Dear Summer, I know you’re not gonna’ miss Doc Zeus.
On any given day of the week, the Great Internet Hype Factories will post a Hulkshare link from a rapper that you’ve never heard of and will have no interest in listening to. I promise. But through the power of a solid management strategy, they’ve secured the co-sign of somebody famous. Nobody is certain where these ciphers come from, but the music industry tosses these wayward artists into the murky digital waters like sardines snaring the attention of hungry bloggers and gullible tastemakers desperate to fill the content Void. Anthropologists have described this beautiful cycle of mutual desperation as “content farming” and it’s this practice that fuels the basic commerce of the blogosphere. And thus, the entire modern music industry. Sort of.
Once upon time before he allegedly, possibly, maybe, sort of, potentially (but also, definitely did not…) film(ed) a sex tape with a certain Caribbean-born pop princess, J. Cole was another faceless rapper struggling to make a name for himself in the cutthroat world of blog attention. He was competent enough as a rapper and producer but his music was as drab and uninspiring as his namesake. He made safe post-Kanye street conscious pop rap, the type of material that is consumed and spit out with Galactus-like hunger by the New Music Cartellists and their like.
Remarkably generic yet “acclaimed” mixtapes like The Warm Up and Friday Night Lights proved that Cole certainly could rap, but failed to highlight why he deserved to stand taller than the rest of the peons fighting for scraps at the kid’s table. Fate or industry connections intervened and one of his songs famously caught the attention of Jay-Z, who signed Cole to be the flagship artist for his fledgling new, corporate sponsored, vanity label, Roc Nation. Soon, J. Cole was primed to be the next generation’s successor of Kanye West, right down to the Jigga co-sign and the fact that he produced his own music. Fans bought into it. Magazines put him on the cover. J. Cole was It. That was until “Who Dat” fell flat on it’s face.
From a certain perspective, it was inevitable. In the great yet unwritten revisionist account of our times, history won’t be kind to Jay-Z’s abilities as a music executive. Granted, Jay fathered and helped to launch Roc-A-Fella Records, arguably, the most seminal hip hop label of the 90s. However, his track record at transforming his proteges into stars has been spotty at best. Memphis Bleek is walking punchline, Amil is a footnote. Beanie Sigel never broke beyond hardcore rap fans.
Over the years, the members of Roc La Familia have grown embittered with what they perceive as Jay’s neglect for their careers. The few unqualified successes that Roc-A-Fella Records produced — Cam’Ron and Kanye West — are usually attributed to Jay’s troubled business partner, Dame Dash. It was Dame who signed and nurtured Cam and Ye’s careers while Jay was busy becoming the biggest rapper on the planet. When combined with Jay’s lackluster run at the helm of Def Jam Records, it’s a wonder why promising rappers like J. Cole and Jay Electronica bother to sign with Jay.
Therein, it really shouldn’t have been a surprise when J Cole’s once promising career came to a grinding halt when “Who Dat,” stalled last summer. Cole went from being It Boy of the rap world to existing on same eternal record shelf that swallowed KMD’s “Black Bastards” and Lupe Fiasco’s ability to make quality musical/life decisions.
Granted, “Who Dat” is certainly competent and pleasant enough, but it lacked the punch that would qualify it as a classic first single. The record has definite aspirations of being J. Cole’s “A Milli,” but never matched the hypnotic groove of Bangladesh’s beat. It was punchline-heavy, yet devoid of a single memorable line that grabbed you like Wayne screwing “goon to a goblin.”
The record tanked outside of some MTV Ocho rotations and soon J. Cole found himself trapped in permanent development hell, with no release date in sight for Cole World: The Sideline Story. While Jay-Z turned his attention towards impregnating Beyonce and making unlistenable art-pop with a mostly insane genius. In the meantime, we have Cole World, which certainly isn’t the genius work that the hype horde hoped it would be. And If it fails to register on the commercial charts, it’s inevitable that Cole will become the new Bleek. Unless Bleek beats Cole to death with his hat.
“Work Out” might be earning air play and it could even lead to six figure sales, but artistically, Cole World is barren. Admittedly, like most Cole material, the album is adequately rapped, produced, and sung. Yet it lacks the special creative spark needed to distinguish it from any number of similar artists. This record could have just as easily been made by Fashawn or Cory Gunz or any number of less hyped independent artists writing about the same themes and experiences.
It’s ironic, because you can tell that J. Cole made an effort to make this album as intensely personal as possible. Most of the songs on the album explicitly deal with stories and situations drawn directly from his life. But either Cole lacks the chops as a writer to make his songs pop or his life really isn’t that interesting. The record exists entirely within the world of street-conscious rap tropes.
On “Sideline Story,” he narrates his struggle to release the record to results that simulate a comfortable snooze. On “Lost Ones,” he spins the cloying story of his girl getting an abortion from all perspectives, as if this was a fucking Common record and it was 1997. Elsewhere, Cole makes awkward gestures for mainstream acceptance, as on “Mr. Nice Watch,” his frantic but lifeless ode to expensive wrist wear. Here, we find Cole robotically trading verses with a less than enthused Jay-Z (continuing his assault on the throne of greatest most embarrassing rapper alive).
To say nothing of the Drake-assisted, “In The Morning,” where Cole unimpressively assimilates to Aubrey’s Charmin-soft, quiet storm rap. Of course, Cole World has a few moments where we can see what Jay-Z saw when he deigned Cole “the next big thing. The best of the bunch is “Breakdown,” where Cole discusses the pain he felt growing up fatherless.
Overall, the album comes wrapped in so many bland, focus-tested ideas that any real charisma shining through seems an accident. After listlessly slipping through it, it’s hard to remember a thing about who Jermaine Cole is and why you should give a fuck about why he sat on the sideline for so long. J. Cole isn’t just a hit away. He’s a rapper in desperate need of an identifiable personality. Or maybe he just needs to get his mind right.