J. Cole’s Cole World: The Sideline Story is one of, if not the most, highly anticipated hip-hop debuts of this year. In what’s become the rule for rap debuts, a lot of time has passed between J. Cole’s introduction and his official coming-out party. After becoming the first signee to Jay Z’s Roc Nation imprint in 2009, Cole has spent the past two years in the kind of label limbo familiar to Wale, Freddie Gibbs, the Cool Kids, and plenty of other next-big-things. He’s released a solid mixtape, hopped on some features, and had minor radio hits with “Who Dat” and the Drake collaboration, “In the Morning.” But when it takes so long to get your first opportunity, you can’t assume there’s going to be another, and Hova’s anointment has hung over Cole like a shadow: is he the next Drake, or the next Memphis Bleek?
One approaches Cole World with some trepidation, then. You prepare yourself to hear Cole’s artistic potential ground into submission by the engines of commerce, or for him simply to crumble under the pressure. But what’s surprising about Cole World is that it’s neither a disappointing flop nor an unexpected triumph. In its confidence, maturity, and professionalism, it’s more like an album from someone who has been in the rap game for much longer than two years.
A college graduate who grew up the son of a single mother in Fayetteville, N.C., J. Cole raps in a polysyllabic blitz, mostly about his own biography. He has an absent dad with whom he likes to argue. He chases women, but seems more interested in analyzing his sexual escapades than describing them. He’s prone to the trappings of fame but is too smart to grovel to materialism: “They say time is money but it’s really not,” he raps on “Mr. Nice Watch,” “if we ever go broke girl, then time is all we got.” On “Dollar and a Dream III,” Cole explains himself as “Mozart meets Humphrey Bogart with this from the heart shit,” which kind of sums up both the appeal and the dilemma of Cole’s attack. He’s impressively, sometimes amazingly, clever, but then you wonder if that cleverness gets in the way of his emotional power.
Like a lot of his peers, J. Cole produces his own beats, and all but four of Cole World’s tracks are Cole’s own. Behind the boards, Cole isn’t exactly an impresario. He favors familiar piano runs and simple bass lines, but he knows how to complement his rapping—see the appropriately cheesy voicebox vocals on “Workout” and the choral oohs on “Rise and Shine.” Like his rhyming, his production is sophisticated, earnest, and maybe could benefit from a dose of rawness.
For the most part Cole World is grown person’s rap – which makes you fear for its chances in a young person’s marketplace. It’s hard to see Cole catching flame, and seriously challenging his mentor Jay-Z. But on the other hand it’s hard to see this guy going away. J. Cole seems too smart, too calm, too reasonable to let his career stall with Cole World, no matter its commercial reception.