J. Cole may be the most unheralded star of the decade so far. The North Carolina musician — Cole plays keyboards, drum machines, and produces much of his own work — has an understated and conversational style that draws listeners in and allows us to empathize with him. His raps often switch from third-person analysis of social issues to personal revelations: On his 2013 hit “Crooked Smile,” he describes how he learned to accept his “twisted grill” and then swerves into a commentary about how we should accept our physical features, no matter how flawed they may seem.
Those qualities of Cole’s have enabled him to build a formidable audience — one that comes into view on 2014 Forest Hills Drive: The Homecoming, a concert documentary that premieres January 9 on HBO, and centers on a sold-out concert at Crown Coliseum in his hometown of Fayetteville, North Carolina.
Yet despite earning gold certifications for each of his three solo albums, J. Cole doesn’t get much respect. It’s an issue he addresses on “Forbidden Fruit” when he raps, “How many records do a nigga gotta sell/Just to get the cover of the XXL?” Being one of the most consistent sellers of the decade so far doesn’t guarantee critical acclaim, of course. But Cole does quality work, and it seems unfair to dismiss his catalog as a manifestation of mainstream rap mediocrity.
More than just a blandly nondescript hitmaker with a few Top 40 entries, most recently “No Role Modelz,” Cole imbues his songs with emotional depth. The reason why his nakedly pornographic verse on Jeremih’s “Planez” is memorable — beside the fact that it’s kind of disgusting — is because of the way he twists his voice into a raw and guttural instrument you can hear the dog in him. His emotive skills are also evident on “Wet Dreamz,” where he recalls losing his virginity with such vividness that you can hear his nervousness.
As a virtually unknown rapper and magna cum laude graduate from St. John’s University, Cole landed a deal with Jay Z’s Roc Nation imprint, and made a splashy major label debut on Jay Z’s “A Star is Born” from The Blueprint III. Since then, he’s had to justify himself worthy of that early cosign throughout his career. His breakthrough mixtape, Friday Night Lights established a template: decent yet nondescript beats, largely produced by himself, that place the musical focus on his vocal performance. Much like his early influence Nas’ post-Illmatic albums, Cole’s recordings often suffer from a lack of dynamic production. Despite growing up in the South, his music doesn’t have the kind of regional accents that thrill critics like, say, trap beats or 9th Wonder-styled soul loops.
Cole falls into the “written” camp, and is known for jotting down his rhymes instead of “freestyling” them in studio sessions. Still, his rap style tends to sound as if he’s working out the structure of his rhymes as he speaks them. On “G.O.M.D.,” he switches from a verse about being the best, to a verse about breaking up with somebody, then changes mid-verse into a refrain, “It’s called love/Niggas don’t sing about it no more.” He kicks off the final verse by asking, “Why every rich black nigga gotta be famous?/Why every broke black nigga gotta be brainless?” Then he flips back to more braggadocio. It’s a confusing but rewarding performance that finds him shifting and weighing a theme about ego, as if he was trying to take a picture from multiple angles.
In this sense, Cole is much like Kendrick Lamar, another loquacious and fussy rapper. But Cole’s persona seems more elusive than his friend Lamar who, for all his vacillations, ultimately grounds himself in his Compton heritage. (Lamar also appeared on “Forbidden Fruit.”) Meanwhile, Cole continues to work out who he is and what he wants to give us musically, as he sometimes compromises with radio fare like “Work Out” and the “Planez” cameo, but more often just thinks out loud and follows his impulses. Perhaps it’s surprising that a rapper who sounds so unsettled by life has found commercial success. He deserves more credit than he gets for such an achievement.