No one is quite hyping up the head-to-head battle between Jay Rock and Nas in hip-hop releases this week — at least not on the level that Nas’ producer Kanye West gassed his Graduation debut against 50 Cent’s Before I Self Destruct ten years ago — but it’s still interesting to see echoes of the contrasts that drove the prior competition, especially since there aren’t any other high-profile releases slated for this Friday. While Apollo Brown & Locksmith’s No Question is scheduled for independent release, all eyes will be on Kanye West’s latest 7-song release and Top Dawg Entertainment’s secret weapon come June 15.
Now, about those contrasts: First and most obvious, the “old guard” vs. “next generation” comparison is almost too pronounced to ignore. It’s especially intriguing that Kanye finds himself on the other side of the equation this time around — cue the “Circle Of Life” and wide shot of Pride Rock. While Nas represents the prior generation’s ideal of hip-hop, Jay Rock is a prominent member of the culture’s current vanguard of rappers and producers alongside Kendrick Lamar, Sounwave, and the rest of his TDE brethren. Furthermore, where Nas has been saddled with the intelligent, sophisticated rap signifier the way Kanye once was against 50 Cent, Rock certainly brings a gruff, street-ready attitude to his music.
However, the comparisons aren’t exactly one-to-one, either. Jay Rock and Nas have far more in common than Kanye West and 50 Cent did in 2007; while they could be viewed as opposite sides of a coin, on closer examination, their output to this point is a lot more similar than it is different. Jay Rock may not be known for sermonizing like Nas on “I Can,” but he’s fit in well enough alongside his fellow Black Hippy crew members which include the chakra-reading Ab-Soul and revolutionary Kendrick Lamar. Meanwhile, Nas has been known to share a street tale or two on his more thuggish output, establishing the “Nas Escobar” persona on albums like I Am… and Nastradamus.
It’s also been a while since either of the two rappers actually released a record — in Nas’ case, it’s been almost six years, while Jay Rock’s 90059 came out in 2015. They both have well-established styles and reputations: Rock for being the low-key, under-the-radar member of TDE who might just pop up and kill a feature without warning and Nas for being a decorated rap elder statesman, helping shepherd the careers of up-and-comers like Bishop Nehru and LGP Qua.
The similarities and differences between the two aside, here are two hotly anticipated returns for two of rap’s most dedicated performers, both at critical points in their respective careers.
Nas — TBA (Mass Appeal Records / Def Jam Recordings)
Nas is a legend, but he’s a legend with an admittedly shaky release record when it comes to full-length solos; to this day, hip-hop as a whole still largely considers his debut album, Illmatic, his finest moment. In spite of a recent effort to rehabilitate the reception of It Was Written and some stronger latter-career projects like Life Is Good, Nas’ calling card remains his introduction. Perhaps this means a less-is-more approach has always been the best way to go for the Queensbridge icon, who might just be most enjoyable in smaller doses.
To that end, his upcoming, as-yet-untitled new project might be just what the doctor ordered. As with Illmatic, the majority of the album will supposedly be produced by just one person in Kanye West, lending Nas the stylistic consistency much of his post-Illmatic output has lacked. In addition, the promised 7-song tracklist will likely mitigate his tendency to go way off-script; while Kanye would undoubtedly love a kooky experiment like “Who Killed It?” or “Fried Chicken,” (or, heaven forbid, “Sekou Story,” where he tried to convince us that he was a whole different person) with both of their recently-tarnished reputations on the line, it seems far more beneficial for them to cut the fat. The good news that Kanye’s production recently has been out-of-this-world, even with his lackadaisical rhymes of late. So long as he remains a silent partner, Nas should be able to lyrically carry the long-promised, oft-delayed album to a satisfactory reception.
Jay Rock — Redemption (Top Dawg Entertainment / Interscope Records)
Jay Rock, by contrast, isn’t considered a legend or an icon — in fact, he seems to be the TDE member with the least rabid fanbase. While fans clamor for new material from Schoolboy Q and Kendrick, Rock’s output always seems to get lost in the wash. It’s a damn shame too, because he’s been one of the most consistent members of the crew, even accounting for newer additions like Isaiah Rashad and Lance Skiiiwalker. His features have always painted a picture of a battle-hardened, world-weary street soldier who’s taken some bumps and bruises but emerged with a gritty, hard-won, and earthy sort of wisdom. He often steals the show on his periodic appearances on his cohorts’ projects and his own work as been at least as sharp, if not as widely acclaimed.
That may change with release of Redemption. Supported by two singles that have both received the full backing of the Interscope machine, the Black Panther soundtrack standout “King’s Dead” and the anthemic “Win,” Rock seems to be heading into his latest release cycle with a full head of steam. If Redemption lives up to his name, all those TDE fans who have overlooked him may find themselves clamoring for his next hit in no time at all.