. The Rock was not a rapper. He had swagger, but it was not rapper swagger. It was insane muscled-up blowhard swagger — sports swagger, more or less. I guess the Rock also had a song with Slick Rick on a 2001 CD of WWF entrance themes, but that song, “Pie,” isn’t really anything that I could call a rap song. it’s also, for some reason, virulently offensive to Asian people, and it includes “hermaphrodite” as an insult. Vince McMahon probably thought this shit was hilarious.
Point is: The Rock never did anything effortlessly. Part of the fun of watching his wrestling career was seeing how he turned total crowd disinterest, over a few years, into crackling love/hate intensity through sheer force of will. The Rock would yammer at the camera for minutes at a time every week, and if he’d ever had the slightest interest in rap music, then he would’ve said some rap shit at some point. It never happened. Instead, around 2003, the Rock had an amazing heel run by singing acoustic-guitar rockabilly songs about how much he hated every town he visited and how all the women there were ugly.
The Rock’s particular set of skills turned out to work outside of a wrestling context, but that context had nothing to do with music. Instead, the Rock became the world’s highest-paid movie star, a franchise standby who now seems to appear exclusively in film adaptations of things that should not be adapted into films: Baywatch, Rampage, Jungle Cruise. The closest that the Rock came to rapping in the past 20 years was when he played the voice of Maui in Disney’s Moana and sang the Lin-Manuel Miranda-written “You’re Welcome.” My kids had the Moana soundtrack on constant loop for about three months, so I can tell you that Miranda’s demo for “You’re Welcome,” a truly delightful song, had a bridge that basically sounded like his Broadway-dork version of rapping. The Rock didn’t really even do any Miranda-style rapping on that song, though. He pretty much just yelled Miranda’s lyrics, like they were wrestling catchphrases.
In fact, the mere idea of the Rock rapping came to seem so ridiculous that Saturday Night Live essentially made it into a joke. In a 2017 sketch, the whole central dad-joke motif is Kenan Thompson trying to get a posse cut going, but too many rappers showing up. But the truest absurdity was the Rock in a fur coat, calling himself King Keef. The mere idea that this guy would rap was supposed to make you laugh. Bobby Moynihan made a more plausible rapper.
So when 49-year-old Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson showed up on a Tech N9ne track last week, rapping his first actual rap verse ever, I was not ready. Tech N9ne is a fascinating figure, an independent success story who has spent decades carving out his own hugely lucrative Midwestern speed-rap empire and while only glancingly interacting with the rap mainstream. Tech N9ne is the same age as the Rock, and when the Rock was making his name in wrestling, Tech N9ne was tearing up clubs and establishing himself as a regional figurehead with his own cult of Juggalo-adjacent fans. (The Rock tells Billboard, “Not a lot of people know this, but I’ve been friends with Tech for many, many years now.”) If you’re not from the Midwest, there’s a decent chance that you’ve never heard a Tech N9ne song in your life. If you are from the Midwest, there’s a decent chance that you regard him as a towering figure. Personally, I don’t really get anything out of Tech N9ne’s music, but I’m glad he’s out there, making things weirder.
On Friday, Tech N9ne released ASIN9NE, his 23rd album. The LP has guest appearances from rappers like Lil Wayne and E-40, as well as Tech’s various Strange Music associates. Somehow, for reasons I can’t begin to imagine, Tech also has the Rock’s first-ever rap verse on his song “Face Off.” (Presumably, “Face Off” is named after the 1997 John Woo film, which features a wonderful performance from the Rock’s Be Cool costar John Travolta. The other Face/Off star is Nicolas Cage. Cage as far as I can tell, has never been in a movie with the Rock, but he was in a movie called The Rock.)
The Rock comes in at the end of “Face Off,” after some breathless fast-rap verses. Tech N9ne says that he’s got hell coming your way and that you’re softer than a thing of Yoplait. Joey Cool says that he’s at their necks like he’s Malcolm X, like he’s Dr. King, like he’s Cornel West. King Iso raps fast enough that I can catch maybe every third word that he says. It’s all loud and bombastic and sweaty, the way so many Tech N9ne songs are loud and bombastic and sweaty. And then the Rock, a man who made his name by being loud and bombastic and sweaty, arrives, and he finally spits the rap verse that I thought he might do on “It Doesn’t Matter” 21 years ago.
The Rock’s verse is fine, I guess? He definitely put work into it. Someone coached him. But the Rock says that he wrote his verse, at Tech’s behest and that Tech then helped him polish it: “I wrote everything out as best I could, and then I got together with Tech. And this is where his mastery really shined, because he then was able to help me with word structure, cadence and overall thought.” In any case, you can’t teach someone to stay on-beat, and the Rock does that.
On “Face Off,” the Rock sounds like he’s having fun. He says a couple of wrestling-era catchphrases. He says that Black and Samoan is in his veins and his culture is banging with Strange. He uses the word “motherfucking,” which is fun. (The Rock hasn’t been in an R-rated movie since Baywatch in 2017, and I didn’t see that one. It’s been a while since I’ve heard the Rock cuss.) Mostly, the Rock sounds like a motivational-speaker coach type. In the video, he looks like an impossible muscle-ball, and his Strange Music tank top looks like it’s about to explode into shreds of fabric. In any case, we now know how it sounds when the Rock raps. Decades of vague and idle curiosity have brought us to this. Now we know, and the Rock never has to rap again.
1. Nardo Wick – “Who Want Smoke?? (Remix)” (Feat. Lil Durk, 21 Savage, & G Herbo)
When the teenage Jacksonville rookie Nardo Wick released the original “Who Want Smoke” in January, I didn’t notice, possibly because Nardo spends the whole song sounding like he’s trying to rap without fully opening his mouth. But Nardo had the good idea, mid-verse, to go “[STOMP STOMP STOMP STOMP] what the fuck is that?” That part is so much fun that all the more-famous guests on this remix do their own variations on it. The remix is an instant smash, partly because of that bit and partly because Cole Bennett uses the video as his audition for a straight-to-Redbox action-movie directing gig. I like everything about this.
2. Russ Millions – “6:30”
Russ Millions has made a mission out of transforming UK drill into shameless party music, and now he’s out here dressing like a Baseball Fury in his new video. I support it.
3. The Alchemist – “Flying Spirit” (Feat. Bruiser Brigade)
Alchemist’s whole new This Thing Of Ours 2 EP is worth your time, but my favorite song is the one where he recruits Danny Brown’s entire Bruiser Brigade to rap over ominous sci-fi keyboard-bleeps. I love that Brown has dedicated his entire 2021 to building up his ultra-talented crew, and I love that his crew is good enough to justify that work. Bruiser Wolf murders this.
4. Key Glock – “Ambition For Cash”
Tay Keith went all Legend Of Zelda on this beat.
5. Artz & Bugy – “War Time” (Feat. Freddie Gibbs)
Artz & Bugy are a production due from Turkey who are currently making an international push. If you’re trying to put one of your beats in the best possible light, then it’s always a good idea to get Freddie Gibbs to rap on it.