"I've got the nerds rapping hard shit/Dummies rapping smart shit," boasts J. Cole on his major-label debut. Cole is brainier than most mainstream MCs but too flashy for the underground; he's equally at home flaunting success and sensitivity – his "from-the-heart shit," as he calls it. He's a technically superb rapper, packing these sleek, snappy, mostly self-produced tracks with dozens of great punch lines. ("Got the game in a headlock/I'm blasting that/I'm laughing at/You old niggas/Redd Foxx.") But while he tries to wring pathos out of everything from career struggles to unplanned pregnancies, the melodrama feels rote; the rhymes hit the mark but the stories leave you cold. If he evens out the ratio of from-the-heart shit to smart shit, Cole could be great.
Listen to "Mr. Nice Watch" feat. Jay-Z: