By: Dino Ljubijankic
Class, open the pages of the hip hop story book to the late 80’s chapter. Here we have an unfortunate story revolving around the rap group known as NWA. NWA had four above average MCs who were all able to put in a good 16 to 32 bars, including one by the name of MC Ren. Ren, unfortunately, isn’t remembered as fondly as his peers, despite being one of the two MCs who – gasp – actually wrote his own lyrics. Ice Cube became an actor, Dr. Dre became a rap superstar, and Eazy E became a martyr. Ren became that one guy from NWA. Thus, we have our first case of the dreaded Ren Syndrome, a disease that strikes whenever a group performer puts out a good effort but is, for the most part, ignored for his or her counterparts. Other examples include every Nirvana member not named Dave Grohl or Kurt Cobain, the actor who played the math professor in Good Will Hunting, and the entire country of Estonia. Ren Syndrome, while potentially deadly, isn’t incurable. If the victim puts out an effort that actually garners attention for his/herself, away from the attention of their more famous group mates, then the disease will either settle down or disappear. Ask Chris Bosh or Jimmy Fallon how they’re holding up: they’re doing just fine despite the uneven odds. Odds that happen to have fallen on Top Dawg Entertainment’s most patient rapper, Jay Rock.
Up until the early 2010s, Jay Rock’s career had all the success of a Soundcloud rapper with just the same amount of effort being put into his work. Mixtape after mixtape from Jay Rock was helping his rap resume, and his back to back homers with his well-done 2011 album Follow Me Home and his fantastic feature on label mate Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.a.a.d. city made his growing process look even more impressive. After the slight hype build-up, Rock disappeared. He had his fair share of decent features, most notably off of ScHoolboy Q’s last album. But, other than that, Rock was silent. Meanwhile, Kendrick and ScHoolboy blew up, Ab-Soul built a following, and SZA and Isaiah Rashad started getting buzz. While everyone else at TDE was rising, Rock seemed content riding what little water was left off of his “Money Trees” verse. So, after Jay Rock dropped singles and announced a release date for his album, 90059, most hip hop fanatics were cautiously optimistic. Yes, Rock had proved to be more than a competent rapper. But his lack of activity in the past 3 years did raise some doubts. Regardless, Jay Rock was ready for the world to hear him. Let’s double check first: hardworking rapper puts in quality work, gets a little buzz, and then becomes hidden behind his label-mates. Yup, this is a case of Ren Syndrome at work. Let’s find out if Jay can break free from this accursed disease. And by ‘let’s,’ I mean ‘let me.’ I’m doing all the work here. Just keep sitting there and double checking Snapchat while I put in all the effort.
90059 starts off strong, the quirky-yet-tough “Necessary” doing a good job of welcoming the listener to the world of Jay Rock. His trademark aggression rubs off well, coming off as the ferocious bulldog he presents himself as.
The first half of “Easy Bake,” however, has Rock using a high pitched inflection when he raps. This starts one of the albums hiccups: risk-taking not getting results. During this first half, Rock also trades lines with Kendrick Lamar, which would probably work with almost any other rapper. Kendrick isn’t someone to trade lines with: he needs time to build a fantastic verse. That’s just his style. The second half of this song switches the beat, adding a sexy bassline with fantastic vocals from SZA and Rock returning to his normal, aggressive self. “Gumbo” uses well-done trap percussion alongside a slow, churning beat, while giving Rock a lot of room to operate lyrically. His lyrics, while done with a clever and attention-grabbing style, aren’t exactly completely original in the world of hip hop. On songs like “Gumbo” and “Necessary,” Rock can sound like a cut above the rest. On lackadaisical tracks like “Wanna Ride,” “The Ways,” and “Wanna Ride,” Rock has to do his best to not come off as average. While he does, it’s painfully obvious that Rock shouldn’t be clinging to slower tracks. While It paid off on “Gumbo,” this three track run does not offer the best that Rock is capable of. The album’s title track breaks up the average streak, roaring with a schizophrenic snarl reminiscent of Ol’ Dirty Bastard. While the chorus isn’t naturally accessible, it does become less grating with each listen. Meanwhile, Jay Rock murders his verses. He rips these verses up with his teeth, then chows it down with a side of fava beans and a nice Chianti. “Vice City” bounces into the listener’s ear next, where Rock jumps onto the banger beat alongside Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, and ScHoolboy Q aka Black Hippy: he’s getting the band back together! This track is one of the better tracks that Black Hippy has done, a very specific flow that wouldn’t work over any other beat. Somehow, someway, it gets the job done.
The next track, “Fly on the Wall,” makes me sick to my stomach, sick to the point of changing to first person. The beat is slow and smooth, and Rock actually delivers some quality lyrics here. Yet Rock thought it was a great idea to put Busta Rhymes on this song, creating a pair worse than Cobain-Love. This song should be put up on a pedestal as an example as to why Busta Rhymes should never be on a slower track again.
After that Rhymes-related atrocity, “Money Trees Part Deuce” comes on. The melancholic horns add a gritty background to Rock’s very gritty yet emotional lyrics, letting out some of the same warnings that were present on the first “Money Trees.” The sequel is a hit, and Rock makes sure to keep the momentum going with the last song on the album, “The Message.” With this, Rock adds in his last pinches of imagery, leaving on an open-ended conclusion. This album is a rollercoaster when it comes to tone, sonic direction, and quality. Rock was able to put out a project that wasn’t terrible, but, unfortunately, wasn’t all that amazing. While his high points were high, his hiccups were also glaring. I think Rock has the ability to break out and create a name for himself. But now is clearly not the time for him. If this is the project that he wants to break out with, then he is going to be disappointed. Until then, Rock, make sure to take the Ren Syndrome pills the doctor prescribed. Wait, wasn’t I a teacher at the beginning of this?