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In 2013, Top Dawg Entertainment announced its hostile takeover of hip-hop through Compton wordsmith Kendrick Lamar's scathing "Control" verse, as well as the battle-ready TDE cypher at the BET Hip Hop Awards. Five years later the collective has, without a doubt, delivered on its promise. Lamar has produced at least three classic albums and amassed numerous accolades—including twelve Grammys and hip-hop's first Pulitzer Prize. SZA has become a source of life and inspiration to black women worldwide, cementing her status as an icon with last year's monumental Ctrl.
Though these two superstars have put TDE on the map, the remaining members of the group have not received the same shine. Ab-Soul, Schoolboy Q, Isaiah Rashad, and Jay Rock—all rare talents in their own right—are not yet household names. With his new single "WIN" (listen below) released yesterday, and his Black Panther contribution "King's Dead" landing the emcee his first Billboard Hot 100 hit earlier this year, Jay Rock has a legitimate chance to shift the narrative and broaden his fanbase. However, the Watts native's upcoming studio album raises two questions: Can he do it? And at what cost?
Circa 2005, Rock was still—well—pitching rocks. His past life dealing drugs and confronting all comers with violent retaliation is a theme ever-present in his music. His life changed forever when Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith believed in his potential as an emcee and signed him to the new label. Rock's commercial debut came in 2008, when the biggest rapper in the world at the time—Lil Wayne—blessed him with a feature and cosign on his track "All My Life (In the Ghetto)." The young rapper held his own against a legend, turning heads and creating buzz. Soon Rock was on the 2010 Freshman Cover of XXL and listed as one of the year's breakthrough emcees. He released two quality mixtapes and went on separate tours with 50 Cent and Tech N9ne.
Since then, Jay Rock's momentum has plateaued considerably. However, there are a few exceptions. They give us insight on how Rock can make the most impact.
Jay Rock has proven himself to be an exceptional feature artist. The world stood still during his vicious verse on "Money Trees" from Lamar's 2012 Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. Perhaps the best version of Jay Rock we've heard, this dexterous verse is accepted as one of the best on the album. As evidenced by his performance on tracks such as Ab-Soul's "Black Lip Bastard," his own "Vice City" and "Pay For It," and most recently the Black Panther soundtrack contribution "King's Dead," Rock is more than capable of upping his game to meet any competitor. This skill has been noted and perfected by artists such as Rick Ross, who often commissions other big-name artists to raise the bar and create timeless classics. Perhaps Rock could also frequent tracks with other talents that can push him deeper into his bag.
In terms of his sound, Rock is at his best when he contrasts soulful beats with his distinctive, rugged voice. We saw him channel his inner-Jeezy on 2014's "Hood Gone Love It" and deliver a feel-good anthem that also resonates with the streets. And he shares the enigmatic nature that made an artist such as Ja Rule a force to be reckoned with on the airwaves in the early 2000s. Though he is beholden to the West Coast sound, it's hard not to *Birdman hand-rub* at the thought of Jay Rock working with soulful, versatile producers such as legends No I.D. and 9th Wonder.
Fresh off of the stove, Rock's new single "WIN" reminds us of the cost that typically comes with radio success. The song features an impressive final verse and an upbeat vibe, but most of the lyrics are largely forgettable. He has erred on the side of simplicity for catchiness, which will no doubt earn him many more radio plays. However, fellow TDE rappers Ab-Soul and Isaiah Rashad are shining examples of how quality is greater than quantity in terms of an artist's fanbase. Because they do not depend on commercial success, these artists are able to craft the music they truly want without pressure to make hits or conform to trending sounds. We saw this pressure derail the trajectory of Lupe Fiasco—undoubtedly one of the most talented lyricists the game has ever seen—when his Lasers album flopped and alienated his dedicated fanbase. Legends MF Doom, Tech N9ne, and Royce da 5'9" are also not the first artists to come to mind when someone hands you the aux chord, but they are profoundly respected by hip-hop heads worldwide.
To complicate this further, labelmate Kendrick Lamar has ascended to the top of the game without sacrificing his dense lyricism—though his features have become increasingly less potent overtime.
As discussed earlier, Jay Rock's talent and presence give him a unique opportunity to carve his own lane by building on previous blueprints. He carries stories burdened with battling his demons while trying to provide for his family—stories the world deserves to hear. The time has come for him to choose how the next chapter in his career will be written. Either way, by any standard, Jay Rock's breakthrough into the Billboard Hot 100 is a huge, well, win.
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