With multiple mixtapes and 2 prolific albums under his belt what else can the Roc Nation rhymesayer Jermaine Cole bring to the game? The Fayetteville, North Carolina native has climbed from sitting on the sidelines to diving into the life of glitz and glamour to find and define himself as a born sinner that found home between the highs and lows. With his latest release J. Cole keeps his musical growth moving forward, but takes things back to his real home of Forest Hills Drive NC. But will it be enough to maintain his spot as one of the leaders of the new school of rap?
The title of the album is the address of his childhood home where Cole grew up with his mother, brother, and stepfather in Fayetteville, NC. Shortly after Cole graduated high school in 2003 the home was foreclosed while he attended St. Johns University in New York City. Cole re-purchased the home in 2014 as his first home purchase. One thing that is clear of the album is that a the sound of the album definitely feels like home. I would define it as sounding like North Carolina indeed. The album is mostly produced by J. Cole himself and though the production is not as complex as the sound of Born Sinner this album has a personality all its own.
The “Intro” track opens with Cole crooning questions of “Do you wanna, do you wanna be, happy? Do you wanna, do you wanna be, free?” The pianos and horns blend a beautiful harmony it reaches a certain height that seems to be a refrain throughout the album. “January 28th” feeds of the blending of the intro track for a smooth cut titled after the rapper’s birthday. His focus on himself seems necessary as an artist’s maintaining of a healthy relationship with the audience is a recurring theme throughout the album. The hook gives us some of the concise depth about life that we’ve come to expect and appreciate from Cole as is raps, “Don’t give em too much you. Don’t let them take control. Its One thing you do. Don’t let them taint your soul. If you believe in God/ One thing’s for sure. If you aint aim too high. Then you aimed too low.”
“03’ Adolescence” opens with nostalgic strings as if Cole is taking us back to ’63 to paint a picture of his adolescence life that is now where near as pleasant and pristine. This is a track that exemplifies this sentimental tone of a North Carolina sound that Cole constructs on this album. This one will definitely need some summertime rides around the country landscape. The vibe is sentimental, but definitely not soft by a long shot.
I didn’t like “Tale of 2 Citiez” at first. It feels like a lot of black semi-consciousness blending with above average bars and flow, but with typical gangsta subject matter. The chant asking God for forgiveness of childish ways redeems the lack of depth of the track, but in sound and content the chant seems influenced by Kendrick Lamar’s “B*tch Don’t Kill My Vibe” and the like.
“Fire Squad” was a controversial track from the start. The hook and first verse feel a bit lazy and the track doesn’t really pick up until halfway into the 2nd verse where he says lines like “I’m so far head of my time even when I’m thinking about the future I be reminiscing.” Going into the third verse he raps questions of “Who’s the king?”. Cole gives an analysis of the pointlessness of rappers questioning who has the throne of rappers while white artists have already stolen the black sound. The racial commentary doesn’t bite hard enough. He mentions legendary rapper Eminem, but also Elvis, Iggy Azalea, and Macklemore; 3 of which he could likely handle in a battle rap, but it seems that he is trying to keep friends. A poet delivers a poem at the end of the track that mentions that we are all kings of ourselves primarily and ends with the thought that “every poet just wants to be loved”. This seems like a diplomatic reach of Cole to make his rap rivals of the likes of Kendrick and Drake into allies for the sake of more growth in the art form of hip-hop. I commend the effort we all know the negative results of musical conflicts caused by the lost lives of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. With the lackluster bars of this song if a rival put this out as a treaty it could lead a competitor to view him as a pushover. With Kendrick’s infamous verse from Big Sean’s “Control” verse Jermaine is going to have to come with a little more bite and bark.
“G.O.M.D” features a catching African chant sample and J. Cole recanting a mention to the “Hollywood Cole” Outkast reference before dropping into crisp, but simple drums over a really smooth string overlay. The hook starts with a nod to the Yin-Yang Twins “Get Low” before ending with the explanation of the acronym title meaning “Get Off My Dick”. This was just weak. With the acclaim that J.Cole receives I expect something more from him. The hook isn’t catchy enough to be a radio hit, especially nowhere near as effective as “Crooked Smile” or “Power Trip” from Born Sinner, but his rhymes on this single were not as strong either. A redeeming quality of the track is that the end of the hook says “every day I thank the man upstairs that I aint you and you aint me” as if the song is mean to say “get off my dick, and get on your own” meaning to focus on one’s self and not others, but that’s just a stretch of interpretation and not emphasized enough in the track itself. It seems that Cole is taking harder shots at his fans than he has been taking at his competition. Its clear that J. Cole has the aggression to buck shots, but just need to point at the right targets. Get mean, Cole.
“No Role Modelz” would be a stronger single than “G.O.M.D.” It features Cole rapping the Three 6 Mafia hook “Don’t save her she don’t wanna be saved” as his verses attacks silly reality show skeezers. The beat is one of the less orchestrated of the album, but Cole uses a hilarious sample from George W. Bush that complements the track very well. Cole goes on to rap that his only regrets have to do with not being old enough for some of the baddest women in black entertainment name dropping the likes Lisa Bonet and Sade Adu. All the real G’s can appreciate this.
“Hello” shows more of J.Cole’s producing prowess as he calls out “Hello” in the darkness over a progressive build while essentially “Drake’ing” about a past girlfriend similar to Drake’s Paris Morton. As the piano builds throughout this track the song definitely takes on a life of its own. “St. Tropez” is another gem of production with jazzy horns that accent the track very well. Both of these tracks are produced very well but are still devoid of lyrical substance and content to make them shine to their fullest.
“Apparently” is a single and a good cut. The production is awesome as it builds slow with lovely backing vocals and wonderful bass accents. The first verse features his thoughts to his mother mentioning the foreclosure of their home at Forest Hills Drive. This all paints for a more sentimental portrait on the album as Cole sings “Apparently you believe in me”. Sadly, the second verse simply seems like a freestyle of Cole rapping witty, but overheard lines about hotdogs, ketchup, and threesomes that he even finishes the verse saying “too easy” himself. It still a solid single, but not a hit to make the charts.
“Note to Self” is a 14 minute long thank you track that features excellently orchestrated production with piano keys and horns. When I heard it my first thoughts were “who he been smoking with? The dropout Kanye?” It’s a lovely track. But with as dope as the production was after a while it got boring unlike The College Dropout’s “Last Call” “Note To Self doesn’t build up through enough changes for 14 minutes to warrant no actual rapping on the track. The instrumentation is sounds good and is better than most production we’ve been hearing from hip-hop albums as of late, but Cole could’ve done more with. And that goes for the album as a whole. It has some bulls-eye shots in production, but the verses seem to be a blind shots that fall in the gray areas. Its seems that a lot of artists have been rushing albums to jock Beyonce’s surprise album drop from last year, but none have been able to recreate that success. J.Cole’s production skills have been growing exponentially, but leaving his lyrical depth by the wayside. I’m curious what Kendrick will bring with the release of “i” in the coming months.