As just about anybody who follows popular music knows, the SXSW music festival happened last week in Austin, Texas. SXSW features thousands of musicians, but every year, a few become generally acknowledged standouts, and careers are made or kicked up a notch or two. This week, the Talkhouse is running pieces about some of the most celebrated bands of SXSW 2015.
— The editors of the Talkhouse
J. Cole’s “Power Trip” is currently in non-stop radio rotation and I’m OK with that. It’s a soulful head-nodder of a sing-along rap song. It’s one of his love songs. Once again, we find Cole rapping about rapping — “Even wrote the song ‘Dreams’ for you.” I like when he raps about sleeping at “Mohammed’s crib” because I can relate — I have a lot of friends named Mohammed who have let me sleep on their couch. Although I wonder where he was staying that cost $1700 a month with no heat. That’s cake. Indie/rap crossover joints are normal now. Drake sampled Lykke Li long ago and spit about how “Them hipsters gon’ have to get along with them hood niggas.” The Weeknd sampled Beach House; Bon Iver’s on Kanye’s album again; Scoop Deville sampled Twin Sister for Kendrick on “The Recipe.” (Fun fact: that was a beat Scoop first sent me for Das Racist’s debut album Relax. A few days later he let us know it had been picked up by Dr. Dre for a project. I sent him stems from my friend Dev in Twin Sister so he could clean it up for Dre.) This type of indie/crossover joint is normal now. I think it’s a step forward as, historically, rappers listened to the worst rock, and rock dudes listened to the worst rap. Rappers spit about “partying like rock stars” and wore Von Dutch and jeans with rhinestones. Rick Ross hanging out with Bon Iver while working on Kanye’s album can’t be a bad thing for music. Rap/rock collaborations peaked out the gate with “Walk This Way” and there was a lot of hiccups on the way to indie/rap crossovers like Kanye West successfully collaborating with Justin Vernon. For example, there was Kanye West collaborating with Adam Levine, whatever it was that Korn did, Limp Bizkit and Method Man blessing the world with “‘N 2 Gether Now,” Jay-Z and Linkin Park’s album and both Kanye West and Jay-Z collaborating with their pals in Coldplay. “She Knows” is Cole’s indie/rap crossover joint. We find Cole behind the boards, as he is for most of the album, flipping Cults’ “Bad Things” into a song about cheating where he compares himself to Martin Luther King at the club with Coretta in the back of his mind. That made me feel strange inside. Then, for no reason, he goes from rapping about being tempted to cheat on his girl to “Rest in peace to Aaliyah, rest in peace to Left Eye” as if it were a reflex for when things go wrong. Then there’s Amber Coffman from Dirty Projectors and some guitar shredding for good measure. J. Cole does that “Game” thing, he has that disease, where he’s constantly mentioning other rappers. It takes a lot of the focus away from himself. Perhaps in an attempt at reverse psychology, dude constantly reminds the listener how great Nas and Jay-Z are while listening to his music, which, understandably, is not as good as Illmatic. He raps about moving his album release date to go up against Kanye’s Yeezus. First-week sales weren’t that far behind Kanye, which has to make you wonder: Who listens to J. Cole? Who are his fans? J. Cole is biracial and he refers to himself as “half cracker” on this record, but his racial identity doesn’t come up as much as his attempts to figure out his identity in the world of rap. Cole seems to be a guy who is constantly thinking about rap the way I imagine some athletes — like Derrick Rose — only think about sports. It shows. Cole is a strong technical rapper. He’s got punchlines. He can sing all right. He can produce all right. It’s clear he’s a smart guy. It’s clear he works hard. But he’s pretty boring. Ultimately, it’s nice that he’s a rap fan, but I am too, and if I’m spending money on a product that is essentially a human being’s identity, I’d prefer it to be fully formed — or at least interesting.