Anatomy of a Verse: Jay Rock on “Money Trees”

‘Magine Rock up in them projects…

Jay Rock is 29, but he feels a lot older. His place in the current hip-hop landscape seems to be that of an OG. Part of that is due to his content; he raps from the perspective of a gangster who’s been there, done that. Part of it is due to his voice. He doesn’t really change his infliction too much. He doesn’t really sing or make use of auto-tune. His voice is deep, a bit raspy, and at times frightening. Its DMX blended with Young Jeezy blended with Game, if I’m required to make such comparisons. Rock has served as perhaps the West Coast’s most prominent street poet for a half decade now. He’s never really rapped about fashion, flossin’, or even success. Jay Rock, while far from “old” in traditional hip-hop terms, has found his niche as an elder statesman.

Another part of that stems from his standing with the TDE/Black Hippy conglomerate, which is the most significant collective in the industry right now. All four artists in the group have become mainstream fixtures. There’s Kendrick Lamar, obviously. But there’s also Ab-Soul (raps resident drugged-out/extremely intelligent weirdo) and ScHoolboy Q (who had a Billboard #1 with 2014’s Oxymoron). Factor in Isaiah Rashad, an up-and-coming artist already embraced by the Pitchfork crowd probably just one big single away from superstardom, and it’s not hard to imagine an artist like Jay Rock, who makes more typical gangsta rap, if you will, getting lost in the shuffle. But he never does. When he collaborates with his label mates his mic persona takes on that of the experienced but flawed older brother; the guy who’s made some mistakes but has also managed to survive. It should be noted that Rock steals the show on almost every TDE collab he does.

So when I was pondering where to start this new series, Anatomy of Verse, where I’ll give way-too-in-depth analysis of some of my favorite rap verses, I settled on Jay Rock. For a lot of reasons it made sense to choose his verse on Kendrick Lamar’s “Money Trees”. Not only is at an extremely impressive display of technical rapping, but also an important moment within the larger context of Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. Rock plays the character I described in the preceding paragraphs. This verse also introduced Rock to a new legion of fans (and if that included you, Rock’s 2011 album Follow Me Home is essential listening, as it’s an oft-forgotten gem when we talk about modern classics).

What I’m shooting for in this post and any future posts that may or may not happen is to not only analyze what verses impress me but WHY they impress me. What makes them work lyrically, thematically, and technically? I believe the art of rapping is as high as any, and the current obsession with freestyling or not writing down lyrics frustrates me because good hip-hop music comes about as a result of an intricate writing process. As much as you like to think your favorite rappers go in the booth, hear a beat, and instantly rattle of 16 or 32 quality bars like it’s nothing, that’s not really how it works.

One final note. I’m white. You will never ever ever see me type THAT word I can’t say. However, it’s obviously used very often in most rap music. I’m looking at these verses syllable by syllable, so when I’m typing out SOMEONE ELSE’S lyrics, I will put it in full. If that’s offensive or incorrect to you, I apologize, but there’s no way around it.

That’s enough exposition, time to dig into Rock’s verse on “Money Trees”. Let’s look at the basics.

Skip to 4:25 to hear Jay Rock’s verse, or just play the song through, because it’s great.

Words: 187

Syllables: 245 (1.31 syllables per word)

Time: 54 seconds (4.53 syllables per second)

Bars: 26

End Rhymes: 10 (2.6 bars per end rhyme)

Multi-Syllabic rhyme schemes?: Yes

Internal rhyme schemes?: Yes

“Bad” words: 8 (4.27% of all words)

Slang Explanation:

“Baking soda YOLA whippin” = Cooking cocaine into crack in the kitchen

“Domed a n***a” = Fatally shooting someone in the head with a firearm

“Cheese from the government” = Food stamps or a similar government-sponsored relief program

“Drum” = Extended magazine attached to a firearm that allows for more rounds to be fired without loading

“Bands” = A large amount of currency, held together by a rubber band

“Work” = Crack or another illicit substances intended to be distributed for profit

“Them boys” = Officers of the law

“J’s” = Sneakers of the Jordan brand, a subsidiary of Nike.

“Heater” = A firearm, in most cases, some sort of pistol

“Money Trees” comes in the second act of GKMC. By this point, Kendrick has already laid the foundation for the album. He’s trying to survive and prosper in an area littered with drugs and violence; not glorifying said issues, but hardly lambasting them either. Prior to “Money Trees”, Kendrick is the only rapper heard. It’s very much his story. So when Jay Rock steps in on the 3rd verse here, he offers some welcome perspective (again, he’s an elder statesman). It’s a very personal perspective, as opposed to the more observational one MC Eiht will provide a few tracks later on “m.A.A.d. City”.

Rock sets the scene for his verse right away with his oft-imitated/referenced opening bars…

(Unfortunately, my basic ass WordPress doesn’t allow for stressed/unstressed marks, so RED = stressed while BLACK = unstressed, and I use those terms loosely. Don’t tell any of my old English professors)

‘magine Rock up in them projects

Where them niggas pick your pockets

I cannot overstate how important Rock saying “magine” as opposed to “imagine” is. Taking off that “I” removes an entire syllable from the first line and allows the couplet to, you know, flow (I know, a foreign concept to many rappers). The art of changing words, whether it be their pronunciation or the actual words themselves, to fit them within a certain meter or rhyme scheme is an integral part of rapping. Big Daddy Kane and Rakim were pioneers of this technique. Eminem mastered it with his early music. Anyway, it’s the key here. It allows the start of the verse to settle into an 8-syllable per line pattern with a slightly extended muttered, or unstressed, sequence (“up in them” &”-gas pick your”). The next two lines continue this pattern exactly.

Santa Claus don’t miss them stockings

Liquor spillin’, pistols poppin’

Rock keeping a consistent pattern for four bars is impressive (and rarer than you think), as is his ability to paint a background for the rest of the verse with this opening. We’re quickly thrown into an area where people get jacked and often shot, with the “liquor spillin’” serving as an identifiable image when it comes to mourning a loss. He also manages to make his entire verse come off nonchalantly. This is all in a day’s work for Rock’s character. What’s shocking to me and (maybe) you is that this is the norm for this character. For the next few bars, Rock continues with similar imagery and a similar meter, though he mixes up his emphasis and holds a few syllables (BLUE = an extended/held syllable).

Baking soda YOLA whippin’

Ain’t no Turkey on Thanksgivin’

My homeboy just domed a nigga

I just hope the lord forgive him

In order to hold a syllable such as “lord”, Rock needs to rap the final 3 syllables in each bar in double-time in order to keep with the flow he established. Slightly mixing up your cadence while still having it fit is something many rappers are incapable of, and bonus points for repeatedly holding that “O” sound, adding an element of internal rhyme (after all, I did reference Kane, Rakim, and Eminem earlier). As I briefly went over in the Slang Explanation section, Rock references using a home kitchen to cook cocaine down into crack so it can be sold cheaply to fiends (YOLA = coke, fyi). Then, keeping with the religious subtext that rears its head through much of the album, if it’s even subtle enough to be called subtext, Rock discusses one of his boys committing a murder and how he’s praying for his salvation. “Do Gangsters go to heaven?” is a prominent theme on GKMC. While Rock never dives into it to the extent that Kendrick does, this bar is at least in line. He clearly understood what Kendrick was trying to do with this record.

For the next couple bars, Rock gets a little sparser, cutting a syllable from each but doing so in a consistent manner (still holding some syllables).

Pots with cocaine residue

Everyday I’m hustlin’

And then before switching the entire flow of the verse he leaves us with a question, going back to an 8 syllable line to establish the switch.

What else is a thug to do?

When you eat cheese from the government?

There’s an ABAB rhyme scheme Rock establishes here that he’ll carry on for the next 4 bars. The idea of drug dealing being the only way to make it in the hood isn’t exactly new in rap, but an image of a pot with drug residue on it is something that makes this feel a bit more personal to Rock than most typical “drug-dealing” verses.

Gotta provide for my daughter n’em

Get the fuck up out my way, bish

Got that drum and I got them bands

Just like a parade, bish

Rock breaks form a bit here, as bars 1 and 3 in the above group have 9 and 8 syllables, respectively. No worries, he still manages to make it work, mostly due to how quickly he says “gotta”.

Using “bish” a more casual version of “bitch” has become somewhat of a language phenomenon since this song landed. Kendrick establishes it right away, and Rock follows suit (again, Rock seemed very committed to making his verse not only standout but fit the song). The one line I can do without is the “got that drum and I got them bands” simile. In most cases when it comes to rap music, similes are lazy, or used as filler. I believe it’s the latter in this case, as Rock needed something to bridge the gap into the next few lines (which revert back to hood happenings). Also, the fact that “bands” as slang for money has been used with “parade” as a punchline many other times in rap by far lesser rappers makes it seem unoriginal. But whatever, its one line. And now we’re onto what may be my favorite part of the verse…

Drop that work up in the bushes

Hope them boys don’t see my stash

If they do, tell the truth

This the last time you might see my ass

Some complex technical things going on here. The number of syllables in/meter of each line no longer match perfectly, so Rock builds his flow around some internal and multi-syllabic rhyming. You have “don’t see my stash” and “might see my ass”, obviously. But what makes the fourth line (9 syllables) possible within the flow of the entire verse is the short, 6-syllable line preceding it. Rhyming “do” with “truth” (also “you” in the next line), separated by an invisible comma allows Jay Rock to add 2 unstressed syllables (“This the”) to the next line without butchering its delivery alongside the first two. Then for the lyrics themselves, you have a lot at stake. Rock is more or less describing having to toss drugs in bushes when police come, a large enough amount that would send him to jail for a very long time (He toyed with this idea again on “Vice City”, where he says “get caught with this shit, I ain’t comin’ home till like twenty-thirty”). Rock’s character is fully aware of the potential consequences for his actions, but he still views them as the best way to live. It’s a compelling dilemma, and there’s a reason this dilemma has been a mainstay in rap for most of its history.

From the gardens where the grass ain’t cut them serpents lurkin’, blood

Bitches sellin’ pussy, niggas sellin’ drugs, but it’s all good

A RapGenius annotator brings up an interesting point; that the use of “gardens” and “serpents” could be a Biblical reference. In theory, this fits in GKMC, but I’m not so sure of its ultimate validity. Jay Rock’s neighborhood is known as Nickerson Gardens, and the grass not being cut is more likely just a reference to how poorly the project grounds are kempt. While the use of “serpents” could very well be a subtle reference to the Garden of Eden, temptation, that whole thing…it’s more likely just a 2-syllable replacement for “snakes”, which is often used to describe backstabbers, people who can’t be trusted, etc. Perhaps the most horrifying collection of words in what’s a pretty scary verse is “but it’s all good”. This goes back to Rock viewing all of this –the drugs, the murder, the prostitution- as the norm. Just another day in the life. Also make note of the internal rhyme between lines with “cut” and “drugs”. That allows him to say whatever he wants after those words while still flowing.

Broken promises, steal your watch and tell you what time it is

Take your J’s and tell you to kick it where a Foot Locker is

Love this. Rock gets threatening and funny. Rather than end a personal verse with a moment of reflection, he reverts (the final two lines continue this idea). “Broken promises” harkens back to the use of “serpents” earlier.

In the streets with a heater under my Dungarees

Dreams of me getting shaded under a money tree…

Fucking dungarees. One of the unique things about Rock is how little he cares about high fashion. After all, this is the same guy who’s wearing a white tee and khaki’s in 80% of the pictures/videos you find of him. He’s the guy who when bragging about his travels plans on the “U.O.E.N.O. (Remix)” said “got my passport in my Jansport”.

Anyways, after Rock dreams of getting shaded and re-states the song title we immediately here Kendrick mumble “It go” and then he’s off into the hook. (Halle Berry or Hallelujah, you’ve heard it). It’s a nice piece of production by DJ Dahi to cut the drums for a second and then bring them right back as Kendrick comes in, seamlessly blending together two very different cadences by the rappers. Rock leaves us with the image of himself struggling with the day-to-day grind, dreaming about the high life. GKMC was mostly about Kendrick, but this verse encapsulated many of the personalities around him influencing him into one voice. It’s amazing, really. GKMC doesn’t work without Jay Rock’s verse on “Money Trees”.

That’s all I got. I hope you enjoyed and got something out of this. Depending on what folks think, I may make this a regular thing, so if you have any suggestions for verses you’d like me to dissect, holler.

Oh, but if you suggest a Tyga verse I will FedEx Overnight you a box of feces (mine, probably).

And here’s Rock’s “sequel” to this song off his most recent album, 90059.

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