Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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J Cole

  • The Warm Up [Roc Nation download, 2009] **
  • Friday Night Lights [Roc Nation download, 2010] ***
  • Cole World: The Sideline Story [Roc Nation/Columbia, 2011] B+
  • Truly Yours [free download EP, 2013] A-
  • Born Sinner [Roc Nation/Columbia, 2013] B+
  • 2014 Forest Hills Drive [Roc Nation/Columbia, 2014] *

Consumer Guide Reviews:

The Warm Up [Roc Nation download, 2009]
He's so talented you can hear how much he wants it, so talented you wince every time he shoots himself in the foot, e.g. "Put some chains on my niggaz like I own slaves" ("World Is Empty," "Get By") **

Friday Night Lights [Roc Nation download, 2010]
The good tracks keep on coming, but the irresistible ones total, well, one ("Blow Up," "Farewell") ***

Cole World: The Sideline Story [Roc Nation/Columbia, 2011]
Smart about abortion's complexities and MLK's infidelities and weed's propensities, so aware of how "mornin'" spawns "moanin'" and "wet shit" swallows "next shit" that the sex rhymes hit a nerve, toned up by Drake and Jay-Z's 16s not to mention Trey Songz's and Missy Elliott's hooks, he's worth the shot Jay couldn't resist giving him. But he's still not comfortable enough or clever enough. Ask yourself, kid--are you having fun yet? If not, why not? Ultimately, isn't that what flow is about? B+

Truly Yours [free download EP, 2013]
Jay-Z's favorite conscious up-and-comer says these five tracks are rejects from the follow-up album he's now late on, and I'm impressed even though they ignore my advice as regards upping his game, which was to have more fun. No bangers here--everything is thoughtful and midtempo. But everything is also strong and engaging. Having set the tone by rescuing a gorgeous Lauryn Hill sample from terminal sanctitude, he calls out a lost stepfather he can't stop loving for hating, feels a single mother with six years of college, and examines hip-hop's contradictions from three distinct perspectives, one of which is ODB's. A-

Born Sinner [Roc Nation/Columbia, 2013]
You can see why this diligent St. John's magna tops off his make-or-break with the apologetic "Let Nas Down"--the totemic rapper he betrayed, apparently, by tacking the harmless banger "Work Out" onto Cole World, as if Nas rechristening himself Escobar wasn't five times as cheap. Conceptually, this album is an Illmatic move. Musically it's fancied up as it must be from the spare skills of his three mixtapes. But like Illmatic it eschews pop emoluments, and conceptually it's just as canny. Craving street cred while rejecting crime as a hustle or a metaphor, the young man who "couldn't sell crack but I rap good" plays the mack daddy. But just as the younger Nas is fascinated by the pitfalls of a corner-boy lifestyle he's not quite part of, this ambitious youngblood is a chronically repentant horndog. Most of his sex songs are also apologies--to a wife or girlfriend, to the women he discards, to other women wronged by other dogs, he varies the theme with winning empathy. But I still prefer him class-conscious: spitting "I hate richniggaz goddammit/'Cause I ain't never had a lot dammit" and ending all but one of "Mo Money"'s 24 quick lines with the M-word. On "Crooked Smile," he combines the two themes hauntingly and elusively--helped big time by the historically pop women of TLC. B+

2014 Forest Hills Drive [Roc Nation/Columbia, 2014]
Full of the kind of good intentions the road to irrelevance is paved with ("Wet Dreamz," "Love Yourz") *