Homecoming for J. Cole

by Ryan Snyder

Despite a mediocre debut, J. Cole still casts a long shadow on stage. (photo by Ryan Snyder)

Between the Rams’ Red and White weekend and the return of J. Cole to his native state for the release of his debut album, it’s hard to say which homecoming was more highly anticipated in Winston- Salem last week. Cole’s performance at the Benton Convention Center last Thursday was a typical performance by the brainy rapper: as much effort as talent on display, but all of it in spades. This much is certain, however: There’s no more commercially lauded name in hip-hop right now than the Fayetteville-born Jermaine Lamarr Cole, who this week became the second North Carolina artist to have Billboard’s No. 1 album in 2011.

If J. Cole’s Cole World: The Sideline Story has proved anything, it’s that the hip-hop debut album just isn’t what it used to be. De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising, Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt and Nas’s Illmatic all were albums that were the listening world’s first taste of those artists, yet inevitably enshrined in hip-hop’s hall of fame. Unlike J. Cole, we came to know those artists through those works. Despite delay after maddening delay Cole’s debut on Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label, there already existed a comprehensive book on his formidable skill set thanks to a string of highly cerebral, self-produced mixtapes.

We know he’s both a gifted lyricist and a tasteful producer, but what separates Cole from his peers is his staunch do-it-himself ethos. He’s a culture warrior leading the charge to a new era for rap on behalf of the conscious rap audience nationwide, but Cole World feels more like a series of conciliations than a paradigm shift. There’s now the rapper that we thought J. Cole to be at one time, and then there’s the rapper that he thinks he needs to be now. On stage Thursday night, Cole was poised and self-possessed. He’s automatic with a mic in his hand — undoubtedly one of the most consistent, focused performers in hiphop. It’s what has come to be expected of him.

The material he’s working with these days, however, is what’s unbecoming. The copses of scholarly verse that he employed pre-Cole World have been replaced by some of the most anodyne of his career. The guy who sagaciously rapped “You hate it before you played it/ I already forgave ya” on Friday Night Lights’ “Villematic” is now known for unbecomingly building songs around well-known Jay-Z lines, which occurs in multiple instances.

It’s not so much that he’s been put in the position of placating the status quo, it’s that his fans aren’t demanding better. They ate up the Jay- Z-lite/Drake hybrid that flashed itself at times. That’s not J. Cole. Blame it on Jay-Z. Cole’s Roc Nation impresario is a businessman above all else, and his vocal imprint can be heard a couple of times on Cole World. Most ominously Jay-Z simply speaks in an outtake from his 2000 concert film Backstage on the track “Rise and Shine” where he describes what he looks for in a potential signee. :He at the table with a bowl of Applejacks and he’s readin’ the back of the cereal. In between he and the Applejacks he’s writin’ some s*it. I’m gonna find him though and I’m gonna sign him. I don’t want no problems.” Keep your friends close and your enemies closer, as the saying goes. Not that J. Cole is a hazard to Jay-Z’s empire left unchecked — he’s simply too nice, despite his assertions — but he’s easier to mold while in Jay-Z’s camp.

It’s on the complicated, more outwardly soulful material where Cole shines both on record and on stage. You got the sense that Cole more readily identifies with “Breakdown,” where he tearfully reunites with his father, or “Lost Ones,” where he engages an intensive debate with a pregnant fling on whether to keep the child, than he does on “Mr. Nice Watch,” where simply sounds uncomfortable asserting “no more Mr. Nice Guy/hello Mr. Nice Watch.” The toys are nice for a guy really getting paid for the first time and hopefully when the shine wears off, in nine months according to a comment he made shortly after the Winston-Salem show, the Mr. Nice Guy shows himself again.