Stripped down to its most basic components, hip-hop is beats and rhymes. Excellence in the two almost always leads to long-lasting success, and the most permanent residents of fans’ top 5 rappers list includes artists that, throughout their careers, excelled in this regard: 2pac, Biggie, Nas (although some beg to differ about the beats part), and Jay. But then there is the intangible “it” factor that rarely gets discussed, and yet is just as vital. In terms of sports, ESPN analyst Skip Bayless refers to “it” as the “clutch gene.” J.Cole captivated the rap world with a series of brilliant mixtapes: The Come Up, The Warm Up, and Friday Night Lights, all strong testaments of his lyrical and beat-making prowess. In an era where artists create mixtapes in the same meticulous, quality-controlled fashion as official albums are supposed to be produced, Cole’s Friday Night Lights could stack up with the best of them. The tape contains all the ingredients of a successful hip-hop LP, complete with club bangers, booty call themes, lyrical showcases, frank confessions about personal struggles, and Drake. More than anything that preceded it, Friday Night Lights poised Cole as the carrier of the torch for a new era of rap. Comparisons to legends like Nas and Jay (his boss) popped up in any conversation about Cole, and the release of Cole’s debut album was highly anticipated.
Unfortunately, high expectations usually result in disappointment, and Cole’s debut album, Cole World: Sideline Story just wasn’t up to par. Granted, I can’t think of too many songs on the album I would completely regard as trash, but the overwhelming feeling one gets from an intimate track-by-track mining session is only a few fragments of gold. To put it bluntly, once I awoke from the heavy, serene slumber induced by Cole’s album, I immediately phoned Dr. Stuckey to cancel my Ambien prescription. The “damnit-son-you-gotta-hear-this-shit!” tracks were few and between. That damn “it” factor plagued this album almost into oblivion.
Sadly, Born Sinner is akin to a slightly less potent form of Ambien, whereas listening to Mac Miller’s appropriately titled Watching TV With The Sound Off is like the Mike-Tyson-blow-to-the-head-in-The-Hangover one feels from taking Trazodone. And, judging by the memorable songs on the record, the most frustrating thing about an artist like Cole is that he is capable of so much more. Take for instance the opening track, “Villumanti,” a song that ranks right up there with Cole’s greatest work to date. Not only are the two requirements of hip-hop executed perfectly, but Cole adds the “it” factor as well. The beat punches you right in the gut, and Cole fires quotable after quotable while delivering a heart-felt rant about the pressures of staying relevant in the public eye while remaining faithful to his own intuition as an artist.
My pops was club hoppin’ back when Rick James was out
And all I got is Trinidad James, wait a minute that’s strange
Sip a bitter champagne, say “fuck you”
If the hoes like it I love it, nigga nigga nigga
After a masterpiece like “Villuminati,” Naively, the listener is immediately convinced into thinking that Cole will finally make the transitions from classic mixtapes to classic albums. This “FUCK YES” feelings lingers a little longer as we transition to the third track, “Land of the Snakes,” where Cole borrows one of the most beloved beats in music history, Outkast’s “Da Art of Storytelling.” It’s almost impossible to mess up a song with this beat to fall back on, and Cole doesn’t disappoint as he once again separates himself lyrically from the majority of current emcees. Just like Outkast’s original, Cole practices the art of storytelling, combining his tale of success with the struggles he faced growing up in North Carolina. Some hip-hop purists are undoubtedly feelin’ sum type uh way about Cole having the gall to even touch this standard. Of course, Cole is no where near the level of Daddy Fatstacks and Andre, but his own rendition of “Da Art of Storytelling” is a burner in its own right. After “Land of The Snakes” comes “Power Trip,” a song which I’m sure you’ve heard plenty of times on the radio. I must admit, although the content of the song is not my usual cup of tequila, the song isn’t bad at all. With an incredibly soothing beat, Cole provides the sequel to one of his most famous songs, “Dreams” off The Warm Up mixtape. “Power Trip” is a far cry from the excellence “Dreams,” but the song is great for its intended purpose, a catchy radio track capable enough to temporarily infiltrate the Nicki-Wayne-Drake-Future-Ross hip-hop radio monopoly.
But then trouble comes, most ironically, with the track “Trouble.” This is when the effects of Nyquil PM start to kick in, and eyelids become heavy. Things are only exacerbated when we reach the following track, “Runaway.” The bars are quality, the beat is actually pretty good, but this track and “Trouble” are the principle reasons why I am making preparations to submit “The Cole Effect” to Webster’s or Oxford’s Dictionary (whoever pays more).
The Cole Effect: [kohl ih-fekt] n.
Despite seemingly containing all the essential ingredients of a successful endeavor, the product itself induces a severe case of who-gives-a-fuckery when encountered by other persons. This effect usually causes intense drowsiness for the end user.
Person 1: Homie, when I heard “Trouble” and “Runaway” on J.Cole’s new album, I don’t know what happened. The beat was ok, the raps were pretty decent, but I don’t know…I just didn’t give a fuck at all, kinda the same way I don’t give a fuck about the X-Games anymore.
Person 2: Son, that’s The Cole Effect. It’s worse than any sort of itis you ever experienced. You remember that time you had 7 plates of orange chicken and fried rice at the Chinese Buffet, and then you feel asleep drooling on the table, and the waitresses and I were throwing noodle strings at you and shit? This is like 10 times worse than that son. You probably should find somewhere comfortable to lay down, cause you’re going to be asleep in about 5-10 minutes. But not on my couch, no way are your dirty stank ass feet touching my new IKEA couch I just spent my paycheck on.
Person 1: ZZZZZZZZZ.
Thankfully, The Cole Effect disappears temporarily and we are awakened with “She Knows.” Cole is assisted by newcomer Amber Coffman, and Madeline Follin of the New York indie band Cults. The song samples Cults’ “Bad Things” off their amazing 2011 self-titled LP, and Follin’s haunting nursery rhyme vocals somehow jive ingeniously with Cole’s raps about the desire to remain faithful to his “girl back home” in the presence of so many potential female sidepieces:
This is Martin Luther King
In the club, getting love
With a bad bitch in his ear
Saying that she’s down for whatever
In the back of his mind is Coretta
The track definitely has potential to become a smash single, and with a little luck from God and Lady Fortune, possibly exile “Tapout” (the most overplayed song in the history of the world) off the charts forever. Anyways, unfortunately after “She Knows” comes more Cole drudgery in the form of “Rich Niggaz.” The only interesting thing about this song is that Cole seems to be complaining about his boss Jay-Z for the bulk of the time: “Niggas can’t front on the flows you got/ But every single verse how much dough you got.” However, this is not a gossip blog so need to discuss conspiracy theories. By the way, what the hell is going on with the DJ Khaled marriage proposal to Nicki Minaj. Was the whole thing staged from the beginning? Again, this is not a gossip blog…
Following the “Rich Niggaz” catastrophe, Cole hits a stride in the second half of the album, commencing with “Forbidden Fruit,” featuring Kendrick Lamar. Once again, Cole borrows from the best stuff on earth, this time rhyming over A Tribe Called Quest’s CLASSIC “Electric Relaxation.” ATCQ is my favorite group of all time, but Cole’s track is still a solid piece of music even though it lacks all the greatness of the original. In the song, biblical themes abound, as well as references to females. It’s worth noting here that J.Cole is had a large part to play in introducing Kendrick Lamar to the masses. Surprisingly, Kendrick doesn’t get a verse, and is only involved in the chorus. In fact, the only other person that spits any bars on the album aside from Cole is newcomer Bas on “New York Times,” which also features 50 cent. Along with “Miss America” and “Niggaz Know,” “New York Times” is one of the highlights of the album.
“Chaining Day” has received a lot of hate from critics, probably because of its goofy name, but it is definitely one of the best tracks of the album. If you’ve read any of my previous posts about my addiction to expensive sneakers, then you will probably understand why I identify with Cole’s frank confession about his allegiance to materialism. Jewelry takes the place of sneakers in Cole’s world, and the song is mostly filled with his guilty feelings about his obsession to shiny, shallow objects. The beat is excellent, and so is the content, but the “it” factor is clear and recognizable. It can be located in the final two minutes of the song, where the chords become chopped and screwed, and Cole sings:
Told my momma it’s the last time
So don’t take my chains from me
‘Cause I chose this slavery
“Crooked Smile,” featuring TLC, has already started to receive ample play on the radio. With a catchy bass line, and catchy hook to match, Cole speaks about the objectification of women in society and pressures the fair sex is exposed to on a daily basis. The rapper’s advice is to smile in the face of adversity, even if that smile is crooked. Following “Crooked Smile,” comes the realest shit Cole ever wrote in my opinion, the song “Let Nas Down.” As I mentioned earlier, in the early moments of his career, many compared Cole to legendary emcee Nas, and prophesied that Cole would some day become the God’s son himself. However, a lot of fans (including me) discarded these illusions once they heard Cole’s debut album. Apparently, even Nas himself was disappointed in tracks tailor-made for the radio like “Work Out,” and “Let Nas Down” is equal parts Cole defending himself for his early career blunders and feeling guilty about, well, letting Nas down. Shortly after the release of Born Sinner, Nas released his own reply to Cole’s song, reaffirming his faith in the young artist. All’s well that ends well.
And on that Shakespearean concept, Cole concludes the official album the same he started, with a song worthy to be mentioned alongside his greatest musical accomplishments. “Born Sinner,” featuring James Fauntleroy, is perfect from start to finish. As a melancholic-sounding piano provides the main sonic impetus, Cole avoids falling into the “rapper role” merely rhyming about money, hoes, and clothes, and exchanges this for a deeply personal reflection about his own trials and tribulations as a man. The chorus of the song ties all the sporadic messages (the good, the bad, and the ugly) of the album brilliantly into one succinct chorus: “Imma a born sinner/But I’ll die better than that.” The somber feeling is only magnified when a choir chants the chorus at the end, expertly driving the message home.
I know someone reading this will probably think I’m somewhat delusional, because in the case of most songs I have written that they have strong quality. While the delusional aspect can’t be denied in good faith, it has nothing to do with the topic at hand. Some artists are on a higher level than others, and they should be judged more harshly. Anyone that is familiar with Cole’s mixtapes will understand why this album is disappointing, even though most of the tracks are solid, if not amazing pieces of work. It is those zzzzzz moments that prevent this album from being the goldmine that it should be. Hopefully, just in the case of Wale’s third studio album, Cole will connect the dots and release an album that in which not one single song will let down the fans, Nas, or most importantly, me.