Another great year and a few more accomplishments. Thanks to everyone who has supported me! See you in 2015!
Another great year and a few more accomplishments. Thanks to everyone who has supported me! See you in 2015!
For every great producer there is a great engineer. The art of mixing, recording, editing, and arranging a song is one that takes extreme time and patience. With the push of a button, an engineer is in control and one of the key players in how fans and consumers listen to music in the clubs, on the radio, and in their homes. That is why when you’re currently one of the biggest music producers in the world, like DJ Mustard, you need the right person behind the boards to help craft a particular sound and turn your product in to a global hit. I first encountered James Royo around 2009 when we both worked at Studio Center Miami in Miami Lakes, Florida. Although we don’t personally know each other, I have followed his career over the years via social media and have always admired his success and accomplishments. Currently, Royo is deeply immersed in hottest sound in hip-hop, yet incredibly humble and knowledgeable in his craft. I hope you all enjoy this interview!
Congratulations on all your success, James. For those who don’t know you, can introduce yourself and you give us a timeline on your career in the industry and how you ended up primarily working with DJ Mustard and Y.G.?
My name is James, I’m 28 years old. I’ve been doing music for about six years, starting in Miami, and then I moved out to California about two and a half years ago. I was doing a session in Burbank at The Boom Boom Room [Will Smith’s studio] and became cool with the studio manager, Ed, who saw I was hungry and kept calling me for random sessions, without me knowing much about Y.G. or Mustard. I always give it my best work and those guys liked my sound, and more so on a personal level and we got a good vibe going, as friends almost, and that’s how the whole thing started. They started calling me for sessions; I think my first DJ Mustard session was for Bow Wow’s “In Da Club.”
We’re midway through 2014, and it doesn’t seem like you and the team have any plans on slowing down. How does it feel to hear the music you are a part of all over the radio and clubs and overall impacting the current state of hip-hop?
You know, it’s a great feeling. It’s obviously what we all dream of being in music; to be the most popular in the industry and have everyone want to work with you and respect you. It’s a great feeling when people appreciate your music, and I got lucky that I linked up with people that were going in the right direction and I wanted to be a part of it. Like I said before, even before the music, it was about the people and the relationships that I had with Y.G. and Mustard. They are real good people, and they believe in karma, and know what’s right and wrong, and that’s the kind of people I like to work with; the rest takes care of itself.
Obviously DJ Mustard is having an incredible year and Y.G. finally got the support of Def Jam and put out one of the best albums this year [My Krazy Life], but what you do is a key part of their success. With that being said, how have things in the industry changed for you and what types of opportunities are now being presented?
Well, my life has changed dramatically. I started at the very bottom and was able to work my way up to be the engineer for the top producer in the game right now. You know, I’m not only the engineer, I get to mix all the records too, which is very very fortunate because it’s a very hard circle to get in to. Luckily my brothers Mustard and Y.G. really believe in me and have given me the confidence to know that I can mix with the best of them. We’ve had our records mixed by the top engineers and then I’ll mix it too, but we’re happy with my result in the end. A lot of that has to do with confidence and having people tell you that they believe in you and you’re just as good as other people that you might look up to. Sometimes experience doesn’t matter, it’s about putting your heart in to all the records and I hope people can hear that when they listen to the songs.
James with Y.G. in the studio (beginning at 1:45)
Of course experience is what makes someone great at what they do, and I think your track record speaks for itself; when you’re in a recording session or mixing someone’s single, how do you approach that record?
I definitely approach every song pretty much the same, I don’t change it based on who I’m working with, whether it’s a big artist, small artist, male, female, etc. – I mean, you do have to change it a little to fit the artist, but you don’t want to go too far from what they are trying to do. Basically, I just try and make the song the best way that I can and record everything as clean and properly as possible. But you never know, you can do a song with a big person and you think it will be big, but it’s not, then you do a song with a regular person and that one blows up. Just do your best work, because someone is always listening.
Honestly, all of them. There are songs that people will probably never even hear that I’m proud of and they are great songs. Like I said, I’m proud of all the songs. When a song first gets big like “My Hitta,” which went platinum, that to me is a special record and was a cool experience.
Speaking on “My Hitta” and your experience mixing the other singles including “Who Do You Love” and “Left, Right,” can you talk about the process of making My Krazy Life? You know, the way the album was conceptually done and sequenced, Sickamore and Y.G. really put together of the top albums of the year.
Like you said, Sickamore, Y.G., and Mustard had a vision and my job was really to just help make that vision come to life and make it cool, creative, and entertaining as possible. At the same time, not stray from their vision, which is straight vision that doesn’t have to be complex. Sometimes it is better to keep it raw and try and polish it so that it can go platinum.
… And they were able to find a great balance between street and commercial without taking away from the story telling aspect.
Exactly. Y.G. is just doing the music he knows how to do and it was just put together really well so that everybody can really appreciate it. If you go back and listen to Y.G.’s mixtapes, you know he’s been doing this music for a long time and that’s his style. The thing about it is that he didn’t have to go out and find a sound, he just gave his life story and did him, and it worked.
Besides having a relationship with Mustard and Y.G., to have a relationship with MixedByAli too, especially when TDE is at the top of hip-hop, I’m sure you’ve been able to take away some incredible knowledge just sitting with him in the studio as well.
Absolutely. Sitting with both Ali and Terrence Martin, who know exactly what they are doing in the studio, just helps you build your confidence. Right now, everybody’s winning and it’s just a fun time and it’s happening naturally.
Every year there’s always the “go to producer” in hip-hop and right now it’s DJ Mustard. From someone who works with him on a day-to-day basis, how do you guys make sure that the sound you are creating stays relevant and not overdone?
You always want to be careful not to over saturate, but at the same time, this is the sound the Mustard has created for years. For as long as I’ve known him, this has been his sound and he’s sticking with it, and the industry is coming to him. Of course now we’re trying to progress it, and we’ve been working with a lot of producers, musicians, and writers across the board to make the highest quality music possible and put our everything in to it.
You know, if DJ Mustard is serious about this “10 Summers” campaign, that’s a nice career for you, too!
Yeah! “10 Summers,” that’s the truth right there. The album is coming out soon and that’s what we’re looking forward to. It’s incredible; it has all the hottest rappers in the country, so that’s the main focus right now.
Note: DJ Mustard’s “10 Summers” will be available August 12th
Everybody wants to be a part of the music industry these days, and I’m sure people ask you all the time to either listen to their music or pass it off to the artists your work with, but what would be your best advice to someone trying to make it in this game?
Make everything your best work and try to make it the best song you’ve ever heard. Don’t be scared to have the engineer try stuff, take out certain sounds in the beat, etc. I arrange a lot too – I help Mustard – we all help each other. And you know what? If it’s wack, hopefully the people in the room with you will tell you. Once you make a decision stick with it!
How can people get in contact with you if they are interested in your production or having you mix their song?
You can reach me on Twitter at @djiknoso
James Royo’s Credits:
DJ Mustard Feat. Y.G., Jeezy & Que – Vato T.I. Feat. Iggy Azalea – No Mediocre
Jason Derulo Feat. Kid Ink – Kama Sutra Trey Songz – Na Na
Jeremih Feat. Y.G. – Don’t Tell ‘Em Ty Dolla $ign Feat. Joe Moses – Paranoid
Keyshia Cole – She Y.G. Feat. Drake – Who Do You Love
Kid Ink Feat. Chris Brown – Show Me Y.G. – Left, Right
Teefli – 24 Hours Young Dro – Strong
Wiz Khalifa Feat. Ty Dolla $ign & Snoop Dogg – You and Your Friends
DJ Mustard Feat. Ty Dolla $ & 2 Chainz – Down On Me
Y.G. Feat. Young Jeezy & Rich Homie Quan – My Hitta
“The rap game is all fucked up now, what are we gonna do now?
How we gonna eat man? 50 back around”
– 50 Cent (“Back Down“)
During the summer of 2010, I was given an opportunity of a lifetime; a chance to intern for 50 Cent and his record label, G-Unit Records. Although many who know me well know about my time at G-Unit, it’s an experience I rarely discuss in great detail, simply for two reasons. One, I would rather show you what I learned rather than tell you. Two, when 50 Cent talks, you listen and absorb. Confidentiality is also important. With that being said, 50 Cent’s headline making antics over the last two weeks do not surprise me. After all, all press is good press, right?
Despite being a commercially successful, worldwide superstar, from a music perspective 50 Cent is a new artist in 2014. The days of gorilla style marketing that fueled early 50 Cent and G-Unit records no longer exist, and rap feuds that 50 loves to engage in have taken to social media, leaving 50 Cent no choice but to reinvent himself as a dominate artist. This means constant promotion, a strong online presence, and one or two solid radio singles. Despite the rapid, uncertain change of the music industry and how listeners consume music, 50 Cent is always going to do things his way and continue to leave people talking. Recently, we have seen this with his shift to taking the independent route and leaving his recording home of over a decade, Interscope Records, a headline making first pitch at the New York Mets game, and reuniting with his G-Unit brothers Lloyd Banks, Tony Yayo, and Young Buck at New York’s Hot97 Summer Jam concert on June 1st.
Leading up to his fifth studio album in five years, Animal Ambition (released June 3rd), 50 Cent decided to release both songs and visuals weekly for a majority of the songs off the album. In the June 14th issue of Billboard Magazine he said, “When I hear a song on the radio for the very first time, if it’s an artist I like, I know I would go to YouTube to hear it again. I enhanced it and made it better by having the visual already connected to it. Gain the audience, then sustain the audience instead of spending every marketing dollar to keep the audience in place.” Although 50 offers a logical explanation, I personally believe that he crossed the fine line between accessibility and oversaturation, leaving me to purchase a physical copy (yes, I still buy physical copies of CDs) more as a collectors item rather than for the interest of putting in the CD and listening to it. Of course, music and media streaming has played a role in this as well.
“I been patiently waiting for a track to explode on
You can stunt if you want and your ass’ll get rolled on
If it feels like my flow’s been hot for so long
If you thinking I’mma fuckin’ fall off, you’re so wrong”
– 50 Cent (“Patiently Waiting“)
Often times consumers say to their favorite artist, “we want to the old so-and-so back” or “we want this sound instead,” and that is what 50 Cent did – sort of. As a long time fan, and one with an obvious bias to all things 50 Cent, I question how long 50 Cent has been sitting on this music. In fact, most of the personnel on the album have stated that the music was made four-five years ago. Now this is not necessarily a bad thing considering 50’s grimy, hard-hitting street content is what fans have always gravitated to. I do however, question if and how a new, younger, audience will relate to this content enough to buy in to 50 Cent the rapper like many of us did back in 2003.
Overall, 50 Cent’s Animal Ambition had a poor rollout, which most likely will result in this being his lowest selling album to date. This is not to say 50 Cent and his staff did not put in enough time or energy, because I know they did, perhaps the release of the album could have been handled differently. The Trey Songz assisted, Dr. Dre produced single “Smoke” (a song originally made for Dre’s “Detox”) is a perfectly capable single for commercial radio, but has not gained enough traction to earn the “hit record” status. Other songs off the album including “Pilot” and “Twisted” would be great radio contenders as well, but with the reuniting of G-Unit and new music from the group on the horizon, this may be 50 Cent’s “throw away” project.
In the end, not everyone can withstand a career of longevity and success the way 50 Cent has been able to. With the reuniting of G-Unit, 50 and the gang not only have the task of recreating the energy that once filled the air of New York City and fans all over the world, but translating their hard-hitting grassroots approach to conform to 2014 standards. So far in the 10 days they have been together, they have already flooded the Internet with four freestyles and planning for a new album by November. How about G-Unity as the title?
“Immaculate, this scatter rapping, no passing my blunt
Don’t you put me on freshman covers, I’m posing with lunch
Think they worthy of presence presently passing ’em up
No competing with bleachers jogging I’m running a muck”
– Isaiah Rashad (“Soliloquy”)
Well, it’s that time of year again and everyone’s favorite debate can now begin; who should grace the cover and make the 2014 XXL Magazine freshman list? As the years go on, I find this list to be irrelevant, simply because of the over saturation of rappers and how rapidly new ones emerge on the scene. Additionally, at this point, there is a something for everybody and there really is no need to complain about the artists you don’t like. Just remember, having millions of YouTube hits and Twitter followers does not always translate in to mainstream success!
Both in 2012 and 2013, I got 5 out of the 10 correct, so I’m hoping for a better score this year! Feel free to share your list with me: You can post your list in the comment section at the bottom of the page or Tweet me @BreezyOnTheBeat! As always, I will update this page once the official cover is out!
Predictions for Cover:
August Alsina – August had a strong single and radio rotation with his single “I Luv It” featuring Trey Songz and Chris Brown, he also has a great sense of melody, and signed with Def Jam this year. His debut album, Testimony, is scheduled to be released on April 15th.
Sage The Gemini – Say what you want about Sage, but with two big singles (“Red Nose” and “Gas Pedal“), and girls twerking all over Vine, you can’t deny the impact his music has had in the clubs and on the radio this year.
Troy Ave – Acclaimed as one of the leaders of the new New York City hip-hop, Troy Ave has been putting in a lot of work this year in order to make himself a staple in the industry.
Ty Dolla $ – The Taylor Gang representer from the West Coast has had a great year so far with his own singles, as well as producing and writing for others including Chris Brown (“Loyal“) and Jennifer Lopez (“Girls“). His recently released Beach House EP has been well received thus far.
Chance The Rapper – The Internet has spoken.
Isaiah Rashad – TDE’s latest addition has been a nice fit to the crew and slowly proving that he can hold his own in a room full of superstars.
Rich Homie Quan – “Type of Way” was a major his this year, he is featured on YG’s breakout single “My Hitta,” and he helped Michigan State win the Rose Bowl. Don’t feel any type of way when he’s on the cover… Just work harder!
Vic Mensa – #SAVEMONEY
Perhaps a trip to the XXL office?
Fat Trel – MMG’s latest signee has had a strong buzz over the last few years and with the help of Rick Ross, Fat Trel should have no problem being at the forefront this year.
Honorary Member: Doe B. (RIP)
2013 was truly an incredible year in music, especially in hip-hop. We got albums from Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Eminem, Kanye West, and Jay Z; Mike Will, Young Chop, and DJ Mustard made every beat, and twerking went from Atlanta strip clubs to mainstream America. Although there were many great moments this year, 2013 was the year of the ‘Mack,’ and if the momentum continues in to 2014, Mark Morrison better start planning his comeback. Mac Miller, Macklemore, and Mack Wilds all created individual lanes, dominant fan bases, and earned a total of 8 (7 for Macklemore, 1 for Mack Wilds) Grammy nominations.
“Shut your pie-hole, I’m dope and I know / My voice sound like it was a sample off a vinyl / I don’t mind those hating on my style / I tend to take the high road, get stoned and fly low”
– Mac Miller (“S.D.S.”)
Although artists like Mac Miller and Macklemore get criticized for both the color of their skin and crossover in to the pop world, both artists have stuck to their hip-hop roots and have truly stuck with the culture. Not only has Mac Miller formed close ties and working relationships with artists including Odd Future, TDE, and Jay Electronica, but his sophomore album Watching Movies With The Sound Off was one of the years best. A complete 360 from his debut album, Blue Slide Park, “Watching Movies With The Sound Off falls somewhere between Pharrell and Madlib, deeply rooted in the sounds of Stones Throw that manages to bridge the gap to contemporary mainstream hip-hop” according to XXL Magazine. Ultimately, this can be attributed to Mac’s choice of sequencing throughout the album, as well as his production (under the Larry Fisherman). WMWTSO may have slipped under many people’s radar this year, but that doesn’t slow Mac down. In 2013, Mac had another sell out tour (The Space Migration Tour) and released a live album in December (Live From Space). While most people would generally take a break after a tour and 2 albums, Mac has no plans on stopping in 2014. Last week he told MTV News he has 4 albums ready to be released this year, along with his Pharrell-assisted Pink Slime. Whether you like Mac Miller’s music or not, there’s two things you should take in to account and respect. First, Mac Miller is still an independent artist and making the music he chooses to, and hasn’t been conformed to industry standards. Second, he’s been on the Forbes Hip-Hop Cash Kings list two years in a row!
See: Al Lindstrom’s 2013 Most Improved Artist Of The Year
“Return of the Mack / Get ’em, what it is, what it does, what it is, what it isn’t”
– Macklemore & Ryan Lewis (“Can’t Hold Us”)
Despite what people on Twitter or some of the hip-hop community may say, Macklemore deserves everything he’s getting and he is not leaving his hip-hop roots behind him either. Before he made a name for himself, the most popular rapper to come out of Seattle, WA as Sir Mix-A-Lot; yes the guy most notable for his song “Baby Got Back.” Of course Macklemore will always have to live with the title “The “Thrift Shop” rapper, but instead of hating the song, hip-hop should embrace it for the sole fact that it has lead the genre in to corporate America; something usually lead by Jay Z and Diddy. If people gave Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ album The Heist a complete listen, they would see beyond the stigmas and understand why they are up for 7 Grammy’s and have gained the attention of the entire world. Macklemore has proved that he can speak about things most rappers do, Jordan sneakers (“Wing$“), cars (“White Walls”), and record labels (“Jimmy Iovine”), but also on social and political content (“Same Love”). My comments on Macklemore are only brief because I believe his actions and work have spoken for themselves thus far and we will only see bigger things from him in 2014, both in pop music and hip-hop. Additionally, although Macklemore is doing this all independently, he has hired Warner Music to distribute his music. Big machine + Chart topping singles = Success. Let’s not forget, Macklemore effortlessly threw a pair of the prestigious Nike Yeezy 2s in the middle of Times Square, now that’s hip-hop! Oh yeah, with a platinum album, multiplatinum single’s, and a spot on the Forbes Hip-Hop Cash Kings list, don’t be surprised when Macklemore knocks out Kendrick Lamar for the top spot at the Grammy’s!
“Said I don’t mean to brag / But I live a life that most can only dream about”
– Mack Wilds (“Own It”)
The transition between singing and acting has always been exciting, and generally much better than any athlete trying to rap! LL Cool J, Tyreese, Jamie Foxx, and a host of others have all succeeded and now there’s a new actor to add to the list – Tristan ‘Mack’ Wilds. Most people know Tristan from his role as Michael Lee from The Wire or Dixon Wilson on 90210, but Mack is a confident and talented R&B singer from Staten Island, New York. Teaming up with producer Salaam Remi (credits: Nas, Amy Winehouse, Miguel) and label Sony Red, Mack Wilds released a conceptual R&B album titled New York: A Love Story in September fueled by 90’s hip-hop beats and Mack’s interest in both women and his beloved Staten Island. What’s most exciting is that not only is the album highly underrated, but for an album that only sold 2,000 copies in its first week, it is currently nominated for Best Urban Contemporary Album at this years Grammy’s. With his Ne-Yo written debut single “Own It” quickly gaining speed, and his follow up “Henny” getting some attention on local New York City radio, Mack Wilds has successfully earned a position in the new class of New York City hip-hop and R&B. At his recent show at New York City’s SOBs, Mack brought out rappers A$AP Ferg, Bodega Bamz, 360, and Skyzoo, ultimately showcasing what the city has been missing.
With the right push, and a win at the Grammy’s, I see big things in Mack Wilds future. I believe that that factors are simple: continuing to push “Own It” – possibly even to Top 40 radio, TV appearances, and ship more physical copies of the album! Personally, I don’t see why he can’t be in the same position as Ne-Yo, and other great young singer-songwriters who are at the forefront of the genre and in the mainstream media. I rarely enjoy listening to an album all the way through multiple times, but New York: A Love Story is a special project that I highly encourage everyone to listen to.
Another great year and a few more accomplishments. Thanks to everyone who has supported me! See you in 2014!
Proud to be a member of the #1 college radio station in the country! Check out all of my interviews from my show here!
List of the top 20 stations: http://radiosurvivor.com/2013/08/05/2014-princeton-review-list-of-the-most-popular-college-radio-stations/
– Jean Touitou, Founder of A.P.C. (via Style.com)
Gianni Versace is rolling over in his grave. Not only was the legendary designer murdered, but his brand is slowly as well. The cause of death; rappers. I initially wanted to write this article six months ago when Givenchy, Balmain, and Alexander Wang were the victims, but now is the right time. With luxury rap at an all time high, at what point do consumers stop feeding into the garbage coming from their speakers and remain practical? (Do you really need an $120 white tee from the Kanye West x A.P.C. collection? Absolutely not.) First, more than half of the rappers who rap about these luxury goods can’t really afford them. Second, you all look stupid! Kilts, capes, and long shirts that look like dresses? I’ll pass…
“I made Jesus Walks, so I’m never going to hell
Couture level flow is never going on sale
Luxury rap, the Hermes of verses
Sophisticated ignorance, write my curses in cursive”
– Kanye West (“Otis“)
Whether it is considered high fashion or not, it looks ridiculous on most. Although trends are meant to be set, they don’t always have to be followed. Enter Migos; if you aren’t familiar with the Atlanta-based trio, allow me the honor of introducing you. Quavo, Offset (currently incarcerated), and TakeOff have been buzzing the streets and Internet with their latest mixtape, YRN, filled with nursery rhymes and catchy choruses. One of the songs from mixtape, titled Versace, took off and sprung the attention of Drake, who later added his own verse. The simplicity of the hook, not only has everyone singing it, but scrambling for every last nickel in their piggy banks to afford the brands clothes. For example, at the 2013 BET Awards in June, DJ Drama, J. Cole, and Brandon T. Jackson all showed up in the same sweater. Not only was this embarrassing for all three, but the Migos Halloween costume officially indicated that hip-hop has killed the brand.
“Versace, Versace, Versace, Versace
Versace, Versace, Versace, Versace
Versace, Versace Versace, Versace Versace
Versace, Versace Versace, Versace Versace”
– Migos (“Versace”)
With respect to the BET Awards wardrobe incident, Complex author James Harris said it best, “If anything, this serves as a very public reminder that style is not achieved by simply copping an expensive and/or rare piece and throwing it on. Creating a representation of your personal sense of style and aesthetic takes much more than that, and should be much more about attitude and perspective than price tag and brand name.” Therefore, let’s leave the styling to Kanye and A$AP Rocky who actually collaborate with designers like A.P.C., Givenchy, and Raf Simmons and appreciate the way the clothes are made.
“I rather buy 80 gold chains and go ign’ant
I know Spike Lee gone kill me but let me finish
Blame it on the pigment, we living no limits
Them gold Master P ceilings was just a figment”
– Kanye West (“Clique”)
Of course the ultimate goal in hip-hop is to make money and live comfortably – the American dream – but there’s a right and a wrong way to do this. In the latest episode of Complex TV’s The Combat Jack Show, Yonkers MC Styles P was asked what the, “dumbest rapper shit he’s ever done” was. His response; “waste money.” He continued by saying, “Living by hip-hop standards is the stupidest fucking thing you can do.” With that being said, don’t be surprised if you see the veteran rapper riding the Metro North rather than walking the streets of SoHo! It’s always good to see a artist with longevity realize the importance of good credit and paying taxes rather than trying to maintain a high fashion wardrobe.
I’ll leave you with this riddle – a white rapper from Seattle, WA named Macklemore walks into a thrift shop with only $20 in his pocket. 4 minutes later, he comes out with three platinum singles and almost 900,000 copies of his album sold independently. On the other side of the United States, an Atlanta rapper named Ca$h Out buys a condo for his wrist and signs with LA Reid’s Epic Records, but most likely can no longer afford the condo he lives in and a debut album nowhere in sight. Oh yeah, don’t be surprised if Trinidad James is in a Cash4Gold commercial in the near future!
Update: After doing a little research, I have found some more interesting statistics on this topic. Last week, I visited the Versace store in SoHo, NYC and spoke with a salesman. After telling about my article, we began to discuss sales, and the overall business of the company. He told me that he is surprised how a predominately gay fashion line has completely crossed-over into the hip-hop culture. Furthermore, he said that all mens shoes and clothes are constantly sold out in the New York and Atlanta stores and the demand is hard to keep up with. On the other hand, sales in the women’s department aren’t as strong. As you can see from the pictures, Versace is a supporter of The Notorious B.I.G., as well as The Christopher Wallace Foundation. In fact, they even sell the glasses and jewelry he commonly wore supporting the brand. Fascinating stuff.
The other day, my good friend Adam Friedman posted a lengthy review on his Facebook of J. Cole’s sophomore album Born Sinner (In stores Tuesday, June 18th). As a former blogger himself (RIP FreshRespect.Blogspot.com), and a passionate J. Cole fan, as soon as I read his review I knew need to give him this outlet to share his thoughts on the rising Roc Nation superstar. Below you will find Adam’s story on how he witnessed a young J. Cole perform in 2009 to the success he has seen him achieve in 2013. Hope you enjoy.
By Adam Friedman
On a cold, wet Wednesday night in 2009, a buddy of mine (the only one I could convince) and I took a drive up 81N to the Schine Student Center of Syracuse University. We had class pretty early the next morning, but the chance to see a young and budding Wale was too tempting. We rolled up in more than one way, just as some clowns from Ithaca College would be expected too.
The venue was small, dark, and literally had no stage. We stood right in front of the floor level microphone surrounded by unplugged instruments, completely oblivious to what we were in for. Some time passed, but the dim-lit student center was still far from full.
“We would like to welcome Roc Nation’s first signed artist. This is his first show as a member of Roc Nation so show him some love, ladies and gentlemen: J. Cole.” The place stayed pretty quiet as a six-foot-three St. John’s alum took a nervous walk toward the mic…
Hip hop is still a relatively young genre that over the last decade has been destroyed from the inside-out due to the average consumers need for instant gratification. Due to the invention of the iPod and the dreaded playlist, a cohesive project is no longer desired, regardless of the genre. The truth is, musicians as a whole have had no choice but to succumb to the lazy strategy of making hits over substance to stay relevant over recent years. Internet blogs (oops) and the iTunes Store have helped solidify the platform that the average listener uses as a crutch, looking for the new hit; the song that everyone is going to want to hear, as opposed to appreciating the full sound, the common theme, the cohesive project of the artist. Some of the greatest rappers of all time wouldn’t even stand a chance in today’s market.
J. Cole’s second album “Born Sinner” is a self-loathing reflection on his career thus-far, covering the mistakes and wrongdoings that he has committed due to the temptations within the industry, as well as the journey leading to it: women, money, and fame. The album is similar to a confessional at church for the sins that Cole is ultimately expected to make, as the title of the album indicates.
Villuminati is quite the introduction, not like we expected anything less. The combination of a Biggie sample and the hook “sometimes I brag like Hov” is a clear indication that Cole is ready to be compared to the best. How do you define greatness? Comparison to the best to ever do it. “Allow me to reintroduce myself, my name is Cole.”
The next five songs (with the exception of the Mo Money Interlude) highlight the tempting lifestyle that comes with the fame, focusing primarily on women. Each song is very different from the other, but the message is clear, women are always on Cole’s mind, and Cole loves him some pussy. In LAnd of the Snakes, he starts getting used to L.A., enjoying the simple pleasures of the beautiful women around him, especially the “Sunday’s with a cherry on-top.” He falls in love on the lead single Power Trip, as shown in the music video featuring Miguel. Cole starts to open his eyes with the help of some liquor on Trouble, “liquor all in my breath, bitches all in my sight.” He is fully aware of the predictability of the women he can bring home each and every night, and clearly, they are all trouble. Runaway is a self-reflection on his past relationships and how he continues to runaway from the commitment and consequences that they may entail. “How the fuck did my life become a damn love song?” is a confession that can be guided back to the lyrics of Power Trip and how easily one can fall in love. The bottom line is, you have to be careful about what you say and do around females, especially in his position as a rapper. Being famous makes nothing easier, as much as the average person may envy the celebrity lifestyle. Cole admits his mistakes to us and asks for forgiveness by explaining the inter-workings of his mind, most importantly as to why he committed these sins, whether it is cheating or sleeping around, and how they are basically inevitable in some situations.
The next phase of the album actually began after Power Trip with the Mo Money Interlude in which Cole has his first experience with some substantial capital gain. Life is good (so it seems), as he goes down the line on different ways different people spend their money. The focus on the temptation of money continues with Rich Niggaz, the song that sounds closest to Pre-RocNation Cole. This track centers around the uneven distribution of wealth within the industry. He uses examples of his life before fame; a fatherless kid with a hardworking mother, a drug user who still did everything she could to keep the family stable, to show how easy it is for corporations to sell you your dreams and get you a ticket out of poverty. Little do you know, you’re stepping into a different kind of struggle, although one is much worse than the other. The song focuses on the forgotten evil surrounding money, and where you put a price on selling out. “There go you, selling me dreams and, telling me things you knew, said, you got what I want, I got what you need, how much for your soul…”
Where’s Jermaine and Forbidden Fruit are the climax of the album, the indication that Jermaine has woken up and is stronger than the temptations that have arose. The gospel choir is presumably a remembrance of Fayetteville, a wake up call if you will. Forbidden Fruit is a clear play off of the story of Adam and Eve, but the message of the song lies in the shared bridge of Cole and Kendrick. “Bitches come and go (you know that), money come and go (you know that), love come and go (don’t shit last)” is a simplification of Cole’s past struggles over the course of the album. Men and women both cheat, money is spent regardless, and love is lost. Nothing lasts forever. This realization is what makes Forbidden Fruit a celebration for Cole overcoming his temptations over the course of his career, most notably with women and money. It’s also dope that he has the voice of Kendrick Lamar to help guide him.
Next up is Chaining Day, a much less dramatic song about the temptation for material things, most importantly the jesus piece, a common symbol within post 90’s hip hop culture. It’s his money and he’s going to do what he wants with it, what’s important is that it keeps coming. The song ends with “ok I lied,” the same line that the next track, Ain’t That Some Shit begins with. This next track is Cole’s bragging moment. As dark as the first half of the album was, you know Cole wasn’t going to leave us without going off on some bars about the good in his life. He now has control over his relationships, he’s traveling the world, and he’s repping his name, home, and family in the best way that he can.
The positive message behind Crooked Smile matched with the catchy hook sung by TLC will guarantee regular radio rotation all summer long. What is amazing is the ability to squeeze in a hit without making it stand out. This is what Cole will be remembered for over the course of his long career. The song is about not changing who you are for anybody, most notably his crooked smile and how far he has gotten with it. Why change now?
After the release of his debut album “Sideline Story,” it was clear that songs were grabbed from various projects and pieced together to form somewhat of a marketable product. Perhaps his biggest hit to date (Workout) was criticized by one of Cole’s biggest inspirations, Nasty Nas. Let Nas Down is the perfect way for Jermaine to tell the world that he is done with the bullshit. If a song sells, it sells, but the charts aren’t the main focus anymore. “Yeah, long live the idols, may they never be your rivals, Pac was like Jesus, Nas wrote the Bible, Now what you’re bot to hear’s a tale of glory and sin, No I.D. my mentor now let the story begin.” The hook says it all: he let down the people that he is really in the game for. This song is an indicator that change has come.
The biggest difference between this project and his debut album is the clear intention for the album to be listened to from start to finish. One could say that the strongest song of the album (Forbidden Fruit) is ruined by the 90-second conclusion in which “Lil Cole” walks into the jewelry store feeling himself, rambling about the “rose gold joint” and “the platinum watch.” The mini-skit seems out of place, until the next song Chaining Day begins. “Look at me, pathetic nigga, this chain that I bought, you mix greed pain and fame this is heinous result.” The contrast is intentional, showing how easy it is for anyone to fall off track and get distracted by the fame. The only way to understand this message is by listening to the album in order, from top to bottom. IN any other order and it loses its’ meaning entirely. The album also begins and ends with the same hook sung by James Fauntleroy, “I’m a Born Sinner, but I die better than that.” The project comes full circle, as Born Sinner acts as the ending credits for the movie that was “Born Sinner.”
Cole’s second album is far from the expected sophomore slump. Born Sinner challenges the everyday hip hop fan to listen for more than a hot beat and witty punchlines. The idea is dark, sinister, and above all honest, something that mainstream rap culture has been missing for far too long. The cohesive theme revolves around temptation, whether it be chasing money, girls, or fame. We are all born sinners, but as life goes on we get better, simple as that. J. Cole’s highly anticipated second album Born Sinner hits shelves Tuesday June 18th! Support real hip hop!!