The rising rapper’s debut showcases some astounding potential.
Natalie Shaw 2011
In the space of two mixtapes, J. Cole has toured the world, attracted Jay-Z as his mentor and been hailed as the messiah, saviour, redeemer and more. And while hip hop doesn’t need saving, it’s certainly true that this man is a remarkably anti-contemporary prospect in relation to his peers.
His two previous mixtapes – 2009’s The Warm Up and the following year’s Friday Night Lights – stood out for going against the grain of modern MCs twice over, with a plethora of unexpected patterns steadily becoming his signature. In spite of his casting as the familiar underdog, Cole’s reality is refreshingly gimmick-free; while Drake’s charm relies on his foot-in-mouth tendencies, this rapper’s multi-layered introspection offers more depth and focus across a longer time-span.
Production-wise, Cole aims to ape the mid-90s – and the golden era following Dr Dre’s The Chronic LP of 1992 is referenced throughout, Nobody’s Perfect being a particularly strong example. Be it the double drums or his Nas-like obsession with turning bad into good, these cuts display Cole at his best – brutally delivered rhymes, multi-layered instrumentation and heavy, heavy hooks.
Lost Ones sees Cole acting out both male and female roles through a pregnancy; it’s a common subject but approached unusually, especially when he plays the woman trying to fight off getting an abortion. Looking over his progress from his teenage songs as the Therapist to the present day, it’s no wonder the hype has been so extraordinary. But despite several strengths, Cole World isn’t without its low points.
Work Out first appeared three years ago, and it shows – there’s nothing unexpected about its flow, and it fails to shake up the listener in the same way that other productions here can. Lights, Please is a half-hearted attempt at dropping the intelligence and upping the fun, but it lacks finesse. Cole’s concessions are often exaggerated to the point of exhaustion; by the album’s closing whimper, his contingent swagger and introverted overthinking feel strained and repetitive.
This is a debut, let’s not forget, but following his mixtapes it feels too consciously locked into its themes – solely our protagonist’s struggles and women. And these have natural expiration points, which are dangerously close if listeners aren’t new to the rapper. But despite this, Cole World reveals its maker to be a technically superb rapper with great production skills, albeit currently exploring rags-to-riches tales lacking in consistent vigour. Still, as a taster for the next album – which, strategically, it certainly is – it showcases some astounding potential.