Track Meet: Looking Back On J. Cole's "Friday Night Lights" 10 Years Later
Updated: Jan 26
In the "Track Meet" series, we break down albums or projects track by track to show where sports and hip-hop meet.
J. Cole dominated the 2010s with his fresh blend of authenticity, storytelling and pure inspiration. The small-town kid from Fayetteville, North Carolina lived a quiet life before he moved to New York on an academic scholarship to pursue his rap career where he sacrificed his hoop dreams for a chance to sign with Hov.
Legend has it that J. Cole waited with his mixtape for hours outside of the Roc Nation offices in the rain. That wasn't the fateful day he impressed Jay Z, but he eventually did and signed with the iconic label, who made him play the waiting game before finally releasing his debut album, "Cole World: The Sideline Story" in 2011. While Young Simba was racking his brain in the studio for a commercial hit, he released "The Warm Up" and "Friday Night Lights" to appease fans and keep himself motivated. Both are arguably album-worthy in quality, but will forever remain staples of mixtape history.
Today (November 12, 2020), marks the 10th anniversary of "Friday Night Lights," a piece of the basketball metaphor that J. Cole used as his rap career unfolded. The project is certified diamond on DatPiff, meaning it's been downloaded more than 1 million times as Cole World expanded from Fayettenam to Londontown and beyond. J. Cole posted on Instagram to celebrate the occasion, saying he hopes the project gets uploaded onto the major streaming services, following the trend with Drake's "So Far Gone" and Lil Wayne's "No Ceilings." In the meantime, take a trip down memory lane and explore the sports references in "Friday Night Lights."
"Too Deep For the Intro"
"She knew I was on the team 'cause she saw how tall I be"
What better way to open a mixtape than with an Erykah Badu sample? That's exactly what J. Cole did on "Too Deep For the Intro" to tip off "Friday Night Lights." Against a moody soundscape that he crafted himself, Jermaine reflects on his journey in the rap game and how back in the day, girls knew that he hooped because of how tall he is, 6' 2". This song also has the epic line "If they don't know your dreams, then they can't shoot 'em down."
"Before I'm Gone"
"Was out chasin' hoes, was out hoopin'/The n*ggas wasn't ballin', but yet they was foul shootin'"
The cinematic "Before I'm Gone" again shows how basketball is such an integral part of J. Cole's life. He played growing up and it's even a metaphor for his trust issues off the court.
"Back to the Topic (Freestyle)"
"Carolina Blue kicks, pedal to the metal"
"Down in Miami and I'm throwed like Marino"
"I'm quarterbacking trying to get you open like receivers"
In this fiery freestyle, J. Cole doesn't worry as much about delivering an inspirational message or a moving storyline as much as braggadocious bars. And he delivers, starting with a nod to his home state of North Carolina and their famous baby blue color and comparing himself to Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino in how he's enjoying his life, partying and trying to get a pretty girl to be... open like a wide receiver. J. Cole clearly thinks he's a baller that can bag any woman, but maybe he forgot that as great as Marino is, he never actually won a Super Bowl, the greatest bag of them all.
"Enchanted" ft. Omen
"Fuck the horoscopes know the ropes like a wrestler"
"You heard I was ballin'/I probably meant tears"
"These kids live they whole life just killin time/Running a race with no finish line"
"I'm not as fast, I'm not as tall, but before I pass, I gotta ball"
On the sobering track "Enchanted," J. Cole shares a soundscape with his friend (and later Dreamville signee) Omen. They both lament the overwhelming hardships of life. Cole advises listeners to be educated on the patterns of life like a wrestler utilizing the ropes of the ring and not be hoping in star signs. Omen uses sports metaphors to explain how he's actually not hooping, but crying from the weariness he's experienced seeing kids live aimlessly. Cole ends on a motivational note saying that even though these circumstances weigh on him heavy, he's still going to pursue his dreams.
"Down in Miami with a super hoe team, tryna bag a brother with a Super Bowl ring/She down in Dallas at the All-Star Game, spitting all-star game, tryna get a n*gga with an All-Star name/Something like James, something like Wade"
"You caught him down in Memphis, cheating like Calipari"
"I see you like to stay up on your ESPN/If your mind is on sex, you must got ESP, then"
On "Higher," J. Cole celebrates his elevation in the playa game. Now that he's got money and some fame, he can bag the same women that go after all-star athletes. He specifically tells the story of a girl down in Miami for Super Bowl XLIV where the New Orleans Saints won their first-ever championship and brought joy to their city after Hurricane Katrina. But this girl's not necessarily interested in those type of headlines. She went to Dallas for NBA All-Star Weekend at the new Cowboys Stadium where the stars were as big as the midfield logo. Miami Heat legend Dwyane Wade was named the MVP while LeBron James had 25 points in his last outing as a Cleveland Cavalier.
By the time the song ends, J. Cole describes a girl he has his eyes on that he wishes he knew before he was rich and famous so he'd know her intentions are pure. But she looks good, keeps up with sports and her ex is as good at following rules as Kentucky Wildcats basketball coach John Calipari. So he's gonna take her higher.
"In The Morning" ft. Drake
"I mean you're kinda like that girl that's in the U.S. Open"
After using some uncomfortable metaphors about riding his aunt's horses to explain how he likes thick women, Drake compares the woman he's wooing to tennis star Serena Williams, who has helped break stereotypes about athletes and beauty. After this shoutout, Drizzy and Serena's relationship blossomed and they might have dated, or might have not. Nobody really knows. Either way, "In the Morning" was so popular with fans that the woozy love song made it onto "Sideline Story."
"He will not slip or lose his grip, they got them cleats on him"
All the duality on "Friday Night Lights" — and in J. Cole's music in general — is presented on "2 Face." Cole explains the circumstances surrounding his life: death in the Black community, growing up without a father, police brutality, fake people and his deferred dreams and how he deals with them going from high to low, sometimes wanting to fight, sometimes feeling helpless. But staying grounded like he's wearing a pair of cleats.
"Catch me if you can, hoe/They try to sack me and I scramble"
"No more pork in me, I ain't no Muslim though/Caron Butler I’m a wizard if ya doesn't know/
Its Young Simba, I’m ballin’ 'til the buzzer blow"
Cole continues the metaphor of himself as the quarterback in charge of the rap game. But with that position always comes a defense trying to stop his plays. He also has a smart line about not eating pork even though he's not Muslim, so he isn't following the directives of the Quran as much as trying to be elite in all areas of his life like a professional athlete. The wordplay of the holy book with Caron Butler's name aligns Cole as a Washington Wizard ready to make a game-winning shot.
"Cost Me a Lot"
"Cool as Drew Brees, I'm blowing a few Gs just to hear them hoes say that he's awesome"
"When the bouncer just announced that it was bottle service only, then he kicked me out the line, yeah he punted on me"
"Must be the money like Deion with the Jheri curl/White Range, call that motherfucker Larry Bird"
After the vibes of the Aaliyah-sampled "Best Friend," J. Cole unleashed his rap prowess again on "Cost Me a Lot." He compares himself to Drew Brees (another quarterback we might note) with some wordplay on his name for how cool he is spending money to impress the ladies. Cole's come a long way from getting kicked out of the club like a football being punted because he couldn't afford bottle service. He feels as good as Deion "Prime Time" Sanders when he made his own rap song "Must Be the Money," where he sports the stylish hairdo of the day — a Jheri curl. Cole feels so good that he copped a white Range Rover and called it Larry Bird after the Boston Celtics great, a white boy from Indiana who made his name in a predominately Black sport.
"I'm ballin' with nuggets like fuck it, I'm Carmelo"
In the reflective track "Premeditated Murder," J. Cole says how he's now got all the jewelry and gold he could want, ballin' like Carmelo Anthony on the Denver Nuggets. Remember those days? But the material wealth isn't fulfilling him. Kind of like how stardom in the Mile High City wasn't enough for Melo, who ended up bouncing around the league. After nearly two decades playing professional basketball, he still hasn't won a championship.
"Home for the Holidays"
"Tryna get laid, so I gotta stay fly/But a n*gga hella shy, you woulda thought that's where the Bulls played"
"Maybe this ain't for me/Only if I could be LeBron and go straight to league"
This fun little ditty that J. Cole produced shows the rapper pondering the sacrifices of going to college and being excited to come home for the holidays. Cole admits he wanted to be cool and make a statement as a freshman on campus, but was shy and might belong in Chi-Town, home of the Chicago Bulls, rather than in the bustling city of New York. Maybe college wasn't for him. He wishes it would be as easy to figure out his life as it was for LeBron James, who skipped college altogether and was drafted straight out of St. Vincent–St. Mary High School as the first overall pick by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2003.
"Looking For Trouble"
"Got n*ggas that’ll blow your tee off, put a hole in one/Now you outside of Heaven’s gate, frontin’ like you know someone"
On this epic bonus track, J. Cole combines forces with the G.O.O.D Music squad Kanye West, Pusha T, CyHi Da Prince and Big Sean. Cole has the grand finale (and surprisingly the only sports reference on the song) where he claims he has shooters that will knock his opponent straight to Heaven like a hole in one. Don't mess with this guy.