The last time legendary the Memphis emcee La Chat was in Brooklyn had the chance sit down with her for this interview. This coming Saturday, April 28, La Chat will return to Brooklyn for a performance at Public Assembly for H.A.M., the best southern rap party in Brooklyn. If that isn’t enough to get you out of your house, House of LaDosha will also be performing, and GIRL UNIT will be DJing. It’s guaranteed to be a totally epic evening, so if you’re in NYC make sure to buy your tickets now.
Much like fellow Young Money also-ran Tyga’s “Rack City,” this song was tailor made to be the soundtrack to debauched evenings at strip clubs around the world. That said, where “Rack City” took its cues from the Bay Area’s current club sound, “Wop” is full on New Orleans bounce, anchored by an incredible sample of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti.” A beat this banging could easily overpower a less than capable emcee, but luckily Lil Chuckee rises to the occasion here. We’re only in the first month of the year, but I can’t see many strip-club anthems topping this one. I eagerly await the inevitable Twerk Team video.
Also, Travis Porter totally needs to be on the remix.
Recently I had the chance to speak via email with Tommy Black (@TommyBlackML), the Swedish producer behind David’s #1 track of 2011, Schoolboy Q’s “Fantasy,” as well as tracks by Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, and others. Here’s what he had to say.
Could you go into detail about the recording process for Schoolboy Q’s “Fantasy”? How did you go about creating that beat? Was it made specifically for Schoolboy, or did he hear it and go in on it? Were you in the studio during the recording?
I didn’t have my own place to stay at during that time, so I was moving around between a couple of my homies spots. I only had my laptop, headphones an a synthesizer, and I sat down in one of my friends kitchen (wich I used to get some isolation and focus to create) and just pounded that production out. When I was done with it, I handled the headphones to my homie Luc and he was like “It’s a done deal!” I usually steps in my own dimension when I create music, so I didn’t have Schoolboy Q in mind untill the beat was done (he had just recently sent me an email the first time asking to send him some beats). I thought this production would fit him perfect, I sent it over and I almost got the reply immediately that he wanted to use it on his “Setbacks” project.
You’ve done a lot of work with the Black Hippy camp (Schoolboy, Kendrick, Ab-Soul, etc.). How did you link up with them? What is your working relationship like?
I came across a video 09′ on youtube called “Day In A Life” by Ab-Soul, and I thought he was dope as hell! I had alot of productions ready to go, and I badly wanted him to hop on one of my tracks. So I contacted him thru myspace, he felt my music and we started to work from thereon. I remember coming across this new Kendrick Lamar joint called “Rare Breed” on XXL’s website on one of my lunchbreaks at work, and I was like “Damn! this’s my beat!” and he was killing it! This was before the “Overly Dedicated” project. Eventually Kendrick Lamar contacted me and wanted me to send him beats, then Schoolboy Q etc etc. So my music spread thru Ab-Soul from the first. I usually don’t like to send music fourth and back over the internet, I rather like to work in person and be able to vibe together, and at the same time get a more costumized track for the artist. But I never get disappointed with the results coming from the Black Hippy camp.
Do you plan on doing work outside of that camp? If so, which artists would you like to work with?
I’m working on my own two projects right now, one instrumental and one with guest artists. I also got tracks with the west coast legend Butch Cassidy and a hella dope mc by the name of Pr1me (they formed the duo “Blues Brotherz”), I got tracks with some up and coming artists and a couple of tracks that I can’t really out right now. It’s going to be a secret untill further notice, lol. I also work with some dope artists out here in Sweden and in Europe. But I always got tracks for the artists over at TDE no matter what, they make incredible stuff. Wich artists would I like to work with.. It’s quite a few, too many to name, but it would’ve been dope to do something with Royce Da 5’9, Big K.R.I.T or Bilal.
How long have you been making beats?
I started around 99′ – 2000.
Is there one producer who you would say informed your sound when you were just starting out?
It’s so many of them, hard to pick just one. In hip-hop: Dr.Dre, Rza, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Jay Dee just to name a few.
How do you generally make beats – do you start with an idea or feeling you want to capture, or do you start out with a sample?
It depends, for the most I start with a idea I get, sometimes a sample. I usually start with the drums at first, making sure that they’re on point (sometimes the drums needs to be exchanged to fit the sounds and the vibe). It don’t matter if u got the dopest vibe and melody, if the drums and the bass don’t match and is on point, it’s not going to bang.
What is your studio set-up like? Which programs do you use for recording and mixing?
I’m using Renoise to program my music, it has the same structure as them old tracker programs but in a new fresh shape. Cubase is used for some stuff also. I got my reliable Yamaha CS1x, it’s a plastic half-analog synthesizer with years of costumized sounds that nobody can duplicate, lol. I like the Korg ms-20 alot too. I got an XTZ A-100-D3 amplifier and some nice Heybrook speakers. I use almost anything, any instrument I get my hands on.
Your sound is very unique in terms of what’s going on in hip-hop production today – it’s very smooth, laid-back, almost reminiscent of downtempo electronica. Is that intentional?
Well, I’m a big fan of all types of jazz music, cosmic stuff, funk / soul / old psychadelic rock etc. All kinds of music that you’ll catch a feeling from. You don’t catch a feeling this often from the music nowdays in my opinion (especially not from the tv or radio). My music just turned out this way, bringing that old timeless sound to a new era. I grew up listening to alot of electronic music / funk / jazz records that my mother used to play, may sound cliscé-ish, but it comes to me natural.
Were you always a hip-hop producer, or did you start out working in other genres?
I started out with writing lyrics and rap (both in english and swedish). I’m still a beast on the mic, lol. It was hip-hop that I started with from the beginning, hip-hop is great because it has no limitations. U can do whatever your creativity allows you to do. I’m producing alot of experimental, more jazzy records on the side that I’ll put out there in the near future.
What is your favorite beat that you’ve made, and why?
Hard to pick.. But “Blow My High (Members Only)” by Kendrick Lamar is one of them however. The feeling I had when I did that track was crazy, and when Kendrick did his thing, it turned out even crazier.
Fat Joe’s latest single “So Fly” sounds very similar to the track you produced for Ab-Soul & Kendrick Lamar (“Rapper Shit“) – one might even say it’s a total beat jack. What are your thoughts on this?
The “Rapper Shit” joint is based on a sample, and when u use a sample you can’t expect to be all alone with it if you don’t cut it to “impossibility of recognition”. The original record is out there and people have access to it. The same sample is often going to turn up more then once on different projects. But if you have HEARD another producer’s work on a sample and you also decide to mess with it and have the same pitch and almost the same sample cuts, then you can call it what you want..
I know you’re planning on releasing a few projects this year – The Medkit and The Nine Lives of Tommy Black. Could you speak a bit on both projects? What should we expect from them? And what else are you working on?
Yessir, “The Medkit” is taking some time, it was ment to be released in 2011, but I had some issues with the distrubution etc. so I’ll drop “The Nine Lives Of Tommy Black” at first. That one is going to be an instrumental project. The Nine Lives Of Tommy Black is kind of experimental and not just on some strictly hip-hop instrumentation. But those who like my work so far will surely feel it! The date is not set yet, but you can expect it to drop in a couple of months. The Medkit is sure to drop 2012, and it will feature guest artists on the majority of the tracks. Mostly US features, but also a couple tracks from two of the dopest hip-hop duos here in Sweden (in swedish). I can’t wait to drop that one either because it will tear the roof off the mutha! lol. So be sure to be on the lookout for those two projects!
That’s all, is there anything else you wanted to add?
Yes, follow me on twitter @TommyBlackML. Thank you!
Shortly before her first ever show in Brooklyn this past Saturday, I had the chance to sit down and chop it up with the Queen of Memphis La Chat about female visibility in southern rap, her favorite Memphis albums, and her 9 dogs.
To start, could you just briefly introduce yourself for anyone who isn’t familiar with you?
For those that don’t know me, “Chickenhead” – that was me. I was originally part of Three Six Mafia’s Hypotized Minds crew. “Baby Mama,” that was me. “2 Way Freak” that was me. I also starred in the movie Choices. I did a solo album named Murder She Spoke in 2001, and I’ve done other albums since then.
I read that you first got involved with Three Six when Juicy J saw you at a school talent show, is that true?
Yeah, I think I was in the 9th grade. This started back when they were still underground, and I was doing talent shows and stuff like that. Really, this other rapper I knew told them about me, and that’s what made him [Juicy J] come out and see me. After that he called me one day and he was like “I want to hear you rap!” And I was like “You want to hear me rap? Uh… can you call back, my mom is in the room.” [laughs] So, he was like – Juicy, he’s got two characters. He’s “Juicy” and then he’s Jordan. So he was like “aw man, you can’t rap?” and he hung up. So then I was like damn, I missed my chance. But he ended up calling back and this time he was Jordan, he was like “Hi, how are you doing? I want to hear you rap and see if you can buss a little rhyme.” So this time I went outside and said a little rap for him, after that we went on dropping mixtapes and stuff like that, but I went out of town before they signed their major label deal. When I went out of town, they signed to Relativity Records, and that’s when they came out with the Three Six Mafia thing, “Turn The Club Up” and stuff like that. So by the time I got back in town, Juicy heard I was back in town because I was still doing street stuff and keeping my name out there, they came back and snatched me when they were doing Hypnotized Minds.
Do you remember the moment when you realized that rapping was more than a hobby for you, that it was something you could make a career out of?
I was in the 3rd grade when I wrote my first rap. It really was a poem, we were during black history and I had written a poem about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and everybody thought it was a rap. So after that I said it as a rap. From that point on I thought I could rap. When I was in the 7th grade I wrote a rap called “Peace In the Middle East,” and the rap was so good that my junior high school’s Principal had read it – he didn’t know to rap it – he read it over the intercom. I was pressing them up and passing them out and letting people read them, giving them to teachers and lots of different people. So, from that point on I thought I was a rapper.
Who were the people that you looked to when you were coming up?
I loved MC Lyte, she was one of my biggest influences. She was my favorite. I portrayed her in talent shows – we had a show called Putting On The Hits in school one time, and I did MC Lyte. I imitated her.
What’s your favorite MC Lyte song?
“Cha Cha Cha.” And “Kick This One For Brooklyn”
One of the things that stands out about you is the fact that you could be on a song with Yo Gotti, or Project Pat or Three Six Mafia and you come just as hard as they do. Is it a competitive thing for you?
No, it’s not! I hear that all of the time, people say I get on songs and I own them, they think that they’re actually my songs, and I think that it just goes along with my talent, showing that I’m a good artist. The road has been kind of rocky and rough, I’m pretty sure you’ll get to those questions – that’s why I haven’t got into what happened with me and Three Six yet, because I’m sure we’ll get into that – but yeah, I get on those albums and I own them. I don’t know what their rap is going to sound like. They come in, we go in the studio, I drop my verse and that’s that. Then when I hear the song, people be like “aw man you did this, you did that” so…
Did you ever record with someone where you heard what they came up with and you were like “Oh man, I’ve gotta go back and rewrite my verse”?
Never, but people do me like that all of the time! I’m like, why do people do that, because one thing about it is if you wrote it, you love it. I wouldn’t care if you go whatever, I’m not in competition when I do rap. When I spit that’s what I meant to say, that’s what I want to say, and it doesn’t matter what you said. But I’m not gonna lie, a lot of people go back and re-write! [laughs]
Another thing that stands out about you, in terms of your own albums, is how versatile you are. A lot of female rappers only rap about their sexuality, for example, but you can have a song like “Slob On My Cat” and then come with something hard or introspective.. Is that something that you put your mind towards?
You see, me – I’m a street rapper. There’s a difference between a gangsta rapper and a street rapper, a street rapper is a person who talks about real life things that go on in the streets. That’s why I don’t get caught up in materialistic stuff – of course, materialistic is what I could be on if that’s what I’m on, but I like to represent for the struggle, I like to represent for people in the streets, I like to represent for real stuff. I like to rap and have someone feel like “Man, that’s me. That’s what I’m going through.” It’s easy to get on a track and rap about I got this, I got that, but what about the ones that don’t have it. Who’s going to represent them? So that’s my title, I’m the hood homegirl.
Is that why you think you have such a strong following?
Yeah I really do, I really do. And I’ve never changed. I’ve been doing this professionally since 1998, and I’ve always been me. And I see I’m doing good at it because I’m here in Brooklyn [laughs]!
It seems like during the late 90s/early 00s there were a lot more female rappers from the south – there was you, Mia X, Gangsta Boo, Jackie O, Khia, etc. Once southern rap blew up, though, it seemed like all of the female voices were pushed out – for a while the only people holding it down for the females were Trina, and maybe Diamond & Princess from Crime Mob. Do you agree with that, and if so why do you think that is?
Yeah, I feel like there was a period when they tried to make rap a male dominated game, but really it comes from us having problems with our labels, having problems with the people who were running the labels, and then it’s like – I don’t know how the industry is, but it’s like if you’re dealing with somebody that’s a higher authority than you, I think they can pretty much put their foot on your neck. We can grind underground so hard, but it’ll be so hard for us to get that mainstream again – we don’t know if it’s because everybody that’s big in the industry and connected works together. Of course, I got in the industry – I already knew people that were in the industry, and I’ve already been a lot of places. I don’t know if once that happens, they know people and we have to still be grinding but it’s a grind and I ain’t messed up about it. I’d rather grind it out than to go through what I’ve went through because they owe me millions.
Do you think it’s harder for females?
Yeah, very much so. I think it’s much harder. It’s really harder for females. I don’t know why, but it is.
So, we’ve hinted at it a little, but can you go into more detail about what happened between you and Three Six Mafia?
Yeah. I worked with them a good six years, and we were like family – it was more fun than business. What happened was my album Murder She Spoke dropped and I sold over 250,000 copies and just never saw any royalties from it. I never saw a royalty check, period. Never saw a royalty check from them. We did the movie Choices, never saw a royalty check. “Chicken Head” went platinum, yet I never saw any royalties. I was calling and trying to talk to them and be more friendly and family about it, given our relationship, but it was like they really weren’t hearing me. So I had to get my attorneys involved and the situation was going on so long that I just asked to be released. I never saw a royalty check from Hypnotized Minds, after putting in all that work that y’all have heard me do. But, I thank them. They’re the ones that gave me the big break to get in the industry, so from that point on I’ve just been doing what I do. I’ve worked with Yo Gotti, I’ve worked with Nikia Shine, and after that I got my own label.
So, do you ever talk to DJ Paul or Juicy J or any of that crew?
No, I don’t talk to them at all.
Alright, so I want to ask you about Gangsta Boo. You guys seem like such great friends, do you remember the first time you met her?
The first time I met her it was back back back back back in the day. We didn’t really have too much to say to each other, but you know I’m a Gangsta Boo fan. I’ve always been one, because she’s a good artist. We really weren’t saying too much to each other, even when we were on the label together, we didn’t do too much talking. I don’t know, I think it was controversy in between people going back here saying this and saying that. Once she left the label and I left the label we ended up being best of friends. We ended up seeing that we were different, but so much the same.
Yeah, I was going to ask how you two have remained friends, since the industry tends to pit female rappers against each other all of the time.
Yeah, that’s what they were trying to do at first! But, you know, we just got grown about it. We became friends, and we’re still friends. We’ve been friends for a long time now, as a matter of fact she was so excited about me coming up here to Brooklyn, because she’s already been, she passed my number to a couple of people and everything. She has my back, and I have her back. We do Queens of Memphis shows together all of the time.
You perform a lot in Memphis.
Yeah, I perform in Memphis all of the time. I’ve actually got a club in Memphis too, so I be having the club night on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. So even when I’m not performing on stage, I’m performing somehow.
Memphis has such a rich musical history. On the rap side you have people like Three Six, Gangsta Pat, Project Pat, 8Ball, you, Gangsta Boo. And, going back, you’ve got Al Green, Stax Records, etc. What do you think it is about Memphis that produces such great music?
I think Memphis is just full of talented people. You all would be amazed at how much underground talent we’ve got. I’m talking about some really talented artists. I think it’s in the water, it’s in the river [laughs].
Who are some artists from Memphis on the come-up that you think we should know about?
We’ve got a cat named YoYo Munie coming up. A cat named Mac Gudda coming up. We’ve got to throw my nephew in there, Young Sizzle [laughs]. We’ve got a lot of talent.
If you had to pick your five favorite Memphis albums – from any era – what would they be?
8Ball & MJG – Coming Out Hard
Yo Gotti – Back 2 Da Basics
Project Pat – Layin’ DA Smack Down
La Chat – Murder She Spoke
La Chat – Dramatize
So, let’s speak about the recording of Murder She Spoke, because that’s a classic album. What the recording process like for that album?
I was hungry, and I’m still hungry. Paul and Juicy put a beat on and I’d sit back and just be rockin it, then I’d go in a room and just write. I was me, and I was real. Like I said, one thing about it is when I came in the game I put my foot in it. Here it is 2012, and people still love Murder She Spoke.
Has anything changed in the way you approach making music from that time to now?
I’ve got to keep it real, no. [laughs] Some people might be like “well, she’s ain’t changed.” No, I’m not going to change!
What’s your favorite song that you’ve written?
My favorite song that I’ve written is on the album Dramatize, it’s called “Where Was U.” The song is so real, I’m saying “I don’t know whether to slap you or dap you/Hug you or mug you/Rush you or bust you/ I was there for you, but when I needed you where was u?” And on there I’m just talking realistically, they’re all true stories. I start off talking about my situation with Three Six. Then on my second verse I’m talking about a best friend that I had, and on my third verse I’m talking about my baby daddy [laughs]. It was just like how I was so down with ‘em, but when it came time for me to need them where were they? That was a good song.
Do all of your songs come from real experiences that you’ve had?
Yeah, for sure. I could go to the club, don’t you look at me don’t you say nothing to me, I’m gonna go back and write about you. [laughs] Might give me inspiration for a song.
So, you released a mixtape last year called Krumbz To Brickz, and you worked with a lot of people on it – Waka Flocka, Gucci Mane, Lex Luger produced some stuff…
Yeah 8 Ball is on there too. It’s actually not Lex Luger, it’s Lex Luthor he’s an upcoming producer from Memphis. He did the track with Waka that blew up real big, and that’s how they got it confused with Luger because he produces a lot of stuff for Waka. Waka actually reached out to me. Gucci Mane reached out to me, 8Ball reached out to me.. I was honored.
Considering what you’ve accomplished in the game do you think you get the proper amount of respect?
I don’t think I get the amount of respect that I deserve, but I can say it’s fair. You’re always going to feel like you deserve more than what you’re getting anyway, and really you’ve got to look at it like you get out of it what you put into it. What I’m putting in it is all me, by myself. So, due to the fact that I’m grinding and I’m staying afloat and still taking care of my business, and still touching people I’m satisfied with the respect that I’ve got.
So what are you working on now? Do you have an album coming up?
Yeah. First, I’ve got an artist coming up by the name of Miss Angel. And I’m working on another album called Gangsta Girl, I’ve already got the single – it’s called “Gangsta.” So yeah, I’m working. I’ve got my own studio in Memphis, I’ve got my own label called Dime A Dozen – I came up with that because it’s a dime a dozen, anything that you lost or think you lost you can get it back, don’t worry about it.
Outside of rap, what’s a day in the life of La Chat like?
Hmm, a day in the life. Basically, dealing with my animals. I’ve got 9 dogs, 1 cat. I’ve got a 15 year old, and the animals are worse than him. So that’s what a day in the life is like, I have to tend to them, I have to feed them, I have to make sure they’re alright. Sometimes they want to fight one another so I have to go out there and break them up. That’s really a day in the life of La Chat [laughs]. It gets real crazy, because I’m dealing with 3 male pitbulls and 2 girls, and 2 female chihuahua and 2 boys. So yeah it gets crazy.
Is there anything else else you wanted to add?
You can follow me on twitter @dareallachat. My facebook is Lachat Daniels. Got too many friends, but if somebody sends me a personal message I’ll delete somebody for them [laughs]. I’ve got my own website, www.dimeadozenent.com, and just stay tuned because whether I’m underground or overground I’m still going to be out here. And I want to shout out Helen Harris for bringing me to New York. Oh, and I have a DVD I’m putting out titled Da Chat Bitch [laughs]. If you don’t have a copy you can order it on my website. I’m basically just being me. And I’m also working on a reality show. It’s called the Baby Mama.
Haha awesome, are your dogs going to be on there?
Yes! Oh lord, y’all are going to love Smokey. He’s my chihuahua, he’s 13 years old, and he thinks he’s the biggest Pit [laughs]. One thing about him is, he’s the eldest, and he’s been through so many different dogs, he’s seen them come and go, so he’s telling them like “Y’all niggas ain’t even going to be here, I’m gon’ still be here when y’all niggas are gone.” [laughs]. Y’all will love him. So yeah, I’m going to put them all in it. The Baby Mama is going to be based on how I balance my career along with being a mother, being my mother’s caretaker, etc. I’ve just got a lot of stuff going on in my real life, outside of rap, and I think people want to see that because they love me on tv. And I’ve got new videos too, so y’all can go to youtube and check out the new videos, they are on the Da Chat Bitch DVD.
Awesome, thank you for a great interview!
This coming Saturday, January 7th, legendary Memphis emcee La Chat will be performing in Brooklyn for the first time ever. If you know anything at all about Memphis rap you know how big of a deal this is, and if you don’t you should get familiar quickly. This is sure to be an incredible event, so if you’re in the New York City area this weekend be sure to come through – and make sure you have all of the lyrics “Peanut Butter” memorized so you can rap along. Be sure to check with us next week for more…
- Meek Mill – Ima Boss/Don’t Panic/House Party/100 Hunnit/ Tony Story/Y’all Don’t Hear Me Tho/Body Count
- Travis Porter – My Team Winnin (feat. Wale)
- French Montana – Shot Caller
- Big K.R.I.T. – Money On The Floor (feat. 2Chainz, 8ball & MJG)
- Young Savage – Work ‘Em
- Short Kidd – Ima Vulcha (feat. Chetta)
- Curren$y – BBS
- Kendrick Lamar – Rigamortis
- Drake – Free Spirit (feat. Rick Ross)
- Future – Magic
- Schoolboy Q – Kamikaze
- Fat Trel – Rolling
- Kreayshawn – Gucci Gucci
- Alley Boy & Freddie Gibbs – Rob Me A Nigga
- Trouble – World Goes ‘Round
- Freddie Gibbs – Twos and Fews (feat. Young Jeezy)
- Lady – Yankin’
- Maybach Music Group – Pandemonium
- Smoke DZA – 4 Loko Remix (feat. ASAP Rocky, Freeway, Danny Brown, ASAP Twelvy & Killa Kyleon)
- King Louie – Gumbo Mobsters
- Nipsey Hu$$le – Keys To The City
- J. Cole – Can’t Get Enough (feat. Trey Songz)
- Lloyd Banks – Love Me In The Hood
- Young Gully – The Go In
- Riff Raff – Jose Conseco
- Waka Flocka Flame – Round of Applause
- 2 Chainz – Feeling You
- A-Mafia – Shine On
- Young Jeezy – Nicks 2 Bricks (feat. Freddie Gibbs)
- Lil B – Bill Bellamy
- Squadda B – Ice Nites
- Yo Gotti – Grizzly
- Wale – Bait
- Don-P Da Panhandle King – Gone Do
- The Game – Born in the Trap
- Wiz Khalifa – Phone Numbers (feat. Trae Tha Truth & Big Sean)
- Gunplay – Rollin’
- ASAP Rocky – Peso
- Rick Ross – The Transporter
- Cam’Ron & Vado – American Greed
- Kanye West & Jay-Z – Gotta Have It
- SquareOff – Goodfellas
- Spaceghostpurrp – The Truth
- Troy Ave – Dirty Martini (feat. Prodigy)
- Young Sam – M.A.R.S. (feat. Meek Mill)
- Rich Kid Shawty – Splurge (feat. Young Dro)
- Pusha T – Open Your Eyes
- Soulja Boy – My City
- Pill – Scottie Pippen, Tim Duncan
- Dusty McFly – Ticket
The number 1 album in the country this week belongs to Roc Nation’s premier signee J. Cole, whose debut, Cole World: The Sideline Story, sold 217,000 copies in its first week. These numbers would be impressive under any circumstances, but considering the fact that Cole has had very little radio play and no crossover single success, they are remarkable.
To put this into further context – Wiz Khalifa’s album Rolling Papers, which was preceded by the Billboard Hot 100 #1 hit single “Black & Yellow,” managed to sell 197,000 copies in the first week, debuting at #2. Big Sean’s Finally Famous managed to sell a respectable 85k its first week, even with the Chris Brown-assisted mega-hit “My Last,” and a Kanye West co-sign. Rick Ross & Maybach Music Group’s Self Made Vol 1., which spawned the inescapable summer anthems “Tupac Back,” “I’m A Boss,” and “That Way,” sold only 53k in its first week, and has managed to sell just over 200k to-date. So to sell 217k copies of your debut album with no hit single, in an era where few rap albums even get released, is quite the feat. Granted, sales figures have no bearing on quality, but clearly Cole has a sizeable fanbase that connects to his music on a visceral level – so much so that they felt compelled to support him on release week. Yet whenever Cole’s name is mentioned in our circles, there’s a general air of dismissiveness (he’s “corny” or “boring”) and indifference. In my estimation, Cole World is actually a very good debut album that deserves much less scorn than it has received.
Cole falls into the ever-growing ‘Post-Kanye’ category of rappers –which includes Wale, Big Sean, Drake, and all of the other new-school emcees who rap about “regular guy” problems, college, sports & sneakers in a punchline-heavy style. Songs such as “Sideline Story,” like much of Cole World, recall College Dropout/Late Registration-era ‘Ye, from the sped-up soul samples and minor-key piano loops to the tendency towards cringe-worthy toilet-centric punchlines (e.g. “I’ll let you feel like you the shit/But boy you can’t out-fart me” from “Dollar and a Dream III”). Where Cole differs from the innumerable rappers in this lane is his skill, his ear for beats, and songwriting ability. Cole is nothing if not a solid rapper – his punchlines are, for the most part, very clever (e.g. on standout track “Nobody’s Perfect” Cole nimbly spits “Remember when I used to be stressed over Dawanna/Now a nigga only text and get stressed over Rihannas/I’m talkin’tens and better – hood bitches in tims and sweaters.”) He has a variety of flows and rhyme patterns, switching between different multisyllabic rhyme schemes and double-time verses.
Of course, technical rhyme skills don’t necessarily make for great, or even good, rappers (see: Canibus, Cory Gunz, etc.). Luckily, J. Cole adds an engaging on-record personality to his arsenal. The best tracks on Cole World – songs like “Breakdown,” “Lost Ones” and “Never Told” – display Cole’s storytelling ability, songcraft, and knack for creating unique song concepts. “Lost Ones” is particularly interesting, tackling the issue of unplanned pregnancy and abortion from the perspective of both the guy and girl in a relationship. In the hands of a less adept emcee this song could have easily been cheesy at best and offensive at worst, but Cole handles it masterfully, drawing the listener into the situation and providing convincing, heartfelt perspectives from both sides. In verse one Cole spits “I’m not one of those niggas who be knockin’ girls up and skate out/So girl you gotta think ‘bout how the options weigh out.” The second verse, from the woman’s perspective: “See I knew this is how you’d act – so typical/Said you love me oh but now you flippin’ like reciprocals…. No different from from those other niggas who be claiming that they love you just to get up in them drawers.” The third verse of the song Cole steps outside of the situation, spitting “Swear they get pregnant for collateral, it’s like extortion/Man, if that bitch is really pregnant tell her get an abortion/ But what about your seed nigga?” The refrain of “And I ain’t too proud to tell you that I cry sometimes about it” manages to be sincere and earnest without ever coming off as “soft.” This earnestness and emotional honesty is what sets Cole apart from a lot of his contemporaries, and is the reason why he’s established such a strong core fanbase so quickly.
The song on the album that best displays this is “Never Told.” Ostensibly a song about “the game” and getting women , Cole approaches the subject with a level of candor that is actually somewhat startling. He starts off by spitting game to a girl, before undercutting his posturing with honesty, and an admission that ‘the game’ is complete bullshit. This is a great example of how Cole plays with expectations. The second verse is reminiscent of Nas’ more introspective work (something like ”2nd Childhood” from Stillmatic), with Cole saying “The hoes come, the seasons change/The hoes go, we rearrange/Fuck up her life she’ll never be the same/The O.G.s done beat the game/ Forever young like Peter Pan/35? Still playing/Child support? Still paying.” This is where Cole shines – his introspective tracks are insightful in a way that not many emcees are.
Other Cole World highlights include the 808-heavy “Cole World,” which sees Cole at his most radio-friendly, “Nobody’s Perfect,” which features Missy Elliott and sees Cole-the-producer doing his best Timbaland-circa-1998 impression, and “In The Morning,” which features Drake and first appeared on Cole’s 2010 mixtape Friday Night Lights. (It is especially notable for containing the most Drake-ian Drake couplet ever: “I got bath water that you could soak in/Things I could do with lotion”). Cole also clearly out-raps mentor Jay-Z on the album’s worst track, “Mr. Nice Watch” – which sounds like an outtake from the Watch The Throne sessions.
One emcee that came to mind constantly as I listened to Cole World was Big K.R.I.T. The similarities between the two are obvious – both emcees self-produce their music (Cole produced all but two of the tracks on Cole World), both artists shine when doing introspective “reality rap,” and both are traditionalists. Though both Cole and K.R.IT. are from the south, Cole’s music draws from the Northeast sonically, and I think this has a lot to do with the album’s perceived “corniness” – Cole is simply working within an aesthetic that isn’t in vogue with internet rap heads, and as a result his considerable skill is undermined and dismissed.
All of this is not to say that Cole World is a perfect album. J. Cole’s insistence on “singing” every hook is grating over the length of an album, and the similar sonic template Cole works with for every track makes for a somewhat dreary, if cohesive. The only sonic outliers here are “Mr. Nice Watch,” “Cole World,” and buzz-single “Work Out,” which is relegated to bonus track status.
Will Cole World end up being a touchstone for the next generation of rappers? That is doubtful. Is Cole doing anything new stylistically on this album, like his peer Kendrick Lamar accomplished on his most recent project? Definitely not. Cole World is a very solid debut album by a very good rapper – nothing more, nothing less. This may sound like faint praise, but it isn’t – the point being that in this era of millions of non-descript blog rappers, a rapper as skilled as Cole, with his knack for songwriting and storytelling, should be celebrated – or, at the very least, respected. Cole World is rap comfort food – “comfort rap,” if you will. It is good debut album by a good new talent, who will surely release more good music in the future. And there’s nothing wrong with that.