July 1, 2010

Reader Review / For Promotional Use Only: J. Cole - The Warm Up (2009)

(For today's Reader Review, frequent contributor Dag Diligent tackles Roc Nation rookie J. Cole's free mixtape The Warm Up, thereby inadvertently responding to the many of readers who kept wondering why I would continue to write about Drake. As such, you two had damn well better leave some comments for Dag below. Enjoy!)

Jermaine Cole is an up-and-comer from Fayetteville, North Carolina (a/k/a Fayettenam) (because every rapper wants to believe that he grew up in a war zone) who was the first artist signed to Jay-Z’s new label, Roc Nation. He made a name for himself with his debut mixtape The Come Up, and earned respect for his guest verse on Jay-Z's "A Star is Born", both of which sent the Internet into a frenzy for more Cole.

A lot of the talk regarding Cole revolves around three areas: (1) He’s the next big thing; (2) He's better than Drake (another young rap savior who also appeared on The Blueprint 3); and (3) He's the next Drake. My response is that we've heard this shit before many times, for a lot of artists, and it rarely works out. As for the Drake comparison, I don't see it, as they are very different emcees. Drake is more of a southern emcee (by way of Canada, eh?), while J. Cole has a New York old school vibe. Cole produces his own shit for the most part, while Drake brings in outside talent. Both cats have built their followings around their respective mixtape releases. I guess in a way he could be the next Drake, but that's neither here nor there.

For those of you who have heard The Come Up, you'll be pleased to know that Cole has definitely stepped his game up lyrically for his second mixtape, The Warm Up (which actually dropped a few months prior to The Blueprint 3, a fact that I didn't know until I wrote this very sentence). He's also figured out how to write a solid chorus, which is something that many established emcees completely fail at. While his first mixtape focused heavily on high school, this one addresses more adult topics like college, getting signed to a record deal, and, of course, ladies. Unfortunately, he has also started sounding a lot like other established artists, such as Kid Cudi, Jay-Z, and The College Dropout-era Kanye West.

The Warm Up is a free project, available for download almost everywhere. It should be considered promotion for the eventual J. Cole debut album, which is expected to be drop later this year (hence the title). Cole is looking to make a major impression, and what better way is there to introduce yourself then to spit over beats that everyone already loves? Since this is a mixtape, the lyrical skill better be on point, because most of the beats aren't anything new.

So Does J. Cole deliver?

This highly skippable intro has Cole describing his insecurities while someone mournfully plays piano in the background. Cole talks about fulfilling his rap dreams. Skip.

A nice mellow jazz-infused beat kicks things off as the main themes for the “album” are introduced: a laid back vibe, an old school feel, lots of energy, clever lyrics, the struggle for fame, the fact that he got signed, and lots of rapping about the ladies. A good way to start an album, I suppose. This song is mad nice.

Syience delivers one of mixtape’s two beats not produced (or jacked) by Cole, and it is amazing. The title comes from a song on Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt, which Cole actually acknowledges in the track. This entire song is hot, especially after the first minute, as Cole really picks it up and delivers a story rap mixed with some stream-of-conscious shit on a professional level. And fuck, even the hook is ill: it feels like it should be part of his verse, but it still sounds distinct. Hopefully, this is the quality that we can expect on his full album. You should check this shit out. (On a side note, Jay’s original “Can I Live” is a classic in its own right, and it has one of the best laid-back grooves out there. I highly recommend that you spin his track if you haven’t heard it, or even if it’s been awhile.)

This is the first single off The Warm Up, and it is easily one of the best tracks on the album, even with its stupid-ass name. I’m pretty sure this is an original J. Cole beat, and it knocks hard. Cole brings a sophisticated structure to this song by smartly placing the hooks so that they seem to blend in with his verses while still managing to stand out. On a side note, this song also illustrates Jay-Z’s business sense: this is a fucking incredible song that they could easily charge for, but instead they’re giving it away. Expect a short life for Roc Nation.

Cole rocks a slightly amped version of Talib Kweli's “Get By”, and starts off by pulling the tired Jay-Z trick of saying he'll get his verse in one take. It would be hard for anyone to fuck up this beat, unless you're stupidly trying to do it in one take (advice: do several and pick the best). Cole holds his own for the whole minute and a half song and calls himself “the best bachelor since Bruce Wayne with his bachelor’s”. Maybe so. Another good track.

Rumor has it that this is the track that got Cole signed with Hova, which I find surprising because I didn't think it was very good. The Interweb has crowned this track an instant classic, and while I agree that the lyrics are sophisticated and the beat is alright, I hate the hook and found the overall song a little boring. Plus, I’m not even halfway through the album and I’m already tired of hearing about the ladies.

At the end of the previous track J. Cole made a good point: if your going to rhyme over the beat to Jay-Zs "Dead Presidents", then you had better come correct. Just like “Get By”, this beat is so good that it would be nearly impossible to screw up. And Cole doesn’t: he brings a set of insane verses that absolutely own the track, so although can’t touch Jay, he sure as shit tries. This song accomplished exactly what this mixtape set out to do: showcase an ill emcee over a head-nodding beat.

This is definitely my favorite track off of The Warm Up. I love the complex jazzy beat, as it is both laid back and interesting all at once. It reminds me of some old Camp Lo-type shit, but with far better lyrics to work with. Cole talks about why he gets up in the morning; and his lyrics are beyond good with some jaw dropping bars thrown in for good measure. Just to show that I put in my work, Cole pulled the horns for this song directly from the song “E2” by the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. I usually expect beats to be pulled from other hip-hop sources for mixtapes, but this one is most certainly not;instead, this ends up being an original production which uses its samples well. Nice.

This is one of the few missteps of the album. The beat is “Copa Cabana”-style and just falls flat; Cole switches up his flow to sound like a slower Twista, which is a complete failure; and the chorus is pretty bad, too. The only thing that keeps this track from becoming a complete disaster are the lyrics, but fuck, they have to do a lot of work.

The beat is nice, but the same jazzy element that worked so well on "I Get Up" causes this track to fall apart. I can't stand the hook, and I’ve really heard enough about Cole and the ladies at this point. I can’t help but feel like this was really supposed to be a KiD CuDi track, which isn’t a terrible thing, but how many CuDi's does hip hop need?

Take my advice: if you are working on a mixtape, avoid this fucking beat. Unless your name is Royce Da 5’9”, it will eat you alive. It's taken from Big Boi’s “Royal Flush” (which was originally slated for his oft-stalled debut album, at least until it was removed by Def Jam due to a guest appearance of a not-under-Def-Jam-contract Andre 3000), and it sounds old school enough, but has that certain Outkast feel that makes it difficult for anyone to rhyme over (except for certain flamboyant members of Outkast). It cleanly took down Canibus on the Royce mixtape, and it almost got the best of Big Boi and Raekwon on the original. Needless to say, it doesn’t work here: Cole comes correct with the lyrics, but isn’t going to get any love for this track. Even with lines like “I’m a Carolina n---a, boy I got it on my back / piggyback style, I ain’t talkin’ bout no tat”, the beat dominates the emcee. Fortunately for Cole and the listener, this shit is short.

The smooth piano beat for this song really drove me nuts, I searched for a long time trying to remember where I’d heard it before, but I still have no idea. The piano reminded me of a slowed down “Heard ‘Em Say” by Kanye West, and this song has a similar feel. The pitched-up voice that runs over a lot of this track is extremely annoying, and the addition of the “Wait till I get my money right” hook from Kanye’s “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” only helps remind the listener of other music entirely. The lyrics are okay: I wasn’t feeling them at first, but when I found out the last verse was about Sallie Mae and student loans, I liked it a little more. But I still would have probably dropped the track from the mixtape, or at least the stupid voice. If anyone knows where this beat came from, I’d love to know.

I would like to see more interludes like this on mainstream albums. J. Cole freestyles over some classic beats, radio show-style: LL Cool J’s “I Shot Ya” plays for most of the track, with a last second switch to “Warning” by Biggie. Cole’s lyrics are mostly impressive, although he runs off course for a line or two toward the middle.

Elite provides the only other outside production on The Warm Up, and J. Cole comes hungry. He owns his flow and delivers a few professional level verses, but the beat is stale from the jump. The chorus is irritating, though, and will echo in your head like a mental illness. Nothing special here.

A pretty boring track with an ill-conceived chorus. J. Cole produces his own beat, and once again proves that he can use samples brilliantly. It comes in a bit bass-heavy and is tolerable enough, but it isn’t that great.

Cole snatches the beat from Monica's "Knock, Knock" (I was sad to discover that it wasn't from GZA's song of the same name) for a quick two minute verse. He does a decent job spitting over the challenging retro-esque groove, but the track is pretty boring overall. If you can pick any beat on earth to steal, why use this one?

I thought that I would hate this song based solely on the title (and the fact that 90% of The Warm Up is about ladies). But once again, this is some nice smooth shit. The beat is great, and Cole delivers on the mic (even if I swear that Kanye West wrote the first verse). Funk/soul star Lee Fields delivers a nice hook ,which rounds out a great track.

Now this sounds like a mixtape track. You’ll immediately recognize the beat from Souls of Mischief's “’93 ‘til Infinity” , and then you’ll be impressed by Cole on the mic, as he drops plenty of memorable lines and keeps it entertaining and clever throughout.

Cole brings his best lyrics of the album over a minimal beat, and destroys Omen (another up and coming mixtaper) in the process. The lyrics are deep and well conceived, and I hope that this is the lyrical quality we can expect if a full album ever drops.

The beat on here is very similar to “My Way” by Nas, but it is reduced and slowed way down, which transforms it into a candy-pop beat. As a result, I couldn’t get into it at all. Skip.

This shit is unjustifiable. Remember Kanye's “Last Call”, the final song on The College Dropout? The twelve minute track where Kanye drops a few verses then spends ten minutes telling his life story? Well, you might also remember that it had a nice groove (with plenty of change-ups) and was fairly interesting. Well, Cole steals all of it for this track. All of it. Aside from the beat and chorus (which sound worse here, but I can let that slide on a mixtape), he also adopts Kanye’s flow and mannerisms, telling his own life story over the last five minutes of the track after dropping a few boring verses. Needless to say, his story is much less interesting. When Kanye recorded the original, he was already an established producer, whereas Cole had only one mixtape under his belt. Everything about this remake was a bad idea. J. Cole, if you’re trying to establish yourself as an artist in your own right, you should probably skip the blatant biting. I'm going to simply pretend that this track doesn't exist.

The Warm Up ends with a bonus final song.

I'm not sure how a mixtape can even have a bonus track, since it would appear as though every song is a bonus track, right? I suppose the bonus could be that Cole delivers another decent song. He pulls the music directly from the song “Balance” by Portuguese singer Sara Tavares, which contains some mellow Spanish guitar that may be a bit too relaxing for hip hop, and crafts a beat that sounds like something Fabolous would spit on. Cole delivers a decent chorus and a few well crafted verses geared for the ladies (probably). Not bad.

SHOULD YOU TRACK IT DOWN?: The Warm Up surprised the hell out of me. It goes way beyond what a mixtape normally does, as it feels like an actual album with quality production, original beats, and polished lyrics from J. Cole. (I wouldn’t be surprised to see a some of the songs on here to make his debut, or at least a few of his verses.) Cole has the rare skill of writing decent hooks: I’m not saying they’re all great, but at least they’re not all bad, which is more than I can say for a lot of rappers nowadays. The Warm Up does have a couple of minor flaws, though. It feels much too long: Cole fits a lot of lyrics onto this disc, and since he carries the entire workload almost entirely by himself, his voice, flow, and content become fairly tiring. Also, the album's sound is pretty laid back, which only serves to increase the monotony. Since most of the hooks are basic rhymes blended with the verses (which is actually my preference, to be fair), they don't do much to break up the tracks or distinguish individual verses. However, all of these problems disappear when you add The Warm Up to the mp3 player of your choice and shuffle the tracks with those from other albums: it’s just a bit much for a single sitting. As for J. Cole, he has definitely stolen a lot of tricks from other more popular emcees, blatantly taking his flows, topics, and mannerisms from other artists such as Jay-Z, KiD CuDi, and Kanye West, which can be extremely irritating, so much so that one could almost write off Cole as a biter, especially since he isn’t saying anything new, or much of anything at all (with a few exceptions, he’s just talking about normal everyday life, which is alright, but makes the world of the album feel small). However, J. Cole makes up for all of these shortcomings by being an incredibly talented emcee and producer, and The Warm Up is of very high quality, whether you're comparing it to other mixtapes or to actual albums available on store shelves. You can reserve my seat on the J. Cole bandwagon for now. Definitely check this shit out: it’s worth the few seconds of effort it will take to find it online.

-Dag Diligent

(Questions? Comments? Complaints? Leave your thoughts for everybody below.)


  1. A.R. MarksJuly 01, 2010

    I like Cole as an MC and a lot of his beats as well, but I (like the rest of the hip-hop world) am still waiting for him to put out a solid, well-rounded piece of material to prove that he's an artist and not just a rapper.

    After hearing this and other shit of his I'm pretty excited that he's working with No I.D. and Kanye on his solo album, although hopefully it features the jazzy side of the pair and not the shitty 80's throwback aspect.

    Aside from spazzing about his skills there really isn't much more to say about Cole yet. That dude needs to hop on some features or put out his album or some shit.

  2. Long Time FanJuly 01, 2010

    This album is off the chain.

    Cole kills it on Royal Flush though - you got that wrong.

  3. AnonymousJuly 01, 2010

    who the hell is j cole?

  4. AnonymousJuly 02, 2010

    who buys this shit?

  5. AnonymousJuly 02, 2010

    cole is insane. The $hit he released since blueprint 3 is mostly on another level

    "who dat?"
    "just begun" (off Kweli.....he had a better verse than Mos Def)
    "the last stretch"

    "higher" is a bad though
    "we on" is bad too but cole still has a good verse

    stop puttin him next to drake...they not even close

  6. (author)@ 2nd Anonymous "who buys this shit?"

    Nobody, this is a free mixtape.

  7. Hopefully no one; it's a mixtape.

  8. AnonymousJuly 02, 2010

    He does have features, mad features, check the web, dog. He does kill Royal Flush. This man has become my favorite rapper in the past months.

  9. AnonymousJuly 02, 2010

    thanks for reviewing this man, i'm given this a listen

  10. Patrick LJuly 02, 2010

    I liked this better then every album I heard last year. I would actually buy a physical copy if I could find one.

  11. I agree Patrick, this was one of my top albums for '09.

  12. A.R. MarksJuly 03, 2010

    @Anonymous #4:

    That Royal Flush is a freestyle, dude. I was talking about features on other rappers' tracks.

  13. This album is dope. Fuck this review!

  14. "This album is dope. Fuck this review!" Word!!

    My dude Dag got it all wrong. You were 100 on the positive points but fell face flat on the negative/constructive ones. Most of them weren't true & there isn't much you can really see in a bad light when it comes to this tape. Your opinion I guess. =/

  15. Fuck you. The Warmup was impeccable