The mixtape has become such an essential part of the hip-hop landscape that in some cases it’s better than an album by a given artist. J. Cole’s third official mixtape, Friday Night Lights, surely has to be one of the best ever made.
Following The Come Up and The Warm Up, and a treasure trove of other material that’s available, Friday Night Lights is a major entry into the genre. Maybe the so-called “debut” album is coming later this year, or maybe not, and who knows what will end up being included on it, but it’s amazing what this young virtuoso out of Fayetteville, North Carolina has produced already. If you collect the best of what he has released, Friday Night Lights may not be his only classic.
But here we have it given to us in one package (no trolling the internet trying to decipher the garbage from the real), an hour and 20-minute-long epic journey in the life of Jermaine Cole. This is a vision of the American experience through his eyes, from a trailer park in “Fayette-nam” to being the only black kid in an all white community, and then on to the halls of St. John’s University in New York and the beginnings of stardom.
Cole’s awe-inspiring skills with a pen are evident early on with this perfectly crafted verse from “Before I’m Gone”:
“I lived it all from dirt poor in a trailer/worried about my mother and never trusting my neighbors/to middle class with a backyard and my own room/to being the only black kid in my homeroom/academically gifted and follow my own rules/Running the streets, hey ma, I’ll be home soon…Was out chasing hoes, was out hoopin’/them n***as wasn’t ballin’ but yet they was foul, shootin’…So meet the newest role model who don’t know how to fake this shit/Never sold a rock and look I made it, bitch.”
On “Too Deep For the Intro” he continues to come with incredibly honest and revelatory lyricism:
“Should I admit that a slutty bitch was my first smash/Wasn’t experienced, so nah I didn’t wear it out/always thought my first time would be with someone I cared about/But being a virgin was something to be embarrassed ‘bout…I used her ass for practice so I wasn’t scared out my mind/You call ‘em rhymes, I call ‘em clearing out my mind/Was just a young boy staring out my blinds.”
Cole’s gift for keen observation is most reminiscent of Nas, and in the previously released “I Really Mean It Freestyle” he has referred to himself as the down south Nas, the East Coast Pac, the Carolina Andre, and the Fayette-nam Kanye. He certainly has attributes of all those greats—a devastating flow, razor sharp lyrics, a playful sense of humor and a seething hunger on the mic. Right now he may be most well known as the first signee to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label (with an appearance on The Blueprint 3’s “A Star is Born”), but Cole is no Hova clone.
Unlike the narratives of many all time great MCs, whose rapping ability seems to come out of their experience (the drug dealer who discovers he happens to have a killer flow), Cole lives to rap rather rapping to live. Starting at age 12, the now 25-year-old trained to become an MC the way a great basketball player trains to make it to the NBA. He didn’t go to St. John’s to get a degree and a job in the corporate world (though he did graduate with honors), he went to make it in the New York hip-hop scene.
And, by the way, aside from three or four tracks, the entirety of Friday Night Lights is produced by J. Cole. A hallmark of classic albums is that the beats sound tailored for that particular artist and in this case he’s done it for himself.
Being a mixtape that really sounds more like an album, all the songs on Friday Night Lights sound like they belong while, at the same time, each track is distinct from the next. The freedom of the format also allows him to sample a hook from Erykah Badu or Janelle Monae, steal a chorus from Tupac, maybe referentially borrow a well-known line from someone else and make it his own.
Production highlights include the driving piano and church choir chorus on “Before I’m Gone”; the haunting backdrop of “Premeditated Murder”; the combination of woodwinds and strings on the urgent and great “Farewell.”
Make no mistake, this is a pure hip hop album. It’s not some fusion of pop and electronica or indie rock and house. It’s also not a harkening back to the late 80s or the early 90s. It’s a classic sound, but one that’s of the moment.
But perhaps the most glaring thing to note about J. Cole is simply this: dude has major league skills.
On “Back To the Topic (Freestyle),” you get the sense he could go on forever dropping hot rhymes.
“Carolina blue kicks, pedal to the metal/Feeling like a puppet and the devil is Geppetto/Letter to the ghetto, hold your head high/you pick apart my raps/I ain’t told you near a lie…” And it goes on and on to the point where you picture the smoke coming off the mic when he walks away from it.
When you think about what makes a great MC you consider several factors: flow and the ability to match it with a variety of beats, interesting and provocative subject matter, a knack for telling great stories and a sense of humor, consistency, and an intangible presence. Cole has all those things and he is as comfortable chronicling serious subjects—the neighborhood female crack addict with the boyfriend abusing her daughter, a homicide scene outside a club on “Enchanted” featuring Omen or a young girl murdered on “See World”—as he is going after a short-tem love interest on “Higher.”
Another running theme is Cole’s teetering balance between love (“Love Me Not”) and sex (“In the Morning” featuring a humorously hung-over sounding Drake). In his physical pursuits is the acknowledgment of how fleeting they are, a sense of a certain emptiness or lack of meaning, and wanting for more. It was, in fact, this very subject matter on “Lights Please” from The Warm Up that inspired Jay-Z to sign him.
Friday Night Lights is so rich in ways both nuanced (“Home for the Holidays”) and blatant (“Blow Up”), it’s hard to illustrate them all. There are so many descriptions, references and plays on words packed in these rhymes as they build one on top of the other. There is not a throw-away line on this exceedingly long release. Like all of the greats, be it in hip-hop or sports, Cole knows how good he is, and with that comes expectations. He alludes to this brilliantly on “Villematic”:
“There’s a feeling in the air you about to drop a real classic/He said, ‘Cole, a little birdie told me on the low, you got an Illimatic,’/Nobody touching Nas/This more like Villematic…These Fayette-nam tales/being paying off well/What story is my audio theater gon’ tell/I know my debut will ship, but is it gon’ sell?…I guess it’s in God’s hands/I make the type of pieces that make Jesus say, ‘God damn!’”
Whether or not J. Cole will become a superstar remains to be seen, but here’s hoping he doesn’t compromise what he has already established. Listening to hip hop over the last 20 years or so, it’s become harder and harder to get excited about something new. The hip-hop establishment’s top dogs, while still viable, are in some cases going stale or approaching the twilight of their careers. Many of the new artists—with only a few notable exceptions—while talented, don’t inspire a real promise for the future. So we’ve continually asked ourselves where the next generation is coming from. Who will rescue the game from extinction? The savior may have finally arrived and he’s not even charging for his product.
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