J. Cole reluctantly returns to the mixtape scene to prep listeners for his ROC Nation debut, once again proving to be a master of his craft, even as he intentionally saves his best for the real thing.
When The Warm Up dropped, I hopped on the bandwagon fast and early. Between J. Cole and Freddie Gibbs, it was hard to tell who'd made a quicker imprint on hip-hop in 2009. It was easier just to say hip-hop is pretty lucky to have these guys joining the conversation and leave it at that. While I certainly spun the hell out of The Warm Up, Gibbs ended up taking more of the spotlight since he's put out more material and stayed more noticeable while Cole continues to stay in the background, steady grinding. With his album supposedly right around the corner, consisting of songs mostly completed before The Warm Up even dropped, Cole had decided once he signed with Jay-Z it was time to focus on getting that album out and leave mixtapes behind. But fan demand and a quickly changing internet atmosphere slowly led Cole to change his mind, leading to another basketball-themed mixtape with a ton of references to how Cole came up and what girls he slept with along the way.
Friday Night Lights is a very consistent, strong tape. And since the production isn't Cole emulating his favorite beats like The Warm Up, it's the first glimpse a lot of people will get at Cole on more modern-sounding work. It's still almost entirely produced by J. Cole, and that's still a bit of a marvel considering his proficiency on the microphone. There is more singing from him than the last time as he becomes more confident with it, though I'm still not sure I'm happy that Lil' Wayne and Drake have practically made it a requirement that rappers sing these days. I miss the old rappity-rap hooks. My favorite stuff here is based on simple, hypnotic loops: the acoustic guitar on "Back to the Topic", the piano provided by L&X Music for "In the Morning". The latter is a surprise appearance on the mixtape as it features Drake, and its beat feels especially ripe for a single. Another interesting note with the production is the unorthodox percussion on "Before I'm Gone", "Home for the Holidays", and "The Autograph" - the latter especially reminds of the pad work on Boards of Canada's Geogaddi.
I do have some complaints, though. Not necessarily with individual songs as much as with J. Cole in general. I have heard a lot of people knock him for always using the same delivery and same subject matter over and over in a way that makes his character as a rapper seem monotone. It was hard for me to notice that before, but for some reason, it is easier to catch that vibe here. He sounds hungrier, with stuff like "Back to the Topic", "2Face", "See World", and his closing verse to Kanye West's "Looking for Trouble" attacking with the viciousness of an extremely calculated MC. But it just as often feels like Cole is recycling subject matter and going through the motions - perhaps expected, but a bit of a let down. Cole isn't bad at it; it's just something that makes the mixtape less interesting to listen to over and over. Ultimately, it's hard not to take note of Cole's reluctance to drop another mixtape when listening to Friday Night Lights.
Friday Night Lights is certainly stronger than a whole lot of albums. The production is solid if not slightly flat at times, and on a technical level, there are very few verses here to turn a cheek to. If for some reason you haven't heard J. Cole yet, Friday Night Lights may very well be a better introduction than The Warm Up. For me, it's more the overall effect of the tape: essentially it feels like a placeholder for the album. It starts to make me a little curious how much J. Cole really has to talk about. After hearing Jay-Z's verse on Thank Me Later, I began to ponder how much faith Jay really has in J. Cole as a rap star, or whether he sometimes wishes he'd aligned with Drake instead. Granted, a reluctant tape of outcast tracks from an artist who is very openly conscious of what tracks are 'mixtape quality' and which are more of an album sound isn't the best measuring stick for that artist's growth. Still, I'm ready to see what Cole's absolute best sounds like. I'm sure we all are.