Before Kendrick Lamar morphed into a multifaceted virtuoso in the rap world, he was once a happy role player on the sidelines for TDE. Before he trounced the competition with his visceral takes on Compton and social injustice, he patiently waited for his turn after his big brother, Jay Rock, warmed up the scene. In the early stages of TDE, the crew placed its trust on the Watts behemoth to bulldoze their way through the trenches of music. The maddening pursuit of success kept Rock and company up late at nights, especially when he experienced a bevy of delays during the release of his 2011 debut album Follow Me Home.
Despite having a searing Lil Wayne feature on his 2009 single “All My Life,” he waited two years to liberate Follow Me Home. Undeterred by the delays, Rock etched a masterful project, which showcased the unbridled arrogance of a West Coast rapper ready to tussle with anyone at any given time. Fast-forward to 2018, and the hard-nosed MC returns with his latest offering, Redemption.
Bristled with harrowing tales of the inner-city, Rock manages to pull the heartstrings of his listeners on tracks like “ES Tales” and “For What It’s Worth.” Despite Rock’s morbid fascination with crime, he’s able to oust those urges and shine alongside rap heavyweights such as Lamar on “Win” and Future on “King’s Dead.” Rock’s winning streak continued when he opened up the 2018 BET Awards to perform the aforementioned Black Panther record.
Billboard spoke with the TDE lyricist about his new album Redemption, his favorite studio session with Kendrick Lamar, Kanye’s slavery comments, resisting his urge for crime, and why TDE is the modern-day Lakers. Check out the interview below.
I want you to break down several lyrics from “For What It’s Worth.” You rap: “Struggle with who I am and who I wanna be/ Got the streets and these beats right in front of me.” Why do you feel yourself struggling to break away from the streets despite your stardom?
I was just speaking on my experience, my trials and tribulations in the hood when I started rapping. I was battling with it. I didn’t know if I wanted to rap or still be in the streets. I was straddling the fence. The hood was always bringing me back and I was doing bullshit. I just fell in love with the music, man. The music just took control. It really saved my life. I’m here now.
You also said, “A felony’s all I think about.” I was watching your Redemption documentary and I thought about the delays you faced with Follow Me Home. How close were you to hitting the block again after your early struggles?
I had them thoughts. Being a black man in America, especially the hood, you just gotta do what you gotta do. I had a lot people depending on me, and a team that believed in me. I just stuck with the music.
“I say the power of pussy’ll scar people. That pretty flower’ll spoil you, then it poison you.” Has there been a woman who damn near destroyed your life, man?
Ay, man. Sometimes you gotta watch these women. I love women. I love ‘em to death, but sometimes you have to be careful. Sometimes these women out here play games, too. Choose wisely.
On “Broke,” I saw an interesting parallel between you and Kanye when you said, “Now Harriet Tubman say she freed a thousand slaves/ Could’ve freed a thousand more if they was aware of the chains.” Do you think ‘Ye had a point when he said that slavery was a choice?
He was speaking his mind. He’s entitled do his opinion. The way he said it, people probably took it the wrong way. I didn’t feel no way about it. He’s a real expressive person. I was reading something and it said that was one of Harriet Tubman’s quotes. I just took it and the line I said after that was: “What’s under the rugs remaining unexplained, truth is mostly taboo/ Even when it’s starin’ back at you like an enemy tattoo.” I was speaking on how we see the truth and it’s right in front of our face, but what are we doing about it?
How have you been able to maintain a sucker-free mentality and not a slave mentality in the music industry? A lot of people end up being whipped out here.
[Laughs] What’s right is right, and what’s wrong is wrong. That’s how I live my life. I don’t get into the politics. Follow your own intuition.
You and Cole teamed up for “OSOM.” You two come from different backgrounds, but what are some similarities you both share as a man or as an artist?
Shout out to J. Cole. We come from the same type of struggles. He put the real in his music, I put the real in mine. We’re all connected. Everybody think alike. Big shout out to Jermaine Cole, man. He’s doing his thing. He got real powerful messages in his music. Every time I hear him do something, he inspires me. I’m trying to inspire him when I do something. It’s just us black men coming together and uplifting each other.
With you and Kendrick, I can’t even count how many collaborations you two have together. What ‘s your favorite studio session with him?
It’s so many that we did together, but maybe one of the best ones was “No Sleep Til NYC.” We was rappin’. We was killing the bars. We were giving our respects back to New York and hip-hop. Also, when we did “King’s Dead.” We got plenty of sessions that we did together that was dope.
It’s dope you bring up the whole NY aspect because I remember when I spoke to Nipsey, he said, “You would think us Cali dudes are not in touch with what’s going on.” Which New York artist impacted you while you were coming up?
Big shout out to Busta Rhymes. DMX fo’sho. JAY-Z, Nas, Biggie, Method Man. Shit, damn near everybody. Cameron, whole Dipset. We grew up listening to them, man. We was tapped in.
Talk about the historic “Jay Rock Van” that you and TDE drove around in while you were promoting your album Follow Me Home. Any special moments?
There’s so many memories in that van, man, I don’t even know where to begin. When we first went on tour with The Game. We been everywhere in that van, dawg. We been to damn near all 50 states.
Favorite and worst state?
I didn’t really have a worst state. Everywhere was love. Everywhere we went and did shows, it was all love. I can’t remember a bad state.
The record you did with Wayne, “All My Life,” is one of my favorites that you’ve done. I remember you rapped about having black and white TVs, the 40’s in the fridge, the chicken noodles on the table. Do you miss any part of the struggle?
I still be eating noodles, man. [Laughs]
With the hot sauce.
Ain’t no shame in my game.
When dudes make it, that’s when the hunger vanishes.
I still make fried bologna. I’m still a real n—a.
Besides Kendrick, whose rise from TDE have you enjoyed watching the most?
SZA, man. She’s just beautiful. Her voice is amazing. She’s growing in the game, and watching that growth in her music is dope. And big shout out to my boy Isaiah Rashad. He got some dopes stuff on the way. Y’all be on the lookout.
I love Isaiah and spoke to him a couple times. What advice have you been able to instill in the younger cats like him and SZA?
Stay dedicated and stay humble. Hustle like you broke, that’s our motto at TDE. Stay hungry and stay dedicated, man. Stay on top of your shit.
If you could compare TDE to any sports dynasty–
You already know, the Lakers, man. Winning all them championships.
The title track, “Redemption,” you said: “Instagram’s a dead man’s best friend.” What’d you mean by that?
You tend to see things on Instagram or the internet, when people are gone, that’s when they get the most love. Show me love while I’m still here. Don’t wait until somebody’s dead and gone to show them love.
What’d you think when X and Jimmy Wopo both passed on the same day?
That was crazy, man. My condolences go out to their families. It’s sad because they’re both young cats. XXX was only twenty something, He didn’t deserve that. He had a lot ahead of him.
Give me the three biggest victories of your life.
I gotta say I was happy as hell when I got my first deal. Then, that went down the drain. [Laughs] When I opened up for the BET Awards.
Was that a last-minute hook-up? I know they didn’t publicize it.
I knew last-minute, too. Shout out to my boy Dave Free and Jamie Foxx for making it happen. And then this win right here, dropping my Redemption album. This is one of my best albums and one of the best albums of the year right now.
If you could pick an album to be the soundtrack to your life right now, what would it be and why?
That’s a hard question right there. I gotta say Tupac’s All Eyez On Me. It’s one of my best bodies of work. Listening to Pac when he was down and out, he came back from his ordeal with being in jail. The stuff he was talking about in there, the pain, I feel that.