"I stepped out the box and look what happened..."

There’s a video on YouTube in which entrepreneur Derek Sivers explains the principle of the first follower. The short clip observes how a shirtless guy dancing on a hill inspires a whole mob of people to join in, highlighting the crucial role of the first follower, who takes a risk on the ambition of the original “lone nut”. This reduces the likelihood of embarrassment for further followers and builds the momentum to create movement.

For Los Angeles’ Top Dawg Entertainment, arguably the most important movement in hip-hop right now, that first follower was Kendrick Lamar, who believed in the independent label’s vision enough to sign with them, release four classic albums, and secure their name on the map. But, as Kendrick would tell you himself, none of that success would be possible without Jay Rock.

Thirty-three-year-old Watts native Johnny McKinzie Jr. may not have received platinum plaques like label-mates Kendrick, SZA and ScHoolboy Q, but Jay Rock has maintained his role as the label’s backbone, consistently releasing great records to delight his cult fan base, and displaying improvement with each new installment.

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“When I look back it’s amazing,” says Jay Rock, on a bright Friday morning in London. “A lot of people don’t know the grind. People just think things happen overnight, and they don’t. Making it overnight don’t exist. We was 10 toes down, we stay solid, and here we are now.”

Jay Rock’s third album, ‘Redemption’, is his first since a 2016 dirt bike accident, which left him with a broken leg and a cracked pelvis. He describes the incident as the most difficult thing he’s ever had to overcome, and it bookends the LP with references on opening track ‘The Bloodiest’ as well as the SZA-assisted title track. “A lot of people don’t make it out of that,” he reflects. “Especially the type of injuries I had. To make it out of that is a big blessing.” When he was ready to get back into the studio, he challenged himself to connect with his listeners more. And it shows: ‘Redemption’ finds him at his most candid lyrically, as well as experimenting with melody, and using his voice more dynamically than ever before.

Though he’s largely celebrated as an album artist, Jay Rock also released his most successful singles to date as part of the ‘Redemption’ campaign. ‘King’s Dead’ set off the campaign, appearing on both Jay Rock’s album as well as the Kendrick Lamar-curated ‘Black Panther: The Album’, and it features an infectious high-pitched contribution from Future and vocals from James Blake. “When we dropped ‘King’s Dead’ it took off like a rocket!” says Jay Rock. “When I heard the track I just told myself, gotta come different. I stepped out the box and look what happened.” He admits that Future’s particularly eccentric interpolation of Tear Da Club Up Thugs’ ‘Slob On My Nob’ made him laugh at first. “It’s a feeling,” he explains. “I watch how kids react to music, they go crazy on that part - that’s when you know it’s something special.”

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The triumphant second single ‘WIN’ came through in the final stages of the album’s creation. “What a way to end everything, by winning,” says Jay Rock. “When I heard the beat from Boi-1da it sounded like some victory type shit. It sounded like the playoffs with 10 seconds left; you got all your linemen ready. It’s go time. And I was in the winning spirit at the time anyway, because like I said I’d finished off almost all the record.”

‘Redemption’ dropped during a busy week for heavyweight releases: Nas dropped his Kanye West-produced ‘Nasir’ the same day, and within 24 hours Jay-Z and Beyoncé unveiled their surprise album ‘EVERYTHING IS LOVE’. Nonetheless, Jay Rock’s album has bubbled to the surface, and is the only record from that date to remain in ‘album of the year’ conversations.

“Not to knock anybody else, but out of everybody that put out dope albums this year, I just woke up and felt like I got the album of the year,” he says, sincerely. “I’m entitled to my opinion. But I’m not the only one that feels that way; a lot of the fans do too. My album being mentioned amongst the greats, like the Jay-Zs, the Nas’ and the Pusha Ts - that’s good enough for me.”

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Words: Grant Brydon
Photography: Will Spooner

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