So, this is a German-born, American rapper, and the first to be signed (in 2009, funny how New Artists are never totally new - I'm starting to wonder what the criteria is there) to Jay-Z's Roc Nation label. They worked with him for a while, and two years later, we get this album, his very first, as a debut at #1.
A smart man, he decided he'd have a better chance in New York as an artist than their new home of NC, so he moved up here, went to St. John's, and graduated with honors with a degree in communications and a minor in business. He had been rapping since the age of 12, and walked right up to Jay-Z's label with his first mix tape in hand, only to be turned down. Clearly, that didn't last long. He kept at making a couple of mix tapes. Yes, he got signed, and yes, he's been keeping busy ever since, mostly appearing on other albums and lending his voice to demos (notably, "Coming Home" for P Diddy). Three mix tapes later, he finally released, to great sales thanks to a large and strong mainstream fan base, this debut album.
For a full listen on Spotify, check out this link.
A true protege of Jay-Z, there's an "Intro" track! It's got a light little piano in the background, and a little discussion before launching into a quick rap, clearly building into something. Oh shit son, J. Cole is coming.
"Dollar and a Dream III" is, literally, the third of a three song series I think we missed out on from the mix tapes (at least from what I can tell from looking up YouTube songs). There's a sample from "Darkness of the Unknown" by Yoko Shimomura. It's pretty real to the street, being about only having that dollar and figuring out what's next - how to make the dream come true. If it weren't so focused in on his particular story, I'd almost say that there's a message there, but you have to see it through his personal struggle. I do love the piano backing.
Then there's a 180 done into "Can't Get Enough," featuring Trey Songz and a sample of "Paulette" by Balla et ses Balladins. I mean this is just about every way possible. There's sex and a girl and no piano, but a lot of other stuff. The album version's explicit, but the video version is clean apparently. The video was filmed in Barbados while on Rihanna's tour, and here it is.
"Lights Please" contains a sample from Dexter Wansel's "Theme From The Planets." Nice little piano downbeat there working. I think he's sick of the fake-ness from this girl. It's almost like this opposite attitude, where the girl's sex-crazed instead of the guy, who wants more. I know, I'm stereotyping, and I know that's not how it always it, but it's still interesting to hear it in a song like this.
Another little discussion set to piano, there's the "Interlude" next. Have to say, cool use of a classic instrument for a new artist. I always have respect for use of things like this, bringing different elements together you wouldn't have expected otherwise.
"Sideline Story" hasn't given me much different to work with here, but I'm trying here. Rhythm's "The World Is A Place" is sampled during this number. There's also this nice under-sound of a guitar, along with piano that, honestly, I think I heard in sections of Final Fantasy X. I think it's more on him coming up as a rapper, defying others' thoughts, etc.
Wait, when did Skrillex hit this album? Kidding, kidding. But seriously, electronic elements come in for "Mr. Nice Watch" featuring mentor-man Jay-Z. It's just weird to the ears, but I'm not necessarily complaining. The sound's pretty cool, though I don't entirely get this one. "No more Mr. Nice Guy, now it's Mr. Nice Watch."
"Cole World" takes the whole idea of it being a cold world to an interesting place. It's about him, sort of. God I wish I could listen more closely to this than I am. It's just too filled with curses (yes, I believe there's a balance possible between enough and too much), and his voice isn't interesting for the Rap world. It's the same scratched beat we've been hearing for ages.
Next up we get a track that interpolates "Can I Get A" by Jay-Z and "Hold Ya Head" by 2pac to get "In The Morning" featuring Drake. Lighter, calmer beat here, but it's still probably about sex. Sorry if you're reading this mom, but you know I have to remain true to the mission of being open to anything musically. Time to look at the video.
"Lost Ones" has a very old school feel to it, with beat and a little synth. Damn... this is a tough story. Unwanted child and conflicts of emotions about it and what's next.
Missy Elliot (!!) joins in for the next track, "Nobody's Perfect." Curtis Mayfield (bow down) is interpolated into this with "Think." I would like to know when the phrase "bitch nigga" became a thing... Kind of cool to hear Missy singing; she has a great voice. There is definitely something classic and nice about the R&B side of this song, and in saying "nobody's perfect, but you're perfect for me."
"Never Told" is on secrets told by dad, but maybe were better out in the open. But that's from a different world... eh, listen to the track to know what I'm talking about. Then it gets into all sorts of references for, seemingly, no reason. The talking in-between verses is a little weird, but I guess follows the story being told.
A sample of "Arise, Shine" as performed by Greg Dykes and The Synanon Choir is included for the track "Rise and Shine." Interesting use of the sample in this case. There's a drum line involved along the way too. The voice is harsh and biting as he goes though, but the balance is kind of nicely achieved with the choir backing.
"God's Gift." I don't know what makes artists think a cracked up high-pitched voice wrapping around the instrumentation of their song sounds good, but I hate hearing it - immediate turn off on this song. Then the rest of the rapping just sounds angry. Maybe I'm jaded, but I have always gotten more out of Jay-Z's rapping then something like this makes no real point and lacks an even slightly enjoyable hook.
The bright light at the end is coming. "Breakdown" is next, and he begins with an explanation of the phrase 'in a minute' in instances where it means a much longer time. Sorry, had to mention the one thing to make me laugh on this. Otherwise, we've got the piano back in major action, alongside a sample of "Bells" (Eero Koivistoinen) and interpolations of Mariah Carey's "Breakdown."
I'm running on fumes here. The final song is "Work Out." Samples include "The New Workout Plan" (Kanye West) and "Straight Up" (Paula Abdul).
Not a bad album, though I'm wondering how much in politics influenced the nomination. I mean, Jay-Z does hold some power over the music industry, let's face it. But I'll give the guy credit, there are some interesting things done musically throughout the album, especially when it comes to use of piano. It wasn't awful, but I won't be listening to this again anytime soon.