In case you’re wondering, yes, we had planned to go with the poster for “Who Dat Ninja”, but couldn’t find one big enough…
Martin Skidmore: Jay-Z’s first signing to his possibly Jays-only label, and this is an introduce-myself single, with some tolerably lively disses. His flow is okay if routine, and the beats are much the same. I like it well enough, but it’s hardly an explosive intro.
Michaelangelo Matos: Jay-Z’s ear for hooks and tracks went a while ago, but based on this evidence his ear for talent remains strong. It’s minimal without being bare, a canny showcase for Cole as a raw spitter rather than a hookmeister or pop aspirant, and while it’s not exactly great it’s quite refreshing to come across in 2010.
Alex Macpherson: When people talk about a particular genre or scene’s commercial dominance over any given period, it’s usually the figureheads that get held up as examples. The real marker, though, is the presence of the second and third tier of generic performers who get swept along in the wake of the trailblazers and superstars; the Mandy Moore to Britney Spears, the Memphis Bleek to Jay-Z. Those artists won’t ever be historicised as significant, but they’re usually good for a few fond memories. J. Cole fits that mould exactly: “Who Dat” is a solid, loping banger that gets by on an excellent beat rather than his personality, and it seems rather more refreshing than it normally would given that the actual commercially dominant names in hip-hop right now are insipid whiners like Drake.
Alfred Soto: “Hungry like a nigga who ain’t got the taste of fame yet,” he boasts, and for once the artist is right: just when I’m ready to tune him out he yanks me by the collar with a killer intonation here and an Outkast sample there.
John Seroff: Cole claims to be Will Smith to the hood but he sounds like a watered down Kanye or, less kindly, a Drake that can kind of rap. Excepting the hint of Axelrod in the melody, there’s mighty slim pickins to hold my attention and the aimless one-liners ain’t helping. I miss the days when a young, untested would-be would gun for an established cat rather than not “naming names”; even tinned beef beats rapping about nothing. As it stands, I’m still not sure who Cole is and on the strength of “Who Dat”, I’m not in any hurry to find out.
Jonathan Bogart: Pleasant snapping beat, standard self-congratulatory rhymes, not enough to distinguish him from the rest of the Class of 2010. I wouldn’t change the station, but I wouldn’t remember it a half-song later either.
Al Shipley: His initial associations and guest spots suggested he’s one of those southern rappers with a New York state of mind, so it’s a pleasant surprise that this actually sounds like it was made by someone from south of the Mason-Dixon. It sounds more like something Timbaland would’ve given a southern rapper a decade ago than anything contemporary, but that’s not really a bad era to evoke if he’s gonna come off out of step with the times.
Rodney J. Greene: The whole “North Carolina rap act really wishes to be from New York” thing was pretty damned lame when Little Brother did it, but seems more admissible now that the two best East Coast rappers are from New Orleans. Just as with LB before, J. Cole harkens for a previous version of the Five Boroughs. Cole’s retro-York is an early 2000s NYC where Just Blaze was the go-to guy for grimy bangers and being slightly less of a knucklehead than Sheek Louch seemed like a viable path for a rapper to pursue, even if they looked more like Wordsworth than Billy Danze. Any risk of redux is abated by Cole’s more contemporary rap style, for better and worse. He avoids garbage bag lines, but not a clunker or two. Still, he ellicits more guffaws than groans (my favorite line being “I was plottin’ this moment back when y’all was ridin’ spinners”), and I feel like, as a lyricist, he would be fine with or without the post-Wayne conventions he uses. They seem like choices, not crutches.
Chuck Eddy: Percussion reminds me of B. Rich appropriating second-line New Orleans Mardi Gras R&B; brief interjected rock guitar snippets remind me of something really old-school I can’t put my finger on (Adventure? Rockmaster Scott? hmmm); his flow even momentarily reminds me of Coolio. All of which I’m sure are accidental. And most of the words either fly right by me or make me wish I wasn’t listening, but I like that he has nice things to say about the Fresh Prince, and has no qualms about playground-chanting “anything you can do I can do better” (though could do without it rhyming with “screw” and “wetter.”) “J. Cole was born in Frankfurt, Germany, and then shortly after moved to Fayetteville, North Carolina,” Wiki says — gotta be an Army brat. (Fayetteville = Fort Bragg.) And then he went to St. John’s University — just like DMC, in the place to be.
Erick Bieritz: “When you thinking about summer time, I’m thinking about the winter / When you thinking about breakfast, I’m heating up my dinner.” That doesn’t make you a winner. It makes you an Eastern Hemisphere Antipodean.