There have been discussion board conversations and thinkpieces about which member of Black Hippy equates to which member of The Beatles for a while now. Regardless of the outcomes of those theories or even the validity of the connection, there’s something interesting in the comparative group dynamics. While TDE rappers Kendrick Lamar, Jay Rock, ScHoolboy Q, and Ab-Soul don’t work as a group the same way the Liverpool lads did, they’re known as a unit, which to many demands comparison for their output — the same way people argued whether they favored Lennon or McCartney’s Beatles songs (or Harrison or Starr, for those in favor of the dark horse). That competition only escalates when one or two members of a group shine so vibrantly; Kendrick isn’t an exact equivalent for Paul, and Ab-Soul probably isn’t Ringo, but now that K-Dot has taken over the rap world, the bar is even higher for his compatriots.
That pressure has been especially strong for Jay Rock. Ab-Soul and ScHoolboy are in Lamar’s shadow even after having released strong albums in the last two years. Black Hippy fans, meanwhile, have been waiting for Rock’s sophomore album for an interminable four years. And when 90059 finally dropped, Twitter immediately exploded with some serious disappointment. Mostly, that’s an overreaction; 90059 isn’t a disappointment and neither is it a masterpiece. Rock’s sophomore LP is a solid piece of work from a rap vet who refuses to feed himself into the hype machine.
Jay Rock has never folded to the expectations foisted on him by the clearer personas of his TDE mates, and 90059 doesn’t run after the accolades thrust upon Kendrick’s politically minded experimentation or the fun yet thoughtful swagger of Q. But that doesn’t mean he carves out an entirely clear identity of his own, either. The album’s cover, ironically, features a photocopy of a palm with the fingerprints scratched out; it could refer to how criminals don’t want to leave fingerprints behind at the scene, or how individual lives can be scrubbed out so easily and quickly. Either way, it’s an unfortunate echo of the fact that the album lacks a cohesive, unique identity.
Opener “Necessary” takes a small step at establishing a message. “90059 be the zip,” the track starts, grounding the album immediately in Rock’s neighborhood of Watts, Los Angeles. Rock goes on to note a history of banging and hustling to get by, but his scope on the neighborhood doesn’t sound much different from any of the zip codes that surround it. “The struggle is real/ You gotta do what you got to just get over the hill/ When you live in America, either kill or be killed,” he intones. The sung “Lord have mercy” hook will force you to bop along, but his lines don’t distinguish themselves from a few dozen other gangsta rap origin stories.
Later, “Telegram (Going Krazy)” attempts to take jealousy and relationship struggles into the social media era, but still sounds flat and outdated. Everyone’s had a hard time in a relationship, and many have had rough upbringings. Rock goes back to these wells repeatedly, and occasionally fails to draw up anything that makes an impact beyond the base level.
When he does hit his mark, he proves why people had been waiting so eagerly for this album. “Vice City” is the obvious standout, the first officially released Black Hippy posse cut in a few years. Sure, it showcases Kendrick at a wobbly high where he indulges his vices and fears them simultaneously; Soul’s off-kilter mysticism; and Q’s expert bragging. But this track isn’t about Rock leaning on his pals, but rather fleshing out his world. The Black Hippy crew are a part of his 90059, so bouncing off their bars with his own is essential. Plus, he sounds downright juiced, the lines flowing with one of his most eager deliveries on the album.
He hits some highs on his own as well. “Money Trees Deuce” rides the razor’s edge of paranoia at the dangers of the street and hope for success and escape. “Gotta fight to keep that money stream open/ Liquor shots is for your team that’s tree smokin’/ In that Coupe de Ville with D’s on it,” he ends the second verse, only to find fear and violence on the very next. But rather than collapse into the pain, he uses a similar rhyme from the previous verse’s cap, this time enforced by family and tradition: “Mama tell me gotta save them pennies for rainy days/ Have me snatch that switch off that branch with some leaves on it/ Fantasizin’ bout some money trees on ’em.” Elsewhere, “Gumbo”, despite a sore-thumb 101 Dalmatians line and a few cliches (“from the night I was born/ To be the eye of the tiger in the eye of the storm”), fuses Greek mythology, evocative notes about struggle, and an eminently soulful hook.
Busta Rhymes makes a guest appearance on “Fly on the Wall”, drifting between verse and spoken word history of his friendship and collaboration with Rock over the years. “They ain’t knowin’ this our fourth collab from 2009,” he notes, later adding “I’m so proud of how you evolved.” Rock delivers some strong verses on the track, but it would seem that everyone, even Busta, wants to emphasize the passage of time and the way Rock has changed. While its true that he’s grown since signing with TDE back in 2005 and now sounds wiser and more confident, he’s yet to distill his personality into a package that communicates that growth.
Essential Tracks: “Vice City”, “Money Trees Deuce”