21 Savage – I Am > I Was

Image result for i am i was 21Back at it in the new year with a couple projects that came out late last year, before the new releases start up again. If you saw my Top Albums of 2018 list, the score on this one won’t come as much of a surprise. Here are my thoughts on 21’s latest:

The title of Atlanta rapper 21 Savage’s sophomore project, I Am > I Was, or “I am greater than I was”, tells you all you need to know – it’s a pretty accurate representation. After breaking out into the mainstream by titling his debut after his most memeworthy catchphrase and being seen as somewhat of a less serious rapper due to his tongue-in-cheek hit “Bank Account” and immediately recognizable yet painfully one-note vocal delivery, 21 has reasserted himself over the years with a slew of impressive features and evident growth and variation in his style, putting it all together in an incredibly entertaining way on this project. Of course, he doesn’t lose what made him unique in the first place either – 21 is still as cold and ruthless as ever on this album, but his hilarious punchlines, great beat selection and legitimate variety is what really establishes him as someone to watch going forward.

The J. Cole-featuring opener “a lot” is already an immediate subversion of what we’re expecting from 21, as a looped 70s soul sample from DJ Dahi starts playing instead of the usual grimy trap material. I’ve mentioned on quite a few of his features that 21 often works best as a complete tonal opposite to other rappers on the track, and his approach to this one works in the same way as a contrast with the sample and J. Cole’s more technically skilled verse. His repetition of “a lot” is easily the catchiest moment on the whole project, and Cole storms in to sell the track completely. After transitioning into “break da law”, about as good of a deadpan and unflinching classic 21 track as you’re going to get over a distorted and unsettling Metro Boomin beat that flawlessly transitions into a more melodic piano instrumental halfway through in typical Metro fashion, we start to see him break out of the mold we expect even further.

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Where Savage’s flow could easily turn into a monotonous drone in the past, we see him inject more emotion into what always had the potential to be a perfect rap voice with its natural gravel, also testing a few speedier flows. We have him trying out a melodic flow over a Santana sample on “out for the night” and showing a lot of vulnerability on relationship track “ball w/o you” and the genuinely endearing “letter 2 my momma” where he both apologizes for his violent gang lifestyle and beams about the fact she taught him to tie his shoes. On the other end of the spectrum we have the closing track “4L”, where 21 raises his voice more than I’ve ever heard to describe that very violent lifestyle, creating one of the most thrilling moments of his career as he shows just how much he means it.

One of my favourite new tricks of his is his whispering flow, which somehow makes him even more menacing than he already was – this is verging on full Pusha T. He applies it briefly on the track “gun smoke”, whispering his ad-libs like he’s suddenly right behind you ready to back up his threatening words, but it’s applied best on the hilariously-titled “asmr”, featuring a deceptively calming instrumental enhanced by one of Metro’s busiest trap hi-hat lines as 21 delivers an entirely whispered chorus. There’s nothing like hearing 21 whisper a line like “she thought the AC was on, it was just my ice” with a twinkle in his eye.

Another thing that really makes 21 stand out from so many of his contemporaries is just how legitimately funny he is – there are always a few lines on each track that catch listeners off guard with an outlandish punchline emphasizing just how Savage he really is. He carves out a place for punchline rap in 2018 with this project. My favourite one might be the conclusion of his “12-car garage” saga when he finally buys 6 more to complete it on “all my friends”, another team-up with Post Malone that could easily follow their previous one in hitting #1 as 21 takes up a poppier, more sing-songy flow that fits the vibe of the instrumental more tailored to Malone.

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It’s a testament to just how much 21 has grown when the weakest moments on the album all come from the few retreads of his earlier style here that come across as boring due to the fact that they’re just about the only tracks here where 21 doesn’t show off something new and unexpected. Tracks like “1.5”, a reunion with Offset, and “pad lock” could have easily appeared on Issa Album and don’t really break new ground here. I couldn’t end this review without talking about the two surprising features that have been relatively quiet this year, 21 recruiting a sneering ScHoolboy Q on the Three Six Mafia-emulating bombastic track “Good Day” and Childish Gambino himself, delivering his first rap feature in years and sounding like his old persona never left on “monster”, which I wish didn’t have such an awkwardly pitched-up hook – the two ATLiens sound great together.

21 Savage has certainly evaded the sophomore curse here, and counting his collab project with Metro Boomin and Offset in late 2017, has dropped two pretty enjoyable projects back-to-back. He’s coming into his own as a sort of rap court jester who can also surprise you in a lot of ways by diving into a topic or a sound that you wouldn’t expect, and he certainly has the star power and charisma to stick around.

Favourite Tracks: a lot, break da law, ball w/o you, 4L, asmr

Least Favourite Track: 1.5

Score: 8/10

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6lack – East Atlanta Love Letter

Lowkey alt-R&B crooner 6lack (yes, pronounced “black”) unleashes his sophomore project East Atlanta Love Letter after the success of his Grammy-nominated debut Free 6lack. Not changing up the formula that worked out for him in the past, 6lack still represents yet another of the scores of alt-R&B artists that rose to popularity in the wake of The Weeknd’s unlikely ascent to pop superstardom, many artists emulating the nihilistic lyrics, somber, moody instrumentals and intentionally emotionless and desensitized delivery of some heavier topics that he helped popularize in the early 2010s. While there isn’t much we haven’t already heard before on this project, the main thing that distinguishes 6lack from his contemporaries is the gravel in his voice and his very open approach to relationships in particular in his lyrics, especially after recently becoming a father. Still, most of this 14-track project fails to capture my attention, lingering in the hazy alt-R&B sludge.

The track “Unfair” opens the project, a shorter track in which 6lack emotes about two parties failing to see eye to eye on their desires in a relationship with some Auto-Tuned falsetto notes, the track opening with some frigid synths and watery piano notes before the telltale trap beat picks up in the second half – 6lack is back to the same tricks, and this track definitely establishes the atmosphere of the project. There are times here when his producers come through and craft an engaging instrumental around his unique voice and we get some pretty fun trap-flavoured material – the track “Loaded Gun” is another trap-piano cut from producer Bizness Boi where 6lack comes across like a more charismatic Bryson Tiller on the mic with a quicker, slightly melodic flow, the instrumental cutting out at the right times for his gravelly voice to shine through. He even demonstrates some pretty great harmonies on the track. The same producer returns on another upbeat track in “Let Her Go”, which is an equally catchy trap instrumental where 6lack’s hooks don’t really match up – the repeated note in the chorus doesn’t sit right with me for whatever reason, and neither do his lyrics where he is indecisive over whether he would regret leaving the mother of his new child for one of the “distractions” on tour.

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6lack’s singing voice is at its best on the track “Sorry”, and it shows that he really does have potential with the right kind of approach – the track is only slightly different instrumentally, but this time the piano is accompanied by more prominent orchestral swells, the percussion sounding like more traditional R&B which frames his vocals better. J. Cole’s appearance taking over the second half of “Pretty Little Fears” is another highlight of the album – Cole has really retuned in a huge way, and he elaborates on the world 6lack builds with a calmer verse proclaiming his love for his wife with some genuinely heartwarming lyrics, a nice break from 6lack’s outlook.

Most of the project is a chore to get through, however. I thought an appearance from Future on the longer title track would inject some energy into 6lack’s meandering vocalizations over sparse percussion that colours most of the tracks here, but Future actually adapts to 6lack’s style instead. The two trade lines, even repeating some of each other’s motifs and verses as they both attempt some complex vocal runs through their Auto-Tune machine that just ends up sounding like a mess … that thing can’t make just anything at all sound good! Too many of the tracks here end up sounding the same, the instrumentals mostly comprised of isolated trap hi-hats and orchestral-themed creeping and moody soundscapes. When 6lack brings more of his hip-hop side to the table, injecting some energy into an instrumental like that can be a lot of fun, but we mostly just get the over-indulgent and melodramatic singing material that he can’t pull off as well as most of his contemporaries.

The back half is essentially all filler, even featuring some issues with mixing and mastering that are too obvious to ignore – especially regarding Offset’s awkward feature verse bringing the Migos flow to an environment that doesn’t accommodate it in the slightest on the track “Balenciaga Challenge”. The choice of tracks “Switch” and “Nonchalant” as singles instead of anything in the first half is a truly strange decision. The presence of a Drake-esque knocking hi-hat beat (produced by one of my favourites in pop producer Joel Little) on the former is definitely a nice change of pace, but the melodies still come together awkwardly, like he’s just slightly off-key in a few places, and the effect placed on his vocals make it sound like he’s singing underwater – it’s a very rare miss for the New Zealand producer.

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“Disconnect” is another track that sounds like they were going for a hit with some of 6lack’s most melodic hooks on the project, but the tempo of the song is a complete snail’s pace and since 6lack has far from the greatest singing voice in the world, it’s hard to get through. The final four tracks are essentially the same alt-R&B slow ballad copy-pasted and it’s tough to find individual things to comment on. I did enjoy the concept of closing track “Stan”, flipping the narrative of the Eminem classic to speak on his own pursuit of a fan, while Khalid’s feature on the track “Seasons” is as underwhelming as most of his solo work.

East Atlanta Love Letter doesn’t have much going for it in the way of showing 6lack’s personality, artistry or originality, falling short of the successes of his debut project. It’s clear that this trend and this genre are here to stay for the foreseeable future – would it hurt anyone to switch it up in the slightest?

Favourite Tracks: Pretty Little Fears, Loaded Gun, Sorry

Least Favourite Track: Nonchalant

Score: 3/10

Bas – Milky Way

Image result for bas milky wayDreamville Records signee and J. Cole protégé Bas delivers his third studio album, continuing in his lane of making semi-melodic, laid back rap tracks. Bas is far from the most charismatic or original rapper in the world and it does seem like he takes a lot of inspiration from J. Cole at times, making Milky Way an inconsistent project with a few fun moments sprinkled in. The most engaging parts of the project come from Bas showcasing his unique vocals, his deep and raspy voice containing a built-in soulfulness. He doesn’t go for anything that really pushes the envelope here, definitely succeeding at the creation of some catchy, feel-good tracks but failing to deliver anything truly exciting.

The opening track “Icarus” sees Bas and Dreamville singer Ari Lennox exchanging some soulful vocal moments over a watery piano hip-hop beat before the trap percussion drops and Bas steps out of the shadows with an aggressive and prominent flow. He might sound more like Cole on this track than any other, his singing sounding like his detached and somber style while his rap delivery is somehow simultaneously very present and laidback at the same time, demonstrating a speedier technical flow but trailing his voice off at the end of sentences. Cole himself appears on the track “Tribe”, the first of two big-name features at the start of the tracklisting. The chill, summery vibe of the album continues with some lazy strummed acoustic guitars on the beat, and we really start to see some of Bas’ greatest strengths on the track. The beat produced by Childish Major and Cole is one of the greatest here as the hi-hats come in and knock harder than the rest – Bas delivers one of his fastest flows here and he actually sounds like he’s trying his hardest to impress. He plays off of Cole well, who might have mastered jumping into that beat drop with his best bars a little bit better than Bas does, but only a little.

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The track “Boca Raton” with A$AP Ferg is what you might expect, a goofy, quotable hit song in the making. A lot of tracks here do stand out due to having a kind of worldly influence, instruments and percussion that we don’t often hear, and this track is no exception, with some shakers and clicks that tie into the Hispanic title. It’s one of the most unique tracks on the project, and Bas sells the track as soon as he immediately rhymes “Boca Raton” with “Roca Patron”. The track “Purge”, as well, has a great soulful vocal sample that really enhances Bas’ flow – it’s hard to listen to the track without a smile on your face, and I think that’s probably what Bas was going for most across this whole project. He really does have a great ear for both melodies and rhythm, and he knows where to shine with his fast-paced flow and where to let the sample take over here, endearingly singing along with it.

When so much of the tracklisting is still based on trap production, it’s starting to get harder to remain engaging for the duration of a full album without a degree of originality, when they sound disinterested on the track, or when it’s an artist who isn’t as naturally built for the style as a group like Migos. All of these things collide painfully on a track like “Front Desk”, where Bas spends the whole track singing over a pretty standard trap instrumental – it almost sounds like he hopped on the wrong trend here, his vocals seeming more like he was aiming for the popular tropical feel. At the end of the day there isn’t a lot about Bas’ style that is his own, sounding like he’s emulating the hit songs of the day or playing into the monolithic Dreamville sound that was started by Cole, and even when he comes hard on most of these tracks here it doesn’t make me want to pay attention to him as there are others I could turn to who deliver the same thing with more personality or charisma. I remembered almost nothing from the project when I went to review it on my second listen only a few days later.

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The second half of the album features a lot of shorter tracks and an apparent lack of focus. Correy C delivers an out-of-key hook on not one but two tracks on “Fragrance” and “Infinity+2”, and I’m not sure why Bas didn’t just sing the hooks himself. “Sanufa” drops fully into the dancehall trend that just refuses to die, Bas putting less effort into his bars and opting for a repetitive hook that fails to catch my interest as the whole track is dumbed down by the same beat I’ve been hearing for the last 3 years.

Bas essentially meets expectations without exceeding them on Milky Way – I would have liked to see more of a degree of originality as he gets farther along in his career, an attempt to distinguish himself from the rest of the Dreamville pack as their second most popular member. There are definitely some highlights here, but it’s mostly inconsistent.

Favourite Tracks: Purge, Tribe, Boca Raton, Spaceships + Rockets

Least Favourite Track: Sanufa

Score: 5/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Tinashe, J. Cole, Bishop Briggs)

Tinashe - Joyride (Official Album Cover).pngTinashe – Joyride

Joyride is a project that frequently underrated R&B artist Tinashe has been promoting since 2015, delayed multiple times as it was apparently held back by label deman 2016’s Nightride album was a catchy, ethereal teaser, but it may have ended up being better than the final product. The label intervention is evident across this project, Tinashe’s quieter style frequently offset by obvious attempts to land her another radio hit with awkward rap features (one fittingly being Offset himself) and production from pop hitmakers like Stargate. The album is a directionless mixed bag, but she still manages to shine in the few occasions where she’s allowed to do what she wants here.

Tinashe has always been at her best on more throwback production styles, rather than the more marketable and upbeat party tracks that take up most of the space on this album. Sometimes the two styles are mixed together and the juxtaposition is too much, like on title track “Joyride”, which places a loud “la-la-la” melody and huge beat overtop of the orchestral and spacey synths and strings that she is more known for, which fail to accommodate the constant high energy of the rest of the track. The pure pop tracks fare a little bit better – I’m not going to lie and say “No Drama” doesn’t get stuck in my head for days at a time – but it’s far from the artist I know she can be, she’s a better singer than this basic melody over a trap beat. “Me So Bad” is the most blatant attempt at a trend-riding track that never would have made it onto a Tinashe project with creative freedom, the lyrics doing little more than pointing to her looks with a pretty inexcusable French Montana feature and a beat that manages to take the worst elements of both the tropical and dancehall trends at the same time. The last few tracks on the album never quite come together, the scores of writers in the credits becoming evident as the commercial aspect overrides artistry, the hint of a trap hi-hat echoing on even the slowest tracks. What in the world is that disjointed Future verse??

It would be a much different story if the whole album was filled with tracks like “He Don’t Want It”, the closest thing we get to the highlights of Nightride like “C’est La Vie” and “Ghetto Boy”. Tinashe uses both ends of her vocal register, the breathy falsetto verse introducing the more powerful chorus. I love when most of the elements of the track are made of Tinashe’s dynamic vocal abilities, and the ethereal backing harmonies complete the picture here. It’s great to hear elements of a trap beat without the same rhythms we’re all familiar with from all-star hip-hop producer T-Minus as well. Follow-up “Ooh La La” is an homage to the early-2000s R&B that Tinashe would have thrived in, with a pretty fun flip of a sample from Nelly’s “Dilemma” and calmly picked guitar melody reminiscent of “Suga Suga”, while an unexpected collaboration with Little Dragon on “Stuck With Me” is a fantastic surprise, Tinashe and Yukimi Nagano’s voices occupying that perfect space of having a similar tone that’s just distinct enough to distinguish the individuals.

The way Tinashe’s career has been handled is one of the most consistently depressing things about the music in Here’s hoping she goes independent and drops some old-school R&B gems on us.

Favourite Tracks: He Don’t Want It, Stuck With Me, Ooh La La, No Drama

Least Favourite Track: Joyride

Score: 5/10

JColeKOD.jpgJ. Cole – KOD

North Carolina rapper J. Cole bounces back in a huge way after 2016’s disappointing 4 Your Eyez Only with his 5th studio album KOD, a concept album of sorts that sees him discouraging forms of substance abuse that have affected him and those he observed in the past by through some Kendrick Lamar-esque play with the embodiment of opposing characters and points of view. While Cole doesn’t really do anything groundbreaking here musically, he escapes criticism by tying it perfectly into the theme of the album, stating that the addictive, repetitive hooks and trap beats resemble the drugs he speaks of. Plus, what I was really missing from Cole was the fire in his delivery, and that’s fully returned with this more modern, upbeat style.

“There are many ways to deal with pain … Choose wisely”, echoes a voice throughout the album. The tracklist is divided about half and half, sometimes on the same song, as Cole portrays either himself making the wise choices in the present or a character addicted to or dependent on one of the many “drugs” he describes, both literal and more abstract, like money, power or love. Opening track “KOD” lets listeners know early that Cole has snapped out of the trance that dominated his previous album, offering a rapid-fire triplet flow and booming bassline. The popularized Migos flow shows up quite a bit across this project, but it’s still great to hear Cole’s take on it since his voice and delivery can be one of the most engaging in the industry when he wants it to, always with a sarcastic wink and a jovial bounce. Cole produced nearly all of the beats on this project without any assistance, raising the impressiveness again. My favourite beat of all though is attributed to T-Minus, on standout track “Kevin’s Heart”. Cole makes his dexterous flow sound easy mainly due to the chilled out, 8-bit video game-style instrumental that makes everything sound more impressive on an intoxicating half-time tempo.

Perhaps the fact that I’m so drawn to Cole’s repetitive tracks like “Motiv8” and “ATM”, where he portrays a character dependent on an unstable source of income, proves his point. These cheap thrills really are easy to turn to, rather than paying attention to what he’s saying on the more lyrical tracks. While they do veer a bit into the same sluggish tempos he employed earlier, tracks like “Brackets” and “Once an Addict” revive Cole’s elite storytelling ability to tell some tales of how his community and his own life are affected by what he describes. Cole’s advice across the board is never preachy because he is quick to acknowledge that he himself had fallen prey to it as well – he tells a heartbreaking tale of both he and his mother turning to drugs and alcohol to deal with the abusive stepfather that has turned up in many tracks across his career, offering genuine advice to personal friends and younger rappers on “Friends” and “1985” about falling prey to all the various drugs of life, admitting his message isn’t “the coolest” in an endearing way.

One of the main themes that frequently seem to hold a Cole album back is his singing, which he almost always relies on more than he should. It makes a few hooks here more awkward than they should be, such as on “Photograph” where he never quite clicks into the beat perfectly. His Kill Edward character’s pitch shifted delivery also muddles his words and throws the pitch off on tracks like “The Cut Off”, but it still adds to the message of the song, the addicted Edward sounding lost and troubled, out of step with the rest of reality.

KOD delivers an important message in a very smart way, Cole bringing back his relatable character and storytelling ability to spread awaren Luckily, by exploring characters Cole can do this and deliver some upbeat, fun tracks at the same time. He boasts about his versatility contributing to his longevity over trend-hoppers on closer “1985”, and KOD backs up his point.

Favourite Tracks: Kevin’s Heart, ATM, FRIENDS, KOD, BRACKETS

Least Favourite Track: The Cut Off

Score: 8/10

Image result for church of scars bishopBishop Briggs – Church of Scars

British alt-pop musician Bishop Briggs’ debut studio album Church of Scars comes in the wake of the success of her 2016 single “River” on alternative and rock radio due to her trademark growl and heavier approach to poppier melodies. Her songs have been used in commercials, also contributing to her steady rise, and this album makes it easy to see why. Her formula across these brief 10 tracks becomes incredibly evident and safe, reminding me of Imagine Dragons’ latest project Evolve in terms of the build-up to an explosive chorus over some soul chords that she employs in every song. While her vocal power is undeniable, Church of Scars loses its element of surprise immediately.

Briggs blends elements of the past and present across the whole album to varying degrees of success, mixing rock and blues instrumentation with modern trends of pop music such as electronic synthlines and hip-hop influenced percussion, a computerized water-droplet beat quickly snapping the old-soul sound of Briggs’ vocal delivery into the more modern era in opening track “Tempt My Trouble”. While this track serves as one of the most immediately catchy offerings, even it falls into the repetitive techniques that plague most of the tracklisting. Briggs’ voice really does have a lot of potential, and I could see her imbuing it with the genuine emotion that the power behind it deserves to make some powerful content, but she settles for Chainsmokers-style thematic lyricism around a seemingly randomly generated noun and melodies that stay in a safe position in order to build up to the reveal of the only trick she has – the overriding of a vaguely electronic blues-rock template with her growling, explosive vocal wails.

Her blends of styles often come across as trying too hard. I feel like I write the word “trap” in every review I write nowadays, but the plaintive acoustic background of a song like “Lyin’” sounds ridiculous with those persistent hi-hats at a time when we hear them everywhere, and whoever did the backing vocals doesn’t help the track much either, sounding too anthemic and angry for the instrumental since an explosive rendition of the chorus is apparently a necessity for each and every track regardless. “White Flag” shows that the vitriol she spits into every syllable doesn’t work as well with rapidly delivered vocals, the rhythm of the chorus lagging behind. As the album goes on, we lose any hope of being moved by Briggs’ power, since we expect her to be yelling at us by the end of every song, knowing not to trust the quieter acoustic introduction.

There really are quite a few promising elements here, such as the industrial and menacing horn section on “Wild Horses”, but an attempt at an EDM-style chorus breakdown changes the tempo in such a miniscule way that it becomes irritating, throwing off my rhythm. It all comes together best on “Hallowed Ground”, which incorporates a gospel organ and horn section breakdown that switches things up instrumentally for a break in the monotony.

Briggs has a lot of raw talent, but she relies much too heavily on a formula attempting to place her in the modern musical context that she doesn’t really need. With a better team around her, I hope she can convert the energy she possesses into more creative, well-structured song material.

Favourite Tracks: Hallowed Ground, River, Tempt My Trouble

Least Favourite Track: The Fire

Score: 4/10

J. Cole – 4 Your Eyez Only

Image result for j cole for your eyes onlyDreamville label boss and North Carolina rapper J. Cole’s 4th studio album is released on the 2-year anniversary of his fantastic previous effort 2014 Forest Hills Drive, and comes as a huge surprise. On DJ Khaled’s Major Key album earlier this year, Cole expressed his frustrations with the rap game, feeling dissociated and considering retirement, also declaring at a recent concert that it would be his last show in a very long time. On this album, Cole is at his most introspective yet, crafting a story around the similar narratives he introduced on Khaled’s album with the added twists of his newfound family life after the birth of his daughter.

Cole just wants to be left alone, away from his responsibilities as a performer and spend time with his family. Unfortunately, coming from a huge fan of his work, this attitude towards his musical career really shows. Cole is still a great storyteller on this project, one of his greatest strengths, but you can clearly hear how much less he cares about this album. He doesn’t attack the beats as hard as he did before and falls back into tried-and-true formulas of rap music despite the album’s engaging narrative.

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Once again, after fans beat to death the fact that 2014 Forest Hills Drive went double platinum with no features so much it became a running joke, the album features Cole and Cole alone. The sound certainly deviates from a typical hip-hop album, but not in a creative way – the project is generally very quiet and internal, accommodating its introspective qualities. This is all about Cole’s voice and his story. Cole himself produces most of the album with some occasional assistance from lesser-known producers and doesn’t deviate much from his usual style of production, featuring soul samples and somber piano loops, but they’re very basic and meant to bring out the contemplative state of the album and the significance of what Cole is saying. However, for anyone who isn’t one of the diehard Cole fans who truly believe that his lyricism is his strong point and requires a “certain level of intelligence” to appreciate, as the much-maligned YouTube comment goes, it makes for a very boring listen.

The story is actually pretty fantastic, and the culmination in the 9-minute closing track “4 Your Eyez Only” makes the whole album clearer and easier to appreciate — although before hearing this at the end some of the references are very confusing and the listener could have been guided through easier than a huge explanation at the end. Cole frames the album as a cassette tape that his friend who was killed instructs him to play for his daughter as a dying wish, speaking from the perspective of his friend for the majority of the album. Cole’s life parallels his friend’s in many ways, beginning in the streets and confused about the direction of his life before falling in love and having a daughter, but where his friend ultimately never made it out of the streets, Cole does and begins the domestic family life he celebrates here.

Some tracks certainly stand out, each showing brief glimpses of why Cole was so great before this project. “Neighbours” displays his technical ability, deftly maneuvering through the speedier beat while offering a narrative of how his neighbours assume he is selling drugs after moving to a white neighbourhood. “Change”, an address of Cole’s shifting perspectives as he matures that culminates in his friend’s death being made explicit, shows his storytelling, while “Immortal” is the only track here where Cole sounds truly energized and passionate.

Despite Cole’s ambitious intentions, the lack of care he puts into the actual musical content brings the project very far down. To fit in with the very emotional nature of the album, Cole sings a lot more than he usually does. His passionate declarations of love for his wife and daughter on “She’s Mine” parts 1 and 2 would be beautiful and affecting, especially with the cascading string instrumentals, if his vocals weren’t so off-key. I respect what Cole is trying to do with the story, but his delivery often sounds disinterested and phoned in, replicating aspects that succeeded in his previous music and not fulfilling them to the same degree.

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Single Deja Vu, which debuted in the Billboard top 10 and became Cole’s biggest hit immediately, is a blatant rip-off of Forest Hills track “G.O.M.D.”, complete with the same mockery of unintelligent rap choruses serving as its chorus. Finally, regardless of what many fans say, lyricism has always been Cole’s weakest point, coasting through due to the charm and relatable nature of his stories, and it only gets worse on this project. When the lines are not outright cringeworthy, often disrupting the tone of a song with an immature sexual reference, they are simply lazy. He turns half a chorus into instructions to put fingers in the sky, and yes – inexplicably rhymes “almond milk” with “almond milk”. Even the hooks are often terrible, something like “Ville Mentality” sounding like a melody that was made up on the spot.

In “She’s Mine, Pt. 2”, Cole sums up his feelings towards the direction of his life when he says “F*** this album s***, hey mama look what god made”, referring to his newborn daughter. His head is in a different place. People are making fun of Cole at the moment for making a song called “Foldin Clothes” which is actually about folding clothes and feeling like the best version of himself because he’s completing mundane household tasks – and if that’s what he wants to do he should do it. J. Cole, if you ever find your passion for music again, come back and renew this fan’s interest.

Favourite Tracks: Neighbours, 4 Your Eyez Only, Change, Immortal

Least Favourite Track: Ville Mentality

Score: 4/10