J. Cole does Drake better than Drake does Drake. Since signing to Young Money Entertainment, it’s like Drake can’t believe his luck. As though signing to Lil Wayne’s record label wasn’t going to bring the kudos, women, cars and bling that it did, you can’t go half a Drake album – scratch that, half a Drake song – nowadays without hearing the Degrassi High graduate riffing on how fame has changed his friends, changed the women around him, changed his own perception of fame. Critical reflections on how artists got to where they got to are often kind of delicious in a severely postmodern sort of way but with Drake, his introspection has become so frequent as to sound forced; as though he knows he now has an audience for otherwise internalised thoughts and so takes every opportunity to externalise them in the most audible fashion possible. Drake sells records and Drake releases good albums but gradually, the ‘Oh I can’t believe I’m this well known now and look how it’s changed everything I once knew’ mode of engagement has become tired. Celebrity thrives on the interplay between exposure and privacy but oversharing does Drake no favours.
Fayetteville, North Carolina’s most famous export (if you don’t count Julianne Moore, which I don’t) does Drake better than the Canadian crooner himself because he picks his moments. J. Cole’s debut, ‘Cole World: The Sideline Story’ released in late 2011, was a commercial and critical success because of the way it charted a spectrum of emotions and common hip-hop themes without unduly dwelling on any one in particular. For every Kanye West-sampling, Kanye West-channeling ‘Work Out‘, there was a more thoughtful ‘Dollar and a Dream III‘. Even ‘Lights Please‘, ostensibly the very kind of ‘booty-music’ that Young Money thrives off, featured embedded, ironic commentary on hip-hop’s fascination with sex and how it obscures the more salient issues the genre perhaps should be dealing with. Cole hasn’t been in the spotlight most of his life like Drake has but still manages to sound eloquent and thoughtful rather than premeditated and grating when looking back on his ‘journey’. Some of it has to do with a capacity to more readily generalise his experience but part of it also comes down to a baseline humility that not many rappers boast.
Of course, with ‘Power Trip’, the first radio-friendly single to come from Cole’s forthcoming sophomore effort ‘Born Sinner’ (after the decidedly Lupe-esque ‘Miss America‘ was released last November), much of it comes down to Cole’s production prowess (along with a big slab of his own discography, he also notably produced ‘Hii PoWeR‘ for Kendrick Lamar) and his knack for choosing guests, sparely, that just work. Cole is here working with a sentiment he’s tapped previously on ‘Home For The Holidays‘ but infuses ‘Power Trip’ with such a mellow jazz riff, one-two punched with that wobbly bass line, and Miguel’s effortless chorus performance that the former effort pales in comparison. ‘Power Trip’ tracks J. Cole’s return home, bolstered by the power of fame but still at the mercy of the charms of a woman from his past, and sounds like Cole returning to his musical home too; this sort of mid-tempo, slightly soulful jam is where he feels most at ease, with none of the posturing that appearing alongside his boss, Jay-Z, demands. Recent Grammy Award-winner Miguel is a revelation and fits the track perfectly, providing the pipes when necessary as he has for other artists before. Miguel’s showboating falsetto might overwhelm any other, less comfortable, less self-assured artist. J. Cole makes contemplative hip-hop look like child’s play.
J. Cole – Power Trip Ft. Miguel