ARTIST: J. Cole
ALBUM: The Warm Up
SOUNDS LIKE: Lupe Fiasco x Ghostface x Nas
FUN FACT: J. Cole graduated Magna Cum Laude from St. John's University.
WHY COMPLEX IS CO-SIGNING IT: The last time a rapping producer was co-signed by Hov, he turned out to be one of the most important musical figures of our time. Not to lay such a heavy weight of expectation on the North Carolina born MC, but he is the only rapper signed to Jay-Z's Roc Nation imprint to date. It's far too early to tell if he'll be the next Kanye or the next Neef—but if his sophomore mixtape, "The Warm Up" is any indication of his future, he'll be cavorting around with former video models rather than... whatever the fuck it is Neef is doing these days.
Improving on the feeling and formula of the first mixtape, "The Warm Up" is anchored by J. Cole's fuzzy, atmospheric production. Though dope, the beats never attempt to outshine his rhymes; they provide a misty counterbalance with his energetic flow. These aren't generic bubbly soul samples, they creep and haunt the tracks like on the eerie "Grown Simba." When he does reach out for assistance, the producers—Elite "Heartache" (of Jadakiss' "Shootouts" fame) and Syience "Can I Live" (Jay-Z's "Hollywood")—meld their sound to flow into his, creating a cohesive collection.
On his second go at Jay-Z's "Dead Presidents" ("Dead Presidents II"), J. Cole, in between a flurry of internal rhymes, boasts that, like most of us, he's got "a set of horns and a halo." On "The Warm Up", Cole is able to explore this dichotomy all the way through. He's equal parts scholar, lover, fighter, fuck up—and they're all fighting for the top spot. On "Hold it Down" he hopes his boys know that there's more to life than "mackin' hoe's and stacking dough," yet elsewhere on the album he doesn't put himself above baggin' another dude's wifey. On the sparse and ambling "Lights Please", one of the albums stand-outs, he wrestles with trying to put a girl up on the realities of the world when all she wants to do is get it in: "I told her all about how we been living a lie, and that they would all love to see us go to prison or die, like, baby, look at how they show us on the TV screen, but all she ever want me to do is unzip her jeans." When not exploring himself, J. Cole takes aim at the plight of the downtrodden. The warm, brassy "I Get Up" has him urging those in the many neglected hoods of America to keep their heads up, before begging fathers to raise their kids so that they could "overcome the bullshit."
Although weighty at times, "The Warm Up" ain't all deep, ponderous tracks. Dude can and does rap his ass off on some true mixtape shit. He blacks out on "Just To Get By", "Water Break (Interlude) and "Royal Flush". We know Jigga has a pretty spotty track record when it comes to new artists, but if he keeps dropping material like this, J. Cole won't even need the Hova co-sign. Now, Neef on the other hand...
KEY TRACKS (LISTEN):