J. Cole (album preview)
Roc The Mic Studios
Wednesday, August 17
Better than: Waiting until September 27.
Despite the stringent security measures implemented at the splashy preview of Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch The Throne earlier this month, a middling blogger managed to leak snippets of music and post them on his site. Not taking any chances, last night’s preview for J. Cole’s debut Cole World: The Sideline Story, out next month, had an airtight atmosphere. An intimate guest list that struck scenesters and those more interested in the open bar than the new tunes, confiscation of electronic devices, a total ban on quoting song titles or lyrics—it was clear that the people at Roc Nation, stewards of both Jay-Z and J. Cole, meant business.
A prolific mixtape artist who boasts a pleasant North Carolina drawl and a lyrical dexterity that at times recalls Jay, Cole’s 2009 release Warm Up was lauded by critics and fanboys alike; he’s also collaborated with the likes of Talib Kweli and Wale. The question has never been whether J. Cole is a talented rapper. Call it the mixtape rapper’s dilemma: How will an official album stack up to the plethora of free music he disseminates?
The solid Cole World: The Sideline Story answers that with a “Remarkably well”; it’s full of tales of youthful machismo and bootstrapping into a better life. The rapper balances run-of-the-mill braggadocio with vulnerable moments where he grapples with heartbreak and family trauma in an empathic way.
From behind his MacBook, Cole blared 17 tracks (including the singles “Work Out” and the Trey Songz-assisted “Can’t Get Enough”) and told the assembled that working with producer Danja, who likes his music loud, has caused him to go somewhat deaf. The album’s refreshingly light on guest appearances, although one nostalgia-tinged cameo should get the blogs buzzing. But overall, the listener can focus on Cole’s skilled delivery instead of keeping track of guest verses; this seems deliberate, since Cole said that the album tells the story of a young sideline-dweller finally getting a chance to test his mettle in a big game. With Jay-Z as his coach and Cole World as his game plan, Cole seems well-prepared to take over the quarterback role.
Critical bias: As J. Cole made his rounds, he recalled meeting me several years ago through his college roommate. Whether he actually remembered doing so is debatable, but the personal gesture, not to mention the sincerity behind those puppy-dog eyes, could certainly chip away at a critic’s steely resolve.
Overheard: “Twitter has given irrelevant people a voice.”
Random notebook dump: The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) recently launched a program in which screeners will engage airline passengers in conversation as a means to predict suspicious behavior. Perhaps publicists could use this tactic when putting together guest lists down the line.