(Today's Reader Review comes from longtime contributor Dag Diligent, who elected to write about Roc Nation artist J. Cole's free album Friday Night Lights in anticipation of his upcoming major label debut. Leave some notes for Dag below.)
I just celebrated my sixty-eighth birthday! I wanted to let you to know that I’ve come out of rap-critic retirement just to review J. Cole's Friday Night Lights. That’s right, just like Jay-Z in 2003, I’ve given up my modest hip hop pension and my gold membership card to the Playaz Club just to write this review.
While none of the above is actually true, it might as well be, with the quality of music that J. Cole has been putting out lately. I'd give up a life of elderly leisure to talk about this shit. I don’t want to come off like some kind of obsessed fan, but Cole has impressed me way more than any new artist in quite a while. Jermaine Cole is the truth, or a problem, depending on which slang you prefer. But how did one of the XXL Freshmen win my approval when I hate almost everything? I'll tell you how: he dropped two ill mixtapes albums in a row practically by himself: 2009's The Warm Up (which I previously reviewed for this site), and his latest, Friday Night Lights.
I am a little surprised that this mixtape even exists. As late as September of last year, Mr. Cole was promoting his major label debut Cole World with an October 2010 release date. I was expecting great things, but Cole’s boss at Roc Nation (that would be one Jay-Z) must have thought that the buzz wasn’t where it needed to be for the freshman rapper, so the album was pushed back and we got this instead. I'm not complaining though, I'll take all the good free hip hop that Jay-Z wants to give me, and if the delay makes Cole's eventual debut even better, then hold that shit for all the time you want (but not too long: I am 68, after all).
If you aren’t familiar with J. Cole, he is by far the most talented MC to ever come out of Fayetteville, North Carolina. He has established himself as more than just a sharp MC, since he also produces much of his work. He's got an ear for beats from hip hop's golden age, and also knows his way around a chorus, which is a rare skill indeed. My complaints about his previous work amounted to his crutch topic (ladies), his blatant (and somewhat sickening) mirroring of other rappers' styles, and his one-man-show approach, which resulted in an overdose of Cole by the end of his mixtapes (he needed a few mores guest spots). I stand by these criticisms, but his shine definitely overshadows his flaws.
More people are familiar with Mr. Cole from his impressive list of guest spots than they are his mixtapes. Thanks to his skills on the mic (and, more importantly, his highly influential boss), Cole has managed to work his way onto some high profile collaborations and successively destroy his gracious hosts. In fact, hip hop heavy hitter Mos Def had the misfortune of following Cole on Talib Kweli's "Just Begun" and hasn’t been seen since. If you know where he is, please give us a call (we’re watching his dog). Needless to say, Cole is currently on a winning streak, and he hasn't even sold a single album yet.
But does Friday Night Lights continue the winning streak? (I know I spoiled it in my intro, but give me a break, I’m old.)
1. FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS
Much like The Warm Up, Friday Night Lights begins with Cole speaking to the audience over a building piano, only this time around he goes on for two minutes and ends with the question, “What good is being the one when you’re the only one that knows it?” Listen Jermaine, everybody agrees that you’re great (even Drake), so you really need to get off that rookie bullshit. Skip.
2. TOO DEEP FOR THE INTRO
I wasn’t impressed with the pitched-up singing featured on this track (and about ninety percent of hip hop songs in general: seriously, it's getting old, guys), but Cole easily saves the day with some watertight lyrics (such as, “Partially functional, half of me is comfortable / The other half is close to the Cliff like Mrs. Huxtable”) and one of his trademark throwback-sounding jazzy instrumentals. Good track, case closed.
3. BEFORE I'M GONE
Fuck, this beat is good! Cole is so moved by his
backup choir synthesizer that he almost starts singing the last verse, and even that can’t screw this shit up. This is an excellent example of the high level of quality that Cole brings to a track, both on production and with his lyrics. It sounds dope both on headphones and in the ride, the lyrics are ill, and the content actually connects with the listener. Friday Night Lights is off to a strong start.
4. BACK TO THE TOPIC
Cole drops a freestyle over the drowsy beat from Cassie’s “Must Be Love”, which is quite an abrupt change from the energy of the previous song. His lyrics are okay, except for when he says that he’s “Higher than the Jettisons” when I think he meant “Higher than the Jetsons”. (I suppose I can overlook that lapse, since “Jetsons” doesn't contain enough syllables to fill the space.) Cole goes for three minutes, and it's hard to not start thinking about hitting that skip button when you consider his shaky bars and the bland beat. His checklist of potential topics that he needs to return to is a definite highlight though: “Back to the topic / …actually, forgot it / Hos, money, I’m the shit / Oh yeah, I’m reminded”. Funny that he mentioned the ladies first, as I've noticed that he's really fond of that particular subject.
5. YOU GOT IT (FEAT. WALE)
Wale (known to his parents as Olubowale Victor Akintimehin, and yes, there will be a quiz later) stops by to keep pace with Cole over another obscure beat (“Neon Valley Street” by Janelle Monáe this time around). This track is like a buffet: the first time I heard it, I spent more time trying to figure out where Cole borrowed each element from than I spent listening to the actual song. Eventually I gave up and just enjoyed it for what it is: fucking dope, son! Wale and Cole make for a pretty good team. I could easily go for more of this.
It takes backbone to name your song after Nas’ incomparable Illmatic, but Cole seems just tough enough to back up his cockiness. Holy shit, I just gave a rookie a pass on comparing himself to a young Nas (which Cole most certainly is not). For the record, Cole makes it clear that he knows better, as he points out that there is “nobody touching Nas”. As for this song, I liked the complex beat, and Cole kills it (as usual), but I still found it a tad bit boring when compared to the better tracks on Friday Night Lights.
7. ENCHANTED (FEAT. OMEN)
Cole pulls the whole chorus from
2Pac Makaveli's "Hail Mary", twisting the overall meaning, and does so fairly well. The synthesizer, beat, and subject matter for “Enchanted” are exactly the same as the novelty song “Inner City Pressure” by Flight of the Conchords, which I doubt is what Cole and Omen were going for, but somehow the track still manages to be ill. I'll even go as far as to say that I found this beat inspired: the music is relatively simple, but the flourishes, like the old-school loop and the bass build before the chorus, are the little touches that set Cole apart from his peers. It’s all in the details, muthafucka! Omen also destroys it, even though he is “ballin’” and “probably meant 'tears'.” Best track of the album. Also, who the fuck is Omen?
8. BLOW UP
Cole starts off by announcing that this song is for his “haters”, because he wants them to know that he is about to “blow up” and there is little they can do about it. In case that flew over your head, though, he repeats that statement about fifty times during the course of the track, and he also wants you to know that he thinks you’re a “bitch”. I’ll be the first to say that the chorus on this track is terrible, and Cole should be embarrassed for stooping so low, but fuck, this track is good. The beat plays the extremes, transitioning from sparse to dense while remaining constantly nice, and the loop and bass are badass. The lyrics are also top-choice: "Everything glittering ain’t what you think it will be / Funny how money, chains, and whips make me feel free". An almost perfect track. Almost.
I’m not sure how I feel about this one. Oh wait, yes I do: it’s too upbeat. It reminds me of a Warren G beat from just after he fell off, only with first-rate production and way better lyrics. Oh, and I caught the goat noises during the chorus there. I’m sure your lady appreciates that you’re calling her the G.O.A.T, but that clever barnyard shit doesn’t work around here. Skip.
10. IN THE MORNING (FEAT. DRAKE)
The inevitable Drake and Cole collaboration. Readers of the Internet know that Cole and Drake are constantly being compared to one another, and most people have already chosen their respective sides and aren’t afraid to mention it repeatedly in sections of the web that are reserved for comments. I definitely prefer J. Cole over Drake, but if “In The Morning” were my first exposure to both of them, I would tell them both to “get a better producer because this beat sucks shit”. Then I would say that both of these boys are good but should have spent more time working on their hook. Skip.
I hate that title. The beat (from Syience, who also produced Cole’s brilliant “Can I Live”) is muddy but okay. Cole’s lyrics are somehow taxing, and the chorus is downright painful. The whole idea of a rapper having two sides is incredibly played out and could be used to describe absolutely anyone. Hey Jermaine, “sometimes I scrap” and “sometimes I’m throwing up the peace sign” too, but you don’t see me bragging about it. Maybe your two sides are the Cole who can make classic tracks and the one who makes middle of the road shit like this.
12. THE AUTOGRAPH
Another dope beat. Toward the end of the track, Cole takes a few lines to slam his fans for asking him to autograph burned copies of his CDs. Uh, Jermaine, have you noticed that you haven’t actually sold any real CD’s yet? Burned is pretty much the only option, pal. And please quit calling me “the worst”: I've got my grandkids in the room. Nice track, though.
13. BEST FRIEND
“Nope”. That word entered my mind before I made it three seconds into this track. Cole starts it off by revisiting his favorite topic (that would be “ladies”), and before I can tell myself that it’ll probably get better, the track veers wildly into R&B territory. Hardcore R&B. Cole starts spitting with a distressing double-time flow and fails, too. Come on Jermaine, when I said you need to break things up I didn’t mean like this: this is some of the worst work you’ve ever done. The thing that worries me that Cole has proven talent, which means that this shit was intentional.
14. COST ME A LOT
At first the beat and chipmunk-sounding chorus reminded me of “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)”-era Jay-Z, but this track is much more sophisticated. The loop is closer to something The RZA might put together, in that it has that rugged element which I can really appreciate. Now I’ll go ahead and list this as one of the best tracks on Friday Night Lights, but it could have been so much better without the lazy chorus. What the fuck is up with all the sub-par choruses, Cole? Hooks were your specialty just a few months ago; did you have some kind of head injury after releasing The Warm Up? Dude, get a helmet.
15. PREMEDITATED MURDER
This track has a lot going for it: it starts out raw and slow, has some expert change-ups, a nice loop, a solid breakdown, and it falls into a nice groove. It's tough to describe Cole's lyrics on here because they are so well done: honestly, I could write that Jermaine is an expert lyricist, but I think you get the idea. Cole really tries to drag the song down by screwing up the chorus again, though, this time with singing and an absolutely terrible sample. He even follows that up by closing the song with a bit more singing. Please stop that shit, man, I've got my grandkids in the room (still).
16. HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS
This track features a title and a beat which could have been pulled from a crappy sitcom (or a shitty Holly Hunter film). The title (and, subsequently, the topic) is pretty lame, and the beat is clever but silly. How do you do it, J. Cole? If you keep making choruses like this, I’ll stop claiming that you know how to write a chorus. This is shit. Your clever lines and zany beat can’t save it.
17. LOVE ME NOT
I got this horrible feeling in my stomach when I realized that Cole was going to sample the shit out of “My Cherie Amour” by Stevie Wonder for this song. Then I realized that Cole is a genius (for the length of this track, anyway), as it took about four bars for the beat to win me over. Add some decent lyrics into the mix and you've got yourself another winner, mister.
18. SEE WORLD
Another horrible song title, but that’s not the worst offense on here. The subject matter for this song (as presented by sampled news reports): child abduction and murder (and worse). So right away he has two strikes against him. For the record, Cole handles the difficult topic better than expected. Thankfully, he doesn’t act like the perpetrator of the crime (like a certain MC from Detroit might), but there is no way this song is going to get many spins, and the ones that do occur will be solely by accident. I know where Cole is coming from on this one, but this shit was way too depressing.
Cole ends Friday Night Lights by contemplating his eulogy, dictating his will, and paying his respects to the dead. At some point he slides into an incredible groove where his lyrics connect perfectly with the beat and the song just takes off. This is a song you can literally lose yourself in. Remember when I said that “Enchanted” was the best song on the album? This is also the best song. Yep, that’s right, two best songs. You got a problem with that?
Friday Night Lights ends with a bonus track.
20. LOOKING FOR TROUBLE (KANYE WEST FEAT. J. COLE, PUSHA T, BIG SEAN, & CYHI DA PRINCE)
This is one of those free G.O.O.D Friday tracks from Kanye West that somehow made its way onto here. I agree with Max’s comments from his Keeping Up with Kanye post: this song is pretty boring, and Cole is definitely the highlight. Strangely, given 'Ye's penchant for perfectionism, this is the most mixtape-like song on Friday Night Lights, in that the vocal production is questionable, Kanye’s verse ends abruptly, and Big Sean sounds jarringly terrible. Sean’s verse is amateur-mixtape-upload bad: his vocal production is the worst I’ve ever heard on a project of this caliber. His lyrics sound like something he found in the back of a notebook which he stole from his twelve year old cousin: “This is showtime, showtime boy I hope you set the DVR / Stackin' money face to face this shit look like CPR”. Sean made me more uncomfortable than Cole did with that child abduction song. Think about that for a minute. Thank you, Kanye, for including Cole on here, as he at least saved it.
SHOULD YOU TRACK THIS DOWN? I love bashing bad albums. In fact, it’s my favorite thing on Earth. But there is very little to hate on J. Cole's Friday Night Lights. I'll admit, the first time I listened to this all the way through I was disappointed. But to say it grew on me is an understatement: after repeated spins I’ve discovered the same elements of genius that make Cole’s other work so good are present here in abundance. There are a lot of good tracks, and two have the potential to become classics ("Enchanted" and "Farewell"), which is a way better batting average than most albums. Friday Night Lights is consistently good: when it’s great, it delivers on an unprecedented level, and when it’s bad it’s merely average (maybe with the exception of “See World” and “Best Friend” which we shall never speak of again). Overall, this shit is hot, way hotter than your average hip hop album (mixtape or commercial release). Sure, I’ve got a few criticisms: some of the problems from The Warm Up persist here, such as Cole’s fixation with rhyming about the ladies, and his tendency to mirror other rappers (most notably 2Pac on here), but to be honest, it’s not as bad this time around. There are a few new issues which have also cropped up: suddenly Cole is choking on some of his choruses, his beats are a step down from his previous work, and there are noticeably fewer knock-out classic tracks then on his last album. But the kid still has his shit together, his lyrics are spot on, his production is way above the cut, and he is working with the heaviest of industry heavyweights. This is Cole at his prime, and it's really good to see a new artist doing it this well. Now I didn’t care for this album at first, but I think the issue I had might have been that this collection of songs is rather sophisticated for a rap album: Friday Night Lights is designed to be examined and poured over for a length of time. You’re not going to spin this at the club and get people crunk on the floor (or krunk, does it even matter?) - this is meant for personal consumption. The dopeness is in the details, and you can quote me on that (or not, whatever). Also, it's free and available all over the Internet!
(Questions? Comments? Concerns? Leave your thoughts below.)