Jay Rock, TDE’s first signee, is determined not to fall victim to circumstance—a common fate to those in his hometown of Watts, California. On his new album Redemption, he returns to reap the benefits of all that he and his label have sowed, and to inspire others to get out and grab all that they came for.
When he first signed to Top Dawg Entertainment in 2005, Jay Rock was the chosen one. He was the foundation upon which TDE was built, had several mixtapes under his belt, and a promising career ahead of him. During the course of the last decade, he’s experienced his share of wins and losses. He’s released two solid albums, dealt with fluctuating frequency of output, suffered and recovered from a very serious motorcycle accident. All the while TDE blossomed into a music powerhouse.
He’s not ignorant to, nor intimidated by, any of this. In fact, it’s his acknowledgement and acceptance of life’s setbacks, the urgency he now feels, and his reignited love for life and music that have become the subjects of his third studio release.
On the 13-track project he returns, refueled with potent bars and an openness to new sounds that spotlight his aim to reclaim his real estate in the minds and ears of rap fans.
Complex spoke with Jay Rock about the creation of Redemption, working with TDE labelmates Kendrick Lamar and SZA, and why he'd love to do a record with Jay Z.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Let’s start with the album. First off, that shit sounds really, really good, man. But I want to ask you about the title, Redemption. What is the significance of the title? What does it mean in terms of your music, but also your personal life?
All in all, when you think of Redemption I’m basically going off of my career when I was... after I dropped 90059 I had a lot of things lined up. I was supposed to be at awards and things of that nature. I felt like, man, I’m here now. I was excited. But sometimes things happen. Kind of like I had got put in a setback when I got into my accident. So I was going through a whole lot dealing with that. I just told myself this time around when you come back, I want to redeem myself. Not just for me, but for the fans too. They was waiting on me. A lot of people was waiting on new music and see a lot more of Jay Rock.
So this time around, when I healed up, I said, you know what? I just gotta redeem myself. This gon' be my redemption. My comeback, you know? And just become better than ever.
And it’s like, too, I want to use it as motivation for people who felt like they was here and went through a major setback and let them know: no matter if you get knocked down, all you gotta do is get back up, dust your shoulders off, and keep pushing. Don’t give up. And I’ve always been pushing that since day one, especially from where I come from. All we know is struggle. It’s all about staying dedicated to what you’re trying to do in life and you eventually gon' make it.
I think with any injury, hoping that you recover to a point where you feel good is already challenging on its own. And then, to have a career in music, where time away sometimes is rough—especially in today’s market where the consumption rate is quick. Every day you're going to get tweets asking, “Where’s the new music?” Was there ever a low point? Was there ever any self-doubt that creeps in?
Yeah of course. When I got into my accident I had gotten uninspired. And then I spent a lot of time recovering, healing up. I told myself, I just have to fall back in love with the music again. And that’s what happened. Once I healed up I just said, let me go back in and evaluate what I’ve got going on, personal life and just everything.
For the past three years, I just stayed in the studio. Sometimes I wasn’t even going home. I was just staying in the studio til like five or six in the morning; go home and shower, then come right back. I told myself I gotta get back in it. And basically I just fell back in love with the music, and that’s what the people is hearing. I just wanted to do something different.
How long was the process creating this album? Were the ideas floating around when you were recovering? Was it something where you got in the studio and these songs are fresh and new? When was it being worked on? And how much of what we hear is the product of that?
Well actually I recorded so many songs. I can’t even count how many songs I recorded. A lot of stuff got cut. It was kind of like the last end of it because we was trying to push the album to come out in April. I was going over a lot of music, me and the big dog, and I just told myself I could go harder.
I was listening to a couple of other records and I just felt like I could go harder. I can go harder than this one, I can go harder than that one. It was just all about challenging myself.
The last week or two in the process of recording I took off a lot of the other records and I did seven or eight new ones that was just right out the gate bangers. And them the ones I fell in love with, and the homies fell in love with it too when they heard it. I seen everybody say, “Oh, this is the one. This is it.” So I felt confident. I was like, OK, let’s roll.
When you’re testing music what’s the litmus test? Like, “Is this hard or is this not,” who do you turn to in the camp?
You already know, man, I play some stuff for Top Dawg, Kendrick, the homies, family, and friends. And like I say, like I tell everybody, I play something for you, let me know. Don’t be afraid to tell me this shit is wack. Let me know if this shit trash. Let me know.
I love constructive criticism. That’s what I tell the homies. I tell anybody, close friends and relatives. That’s just like if me and you was in the house together and we jumpin' fresh to go out and meet some ladies or something. I jump fly and fresh and I see you with some bullshit on and I don’t tell you and we walk out the house, you get what I’m saying? And everybody else knows that shit bullshit, but i didn’t tell you before you left the house, because I ain't yo real nigga, I ain't yo family.
That’s basically like with my music. I want people to be upfront with me and let me know, “That shit is wack.” So when I play stuff for the homies, they keep it 100. They be like, “No, I think you could go harder. I think you could do this.” I love that constructive criticism. Back then you couldn’t tell me nothing though. [Laughs.] But now I’m always, lend an open ear and listen.
I’m curious, what’s influenced your sound? Because it feels like the verses are sharp, the subject matter is intact. But also it feels like it has some accessibility to it. Like there’s joints where they got light bops to it. Like songs that feel like they’re made for radio. Not sacrificing integrity, but it’s got sounds that maybe fans outside of the TDE listener, outside of Jay Rock ear can get into.
Oh yeah man. Like I said, I went in and wanted to try new things. I thank God for blessing me with my voice. My voice is an instrument, so I just went into the studio and started playing with my voice. Trying something different, trying the melodies, you know what I mean? There’s different things that can catch the listener’s ear.
Like the big homie E-40 told, “If it sound good, roll with it. If it don’t sound good, don’t roll with it.” And when I went in, it just felt good to me sitting down listening to this new sound that I’d been inputting and putting out. It’s crazy.
I think back to the joints you had. It was on the last record. I want to say it was called "Vice"?
Oh you talkin' bout “Vice City."
Yes. And you were playing with your voice there, with how you would end a verse. It added a whole other level of charm to what you were doing.
My voice is an instrument. My homies used to tell me that back then, like, "Man your voice is crazy. Don’t be afraid to try different things." That’s what it’s about man. Can’t be stuck in a box forever.
Why is now the time to start experimenting more and start to take some of that advice?
Because time don’t wait for nobody. Me going through what I went through, I realized time is precious. I’m all about keeping myself busy too. Nowadays, I just got a different outlook on things. It’s all about working and winning. You get what I’m saying? And like I say, time is short. I lost a lot of homeboys growing up, a lot of family, at early ages. But I’m blessed to still be here and have a voice and to do what I do. So there ain’t no time to waste with it.
That makes me think of that joint you got on the album, “OSOM.” That first verse feels like that’s what you’re talking about. Coming into the game, and feeling like, “I’m signed, I’m good.” And then time going on and kind of battling with yourself about where you feel your place is in rap and getting setbacks and injuries. Can you kind of talk about that time in your life and where you feel like you’re at right now?
Yeah, around that time I was dealing with a lot. I’m quite sure everybody knows the story. I was like one of the first dudes that was signed to Top [Dawg Entertainment], and one of the first dudes to even get a deal out the camp. Going through what we went through with the label, I had one of the hottest songs out featuring Lil Wayne, one of the hottest dudes that was in the game. It just came to a point in time when everything came to a stop. Everybody knows what goes on with labels and shit like that.
So it kind of put a nigga in a setback, you know? Like damn. And then not only that, but just personal shit I was going through back home, dealing with family, losing friends, battling with myself, still in the streets and still trying to rap. It was a whole lot of confusion going on. It’s moments like that where it was just like, damn, what a nigga gonna do? And that’s why I felt on that record, I gotta just go in deep on that so people can know the story to really let them in on the real Jay Rock.
To be honest, I feel like a lot of artists would typically stray away from it. Even as an interviewer, that’s the question sometimes we want to ask, but it’s kind of like an awkward question.
That’s the thing with me, I want to connect more with the people. I always was like this brick wall. You get what I’m saying? [Laughs.] I’ve always been a brick wall. Just me being in the game now, I know I want to connect more with the people. And that’s what I wanted to do on that record. I wanted to connect more with my fans and with the people who want to know Jay Rock.
I listened to how the other artists on your label describe you. I think MixedByAli has a good part in the Redemption trailer where he says you’re “the guy who took all the punches.” You got to be the first wave. I know that probably comes with mixed things. You become the guinea pig and you have to go learn a lot of things for the label. Can you think of anything you see in the label as it stands now, that you think, “Damn, that was something I had to go through for the label to be what it is today?”
I don’t feel bad about none of that shit. And for the record, I don’t want people out there to feel sorry for me. “Aw man, he took all the hits.” At the end of the day, teamwork made the dream work.
I was the first one in the label, took the hits, took the bumps and the bruises, but while I was down you had dudes like Kendrick Lamar right out the gate with that chopper loaded, ready. Schoolboy Q, ready! Ab-Soul, ready! Them my little brothers. While big bro was down, injured, they did what they had to do. Now big bro healed up, ready to go. We back as one.
A lot of us made a lot of sacrifices, we just was dedicated to our music. There was times we didn’t even go home. We just stayed in the studio. For nights and weeks on end, not even chilling with family. Just tryna get it. It’s a beautiful thing, and I wouldn’t take nothing back. Because at the end of the day, this shit is already written. These is my brothers, these my family. Top Dawg Entertainment. This shit is written in blood. It’s on me. This is my family right here.
the devil, he was trying to get me to give up and get me to lay down my arms, but nah. I stayed strong.
With your project, you’ve got some interesting features on there. I think everybody gravitated towards “King’s Dead” with Future on it pretty early with the Black Panther soundtrack, but I heard the Cole verse. I heard, Jeremih, SZA. How did you go about getting these features, and was there any that didn’t make the album that you were like, “Damn, I wish we would have.”
[Laughs.] Well, what’s crazy is on [“Tap Out”] with me and Jeremih, I was thinking about a lot of R&B, man, people just get on it, you know what I mean? Jeremih, his voice just sounds way crazy on it. The way he delivered it, the way he sounds, and everything, it was just crazy. I was like, man, this is outta here.
And [“Redemption”], the song with SZA, I just said, “I need a female voice on this.” What better person to get than SZA, my little sister? [Laughs.] She family and that’s how that came about. I got a few other features. Shout-out to my boy Mozzy. I got a record with Mozzy that’s crazy. I might still drop that, and I got a cold record with me and my boy Tee Grizzley. I got that in the chamber. I don’t want to tell you all my secrets. [Laughs.]
I hear you. I do have to ask, at the NYC show there was… I’m positive there was mention of Hov, right? Landing a Hov feature.
Nah, nah, nah.
No, I'mma stop you right there. Somebody misinterpreted what I said. I said I wanted a Hov [verse]! I wanted it because the record with me and Cole... see, people… you know, I was lit that night. Please forgive me. I was kinda lit. [Laughs.]
I always wanted to do a record called, “The Three J's," because you got me, Jay Rock, you got J. Cole, and you got Jay Z. I thought that it would be dope. I said, if I couldn’t get Jay Z, we’ll get Jay Electronica. They must have misinterpreted it when I said it because I said, “I always wanted to do a Jay record with Jay Z but I got the other J on this one.” But I didn’t ever say J. Cole so everybody thought, “Oh, he got a record with Jay Z.” So you know, people were just running with it.
Hopefully if Hov hears this, I’d love to do a record with Hov. He one of the GOATs.
Kendrick is baked into the album in a couple spots. Some spots he’s credited, some spots he isn’t. He’s the co-executive producer along with Top Dawg?
Yeah. In the midst of me recording this album, we was working right across from each other. He was working on a couple of records and our studios were side by side, so I always would come play some stuff for him and he would chime in. That’s that little bro man, we always tossing ideas together. We’ve been doing this together. We’ve been in the kennel together since day one.
There’s a part —I wanna say it’s between “ES Tales” and “King’s Dead,” where it’s like an old guy talking—that is now becoming this TDE trademark in a way. I was wondering what the significance of that was.
It was like an interlude. Basically what the album is talking about is about making the transition from being in the projects to where I’m at now. When you listen to the whole album, you’re gonna listen to it front to back and you’re gonna hear the significance of that in it because there’s two of them on there. It’s about me just transitioning, battling with who I am as a person. From still being in the projects to getting into the game. At the end of it all, you see the last record on the album right there at the end, a nigga just tryna win, you know.
Was that the central idea when you were recording, just like, “Yo, I’m just trying to win.”
I’m just trying to win, baby. At the end of the day, everybody who’s been following Jay Rock, and know my story, I took too many losses. I was like, this time around, it’s just for anybody that… I want to be a motivator. Somebody asked me a question not too long ago: “Do you feel like you’re a community leader or things of that nature?" No, man. I just want to be a motivator.
I want to motivate people because I know how it is, struggling, and coming from a place where you have nothing. So my thing is to motivate people to let them know whatever you put your mind to, or whatever you love to do, then stick with it and don’t give up.
This is my redemption. Because, man, the devil, he was trying to get me to give up and get me to lay down my arms, but nah. I stayed strong. I stayed ten-toes down. I stayed solid. That’s basically what this whole album is about.