#1 album on the Billboard 200 chart, week of 12/31/16
What it is: The fourth studio album from rapper J. Cole.
J. Cole is an odd case. He clearly wants to be taken seriously as a conscious and introspective lyricist, so he’s got this earnest vibe that you would think would earn him critical affection and merely modest sales. But it’s the opposite: He’s a commerical success (as this album’s #1 ranking demonstrates) with a devoted fan base, but critics and even other major rappers seem to mostly ignore the guy. He’s not an underdog like Danny Brown, or a goofy bubblegum phenomenon like Soulja Boy, or a universally embraced favorite like Kendrick Lamar. So what the hell is he?
The short answer would seem to be that he’s Kendrick but without the club bangers, which you can take as either a sign of artistic integrity or a lack of versatility, whichever you prefer. He’s got a smooth and assured flow when he lets loose on songs like “Immortal,” and he can be sincerely affecting on songs like “4 Your Eyez Only,” although, as evidenced by that track and the non-album cut “False Prophets,” he tends to take even his outwardly focused songs and make them about himself. (His rapper ego winning out over his conscious rapper conscience, as tends to happen in this genre.) But the production here is all subdued and semi-jazzy, so much so that the beat for “Change” ends up feeling like a stomping shot of adrenaline, which it is not. Ultimately, this album doesn’t change the fact that the first thing J. Cole makes me think of is Desus & Mero’s joke that his albums have a “thread count.”
Anyway, this is my last review of the year. It’s a cliche to say but 2016 truly was awful, although I guess in terms of mainstream pop culture it was fine. Can’t wait for everything to have an intentional Trump subtext instead of an unintentional one. See you next year!