taking a listen

by Ryan Snyder

reviews of local & state music CDs

J. COLE — Friday Night Lights

“Never sold a rock and look I made it, bitch.” In an album full of severe pronouncements, perhaps none ring out with more ferocity than the statement J. Cole makes on “Before I’m Gone.” Not that it’s all downhill from there, but rather Friday Night Lights, the highly anticipated mixtape precursor to the debut album from the Fayetteville emcee, is filled with epiphanic instances like that. They aren’t realizations for Cole or his listening audience, but for the hip-hop world itself. Cole is a game-changer. He’s not the kid who worked his way off the corner and into a gold record. He’s a guy who defied his circumstances and jumped his station in life through sheer will. The first signee to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label, Cole swaggers like a scholar and a hardknocks grad at the same time, and Friday Night Lights is 20 tracks of pure, uncompromising, game-changing hip hop. Cole’s a magna cum laude of St. John’s University, and every digit in his grade point average shows. His lyrics that can be witty at times (“Gary Coleman just passed/ Life is short), acerbic at others (“You hate it before you played it/ I already forgave ya”) and always heavy with perspective. There’s enough here to satisfy everyone from the most devout wordplay nerd to the casual radio dial-spinner, but it’s the classic jam fans to which Cole sneakily extends the olive branch. He teases Monica’s hook from “Don’t Take It Personal” on “Cost Me A Lot,” and lifts 2Pac’s grandiose chorus from “Hail Mary” on “Enchanted,” a song littered with fragments of a Michael Jackson vocal. If there’s a knock on the album — and even that’s a stretch — it’s that the beats tend to run together troughout the first 10 songs. It’s a stretch simply because this is an album to be appreciated first, second and third for its lyrical content, and even then the second half takes a sudden left turn into ghetto-blaster territory. Amazingly enough, Cole carries nearly the entire mixtape by himself, despite the occasional guest spot by the likes of Omen, Drake and Wale. It might just be a mixtape, but with it’s revelatory lyricism at the front, Friday Night Lights a better offering than most proper hip-hop records this year.