If life is as funny as they say it is then Jay Rock must be looking in his rear view and laughing hysterically. A little over three years ago, he was involved in a serious motorcycle accident resulting in a lot of broken bones and a hospital bill worth around $250,000. Fast forward to present day, his third studio album ‘Redemption’ is not only his highest charting and most well received critically – it also led to him winning a Grammy for Best Rap Performance for ‘King’s Dead’, which made history as it was tied with Anderson .Paak’s ‘Bubblin’’.
Amidst the blessings he has received, it is important to note the relevance of Jay Rock’s album title and the journey that he has taken in his second chance at life. The title track not only outlines the before and after of that critical moment, it reaffirms the belief that Eastside Johnny isn’t done yet. Before the finale of The Big Redemption Tour he made a pit stop in London for the first time, for what should be a victory lap performance. Alongside Ray Fiasco, I was on hand to capture how the night went down.
When an artist’s most recent release is as strong as Jay Rock’s ‘Redemption’, you can’t help but feel confident about how it would sound in a live setting. The queue at its worst, was bent around Lambeth Town Hall as fans waited in anticipation for greatness from TDE’s first signee. As I entered the building, South London rapper and TDE affiliate (via Mack Wop) Fee Gonzales and his DJ Yank Boogie were nearing the end of an energetic opening performance. He closed his set with “Villa”, an 808 filled thumper taken from his 2017 tape 2L82H8 (pronounced ‘too late to hate’) and was greeted with warm applause as he and Yank exited the stage.
After a short interval, the crowd was treated to one more opening act before the main event was due on. Newcomer Big Heath, hailing from Cambridge came to rock the stage for a memorable performance. While some of the crowd took exception to his performance, he had a moment where he was freestyling acapella that impressed. His brand of self-depreciation – making light of his weight among other things – was humorous if nothing else. To close, he told us to embrace the headline act as “there is not much real rap left out there” a sentiment that would have put him in good stead with the hip hop purists in attendance.
As we waited for the stage to be set up for Jay Rock, I was running through possible reasons why Jay Rock decided now was the time to make his London debut, after being active in the rap game since as early as 2004, when he was first signed by Top Dawg. This was quickly forgotten as the red redemption lettering was put up in front of the DJ booth. Not long after this, TDE’s Mack Wop graced the stage and threw down the gauntlet for the sold out London crowd to top the energy that they received at their preceding show in Belgium the night before. Mack as Jay Rock’s DJ wasted no time in getting the party started; Sheck Wes’ sleeper hit ‘Mo Bamba’ was duly followed by a Kendrick medley of ‘DNA’, ‘Backseat Freestyle’ and ‘King Kunta’. You would be forgiven if you thought you were waiting for Kung Fu Kenny to come out, either way the energy in the room was electrifying. Moshpits and waves could be seen from the higher tiers in the building as Mack Wop was crowd controlling.
The night hinged on the opening song; based on Redemption he could either go pensive or raucous. “Dear God, I wanna thank you for this big redemption” came out of the speakers and everyone screamed as Jay Rock came out to ‘Knock It Off’. His breath control and aggressive nature on the mic stood out to me instantly, this was a man reborn that came to play no games in South London. He followed through with ‘The Bloodiest’ and ‘For What It’s Worth’; the latter slowing the pace deliberately so he could introduce himself to his eager crowd. Whether rapping or simply talking, the Watts raised West Coaster has a knack for showing us how far he has come in his journey, which is basically the theme of his ‘Redemption’ album. Rock pulled out some surprises by way of guest verses, resuming the party with his feature on the appropriately titled ‘I Just Wanna Party’ off of YG’s ‘My Krazy Life’. If your first introduction to Jay Rock was through ‘Redemption’, then this served as a reminder that he’s been spitting heat for a while now.
His performances of ‘ES Tales’ and ‘Tap Out’ confirmed that the ‘Redemption’ album was made to be performed live. The energy that he puts into his music was reflected as he looked out to the crowd, he coaxed every bit of sweat and energy from the crowd without even trying. More blasts from the past came with a quick run through his ‘Tity and Dolla’ verse followed by his show stealing verse on ‘Money Trees’, clear homage to his TDE label mates Isaiah Rashad and Kendrick Lamar respectively. The former was one of the unexpected (and heralded) surprises of the night and it should come as no surprise as to why the TDE camp speak highly of Rock. You could say it’s because he gets the better of them on every feature but that’s a debate for another day.
It wouldn’t be a Big Redemption Tour without tales of redemption and the big man delivered with performances of ‘OSOM’ and the title track itself. Before performing the latter, he addressed his 2016 car crash, stating why redemption is so important to him – stating that being out on stage was like a second big chance from God. It was his most emotive performance of the night, drawing applause from the crowd as he urged us to chase our dreams. He said “every day you wake up, you have a new opportunity to go out and get it” a rare gem that has manifested in him touring Europe for the first time ever.
Not wanting to end the show on a preachy note, he took us back to the party with ‘Wow Freestyle’. No Kendrick? No problem! His energy never faltered as he was fully in sync with his raucous crowd. Moshpits and circle forming continued throughout as he performed ‘Rotation 112th’ and his Grammy winning ‘King’s Dead’; at which point the whole crowd screamed “la-di-da-di-da, slob on me knob”. ‘WIN’ was to be the last song the crowd would get before Rock’s time, but the victory lap felt short as he finished. The crowd chanted for Rock to come back, as we weren’t done just yet. Rock obliged with a solid encore performance of ‘WIN’, turning the crowd into one large wave crashing from every angle.
As he faded to black, the London crowd saw a redemption that was different to that of Andy Dufresne’s. We saw a man come back from the brink of critical condition and beat the odds to share his story. We didn’t just see a live performance; we witnessed the rebirth of a great.