I've never had more people ask me how I feel about an artist than I have about J. Cole. It's interesting, really. Somehow, J. Cole is like a hip-hop Hatfields vs McCoy standoff. People either love or give no fucks about J. Cole. And the folks who love him stan so hard for him it even makes the people who give no fucks wonder what it is that they're missing. I'm in that camp. Or at least I have been since I first heard about Hollywood Cole. He has a great story - North Carolina kid heads to college in NYC to get that degree and try to make it in rap in the mecca, manages to sign to Jay-Z and etches his own name into all of the conversations - so it was easy to give the young God a shot.
And then I found myself underwhelmed. Which wasn't even his fault. It was everybody else's fault. The laudatory praise heaped upon Lightskint Jermaine was amazing. You'd think that he was the next coming of Rakim+Jay+Nas. Could he rap? Sure. But I didn't see what everybody else saw, and I apparently have this problem frequently. But because I'm lightskint, I kept the vast majority of my criticism to myself in hopes of not helping to derail the career of a fellow Brother of The Light (I'm like 80 percent joking, by the way). Despite the fact that I didn't really like him as a rapper (or producer for that matter, more on this later), I kept listening, hoping, similar to Big K.R.I.T., that I'd hear what everybody else heard.
I wasn't a fan of Cole World: The Sideline Story or Born Sinner. Did I listen to both of those albums? Absolutely. I listened to them the requisite number of times to determine that I don't ever need to hear them again: once at the house and once in the car. I'm a staunch advocate of the Hip-Hop In The Car Theory. This theory states that you cannot truly appreciate a hip-hop album until you hear it in the car. This is especially true for both Southern and West Coast artists considering that most of us from those locations spend so much of our time in our cars bumping our music. The East Coast is a bit different. The East Coast has the Headphone Corollary to the Hip-Hop In The Car Theory, which states that while wearing headphones, if you don't feel inclined to do the head nod (becuase your neck knows its fat) repeatedly, then you likely won't end up listening to it anymore either. Environment is important when listening to music; its paramount to hip-hop.
Anyway, I listened to both of those albums in the car and was like, ugh, nice watch. Then I moved onto some other artist who didn't change my life but who didn't make me question why the fuck nobody would shut up about them. Cole got better as a rapper from mixtapes to album 1 to album 2. My issues with Cole were always 2-fold. 1) I don't think he's that good of a producer; and 2) I think he's a good rapper but I don't feel like he was any different than any other rappers I liked more.
But then I saw the cover for 2014 Forest Hills Drive, his third album that he officially released on December 9th. Full disclosure, I listened to this album purely because of the album cover. It spoke to me that much. Even knowing how much of fan of Cole that I'm not, I decided to give the album a shot. A REAL shot. Again, everybody keeps asking me how I feel about Cole so I must be missing something. My first run through at the house didn't move me much. Hell, I found myself skipping tracks. But then I listened in my car…remember the theory. And I will admit that this is a much better album than I gave it credit for. Cole has definitely progressed as a rapper. Of course there are hints of Jay-Z all up and through my man's album, but it doesn't irk me in a way that Logic's album irks people because of the obvious comparisons to Kendrick Lamar. Cole is witty, even downright funny sometimes, and conscious and aware enough to speak to his own circumstances and fame in a way that comes off as self-revelatory and introspective at times, while hinting that he's still ignorant as fuck. The opening track is (after the "Intro") entitled "January 28th" (again another nod to Jay) but then dives right into "Wet Dreamz" (mentioned before) a song where he literally talks bout losing his virginity, but in a way that's relatable. And funny. And sounds like he watched The Wood before writing it. His song "No Role Modelz" (he's got a lot of songs that end with a "z") actually made me laugh out loud. Cole is one witty motherfucker.
And on his song "Love Yourz" (we really need to ban rappers that can read from using the "z") he has a line that punched me in the gut because it is real to me in my life: "…the good news is, nigga, you came a long way/the bad news is, nigga, you went the wrong way…" When I tell you I had to stop the record just to say "damn" before proceeding…well I'm not lying. That happened. Turns out that, for the most part, I enjoyed the album but I still wasn't all in.
So then I had to revisit what it was that keeps me from being all in on Cole and its this: he's a good rapper, not a great one. He's a good producer, not a great one. He sucks at hooks (like really sucks at hooks and should stop attemping to write and record them himself), which makes his songs not as cohesive as I'd like them to be. He's also got bigger ideas than I think he can execute fully, but the perception amongst fans is that he's the second coming.
Let's take a hard left right quick.
In 2005, The Game released The Documentary; it is a classic album. Game was a resurgence point for the West Coast. He had the backstory, the Compton-bred gangland pedigree, and was a West Coast rapper who had the lyrical prowess of an East Coast cat. Add an album helmed by Dr. Dre and an at the time untouchable 50 Cent and we got the album we deserved. An album full of killer beats and dope rhymes from an artist we were interested in. Then because Game gon' Game, he went all Dylan-Dylan-Dylan-Dylan-and-Dylan on niggas, got kicked out of G-Unit via a radio interview (I will never forget listening to that interview where 50 Cent kicked Game out of G-Unit…classic shit) and ended up making subsequent albums without Dr. Dre or 50 Cent. And what we found out about Game is that while he's a great rapper, he struggles to make good songs. He doesn't have as good an ear for beats as we thought and he is terrible at crafting hooks. Which in today's rap game is important. Back in the 90s, rappers didn't really have hooks in the conventional sense. That has since changed. The hook is almost as important as the verses in keeping a song cohesive. Why do you think Lil Wayne said "…and we gon' be alright if we put Drake on every hook…" off of "Money To Blow". Wayne ain't lie. Not for nothing, Game hasn't been the same rapper since 2005. Nobody denies that he can rap, but nobody is out here checking for Game albums either. Also, he brought too much drama to the game (no pun intended) without having enough talent to compensate for it. The only reason we tolerate Kanye West and his antics is because he is as talented as he is ambitious and ultimately brings something to the table, though, I even see people's patience for Kanye wearing thin.
But I digress.
I feel like J. Cole is a more conscious version of Game, except his fanbase stans way harder for him than Game's ever will because of his antics. Also, Cole is humble enough to let his talent do the work for him.
[Coincidentally #ornah, Cole sampled the same song Game used for one of my favorite songs "Like Father, Like Son" for his song "Wet Dreamz" on his latest album. And I cannot be convinced that he didn't use that sample because of Game. Unless you're a beat digger, there's a better than 90 percent chance you've never heard the Family Circle song "Mariya" until Game's album. And Buckwild, who produced "Like Father, Like Son" did SUCH a great job with it, I'm sure many producers have wanted to touch it but didn't want to unless they could do it better…they can't. Cole is a producer, but I don't get beat digger vibe from him. His take is decent.]
He is, effectively, Game if he had gone to college instead of joining a gang (Game allegedly went to college on a basketball scholarship; neither Game nor the school he allegedly went to can produce receipts of that ever being the case). Game without the power of Dre beats or the hit making acumen of 2003-2007 50 Cent is just another nigga that can rap well but isn't exaclty making albums I care to listen to on repeat. Cole has the advantage of having a fanbase that will be more than glad to advocate for him, so his albums will have much longer replay value than any other album of Game's but The Documentary, but I'm not sure how "great" an artist he is. But being really good is nothing to sneeze at either.
With that being said, I have to acknowledge that I like this album more than I originally thought I would and because, ya know, Lightskint Jermaine, I want him to keep winning out here. I still don't get the hype, but at least now I have a reason to begin to understand the emotion behind it.