As the North Carolina MC J. Cole has explained himself: after years of trying out, sitting on the sidelines and releasing critically acclaimed mixtapes, the time of the big game has finally arrived. His much anticipated debut album Cole World: The Sideline Story is here and it’s a resounding success.
I was really worried that, like pretty much all of his peers, he would release bangers on his mixtapes but then put out a watered down debut because of the major label pressures but rest assured, this is one of the best debuts on a major in recent memory and is, in my opinion, a close contender for album of the year so far.
Like his previous mixtapes, the album starts with an epic introduction that builds up to capture the anxiety and excitement of being next in the spotlight and sets the tone for the whole album, which is mostly comprised of emotion filled songs and concepts rather than club songs and radio hits.
In fact, this album has a little bit of everything: personal songs (Dollar and a Dream III, Sideline Story), straight rapping (Rise and Shine, God’s Gift), club songs (Mr. Nice Watch), concept songs (Breakdown, Lost Ones), songs about girls (Can’t Get Enough, Lights Please) and songs for the girls (In the Morning, Never Told). After reading that, you’d think this album would be a jumbled mess of sounds and themes but it is surprisingly cohesive and this is largely due to the fact that the sound of the album was mostly crafted by Cole himself.
Like his mixtapes, the album is almost entirely self-produced with the exception of four songs. This was a great decision on Jay-Z‘s part to have faith in Cole to create the sound of his album instead of making him work with proven hitmakers. While most hold Cole‘s technical rapping abilities in high regard, he is no slouch in the production department either as his music is lush, layered, filled with emotion and fits his lyrics perfectly.
When he first stepped onto the scene, his writing ability was a little spotty and his word choice tended to lean towards a lot of “hoes”, “n****s” and other curses as filler words but he has really improved his song writing and spits his sharp, technical lyrics in a narrative style that is rarely seen in his peers.
He does, however, sometimes have trouble staying on topic. For example, he has a random line about his love for the underground in the middle of a song about girls (Can’t Get Enough) and goes from a crack addicted mother to people getting shot by cops in the middle of a verse (Breakdown). Still though, veering off on the occasional tangent is nitpicking when the overall quality of music is so high.
In fact, most of the songs on this album range from good to great from the introductory Dollar and a Dream III to the pure rapping on God’s Gift and Rise and Shine. The highlights of the album though would have to be the very personal Sideline Story in which he talks about the hardships he had to overcome to get where he is and the two narratives Lost Ones and Breakdown.
On Lost Ones, he touches on the controversial subject of abortion and rather than forcing his views down your throat, the song presents itself as an argument between a couple trying to decide what to do with an unexpected pregnancy. Breakdown is an emotional song with three separate narratives, one speaking to his father who was absent in his life, another of his mother addicted to crack and lastly a girlfriend whose baby’s daddy is in prison.
Longtime fans should know that Lights Please and In The Morning, two previously released songs from The Warm Up and Friday Night Lights mixtapes respectively, are included. While including songs that are 1-2 years old may be disappointing for some, it’s probably the best decision for the album because they are songs that new fans should hear. Lights Please is just a great song and the mix has been cleaned up with the piano and drums sounding much crisper than on the mixtape version.
And while In The Morning is not even close to one of my favorite J. Cole songs, it’s certainly not terrible and the collaboration with Drake, arguably one of rap’s biggest stars at the moment, deserves more push than it originally got. These two songs are sure to gain him new fans that never got the chance to hear them before so I can’t be mad at their inclusion.
Not all is perfect though. Mr. Nice Watch, which features Jay-Z, should have been a great chance to pass the torch to the next generation of rappers since this is their first collaboration together but it instead turned out as a materialistic club song with a terrible beat, a rarity on this album thankfully. Never Told, produced by No I.D., was another collaboration I was looking forward to but is a pretty generic song for the ladies that has J. Cole rapping in a very annoying cadence, which ruins the song completely.
Lastly, Nobody’s Perfect, which features a crooning Missy Elliot, was also pretty underwhelming and is another fairly generic song for the ladies, though not nearly as intolerable as the two aforementioned songs. Still though, three bad songs on an album of 16 good to great songs (including the three bonus tracks), is a fantastic ratio in today’s major label soundscape of disposable singles and cash grabs.
I’ve followed J. Cole since The Come Up and The Warm Up mixtapes and I have to say I’m proud of him for staying true to his art and not giving into the pressure of creating an album full of fluff. Overall, this is still J. Cole so this album is not going to convert haters to lovers but it’s as good as any existing fan could have expected and the wider exposure that this album will bring him is sure to garner new fans.
Just like he planned, this really does feel like he was sitting on the sideline for years and now he’s finally getting his time in the spotlight. Enjoy your shine J. Cole, you’ve certainly earned it.