In the fall of 2011, amid a glut of marquee releases from the likes of Rihanna and Coldplay, two young rappers — Pittsburgh’s Mac Miller, now 21, and the North Carolina-bred J. Cole, 28 — each emerged from relative mixtape obscurity with No. 1 debuts (Blue Slide Park and Cole World: The Sideline Story, respectively). Neither had a bona fide hit single, but the combined devotion of college kids and hardcore hip-hop heads still propelled them into Billboard album history.
On his new Watching Movies With the Sound Off, the willfully goofy Miller has evolved — to a point. ”Objects in the Mirror” and ”Aquarium” are surprisingly self-reflective, but the dumb-fun party jams are half as infectious as before, and twice as misogynistic (though stoner-logic couplets like ”Asian women love me/I look like David Duchovny” do have some charm).
Jay-Z protégé Cole also stumbles on Born Sinner, but for different reasons. He’s a talented, nimble rapper, but diatribes like ”Trouble” and ”Land of the Snakes” are more exhausting than impressive; too often he comes off like a strident high school jock with a word-a-day calendar. The jazz-kissed ”Let Nas Down,” a deeply personal tale about hearing that one of his rap idols hated his early single ”Work Out,” delivers far greater impact without all the high-minded posturing about love and death. Talking out Big Ideas in the classroom is great, but as Miller shows, sometimes dorm-room bull sessions can be just as profound. Clearly both are star pupils of the game. Even so, these efforts prove that both Miller and Cole could use a postgrad year. Movies: B Sinner: B-
BEST TRACKS: Cole’s ”Let Nas Down”