The wait is finally over. Roc Nation recording artist J. Cole’s debut album has arrived and although much of the intial buzz has worn off, Cole World: The Sideline Story is sure to be a fan favorite. It seems like 2009 was a lifetime ago. Jermaine Lamar Cole, a graduate of St. John’s university was a burgeoning underground producer/rapper sensation with a classic mixtape on his resume(The Warm Up) and no label. Cole got the opportunity of a lifetime when icon Jay-Z got a hold of the mixtape and the rest is history, right? Wrong. Cole was sidelined and put on hold indefinitely. Many fans wondered if his debut album would ever drop as Roc Nation seemed to be focused on it’s two major stars, Jay-Z and Kanye West.
During his label induced hold, Cole kept putting out material during his holding period including the critically acclaimed Friday Night Lights and recently Any Given Sunday. When it was first reported that the debut was poised to drop on September 27th, I think most fans dismissed the notion. Cole had become an inside joke as many debated his future and watched his frustrations as he tried to navigate his material to the shelves. Cole is finally off one shelf and onto another. The question is do we care? Has the buzz worn off? Can Cole produce content that can match or possibly surpass his mixtape success? Cole World: The Sideline Story answers these questions but also leaves listeners asking other questions, like why is there so much old material placed on this project? Why isn’t the album as polished as it could have been? Why do some of these songs sound like mixtape material?
Let’s get the bad out of the way first. Is this a classic debut? No. This album suffers from being too long for one. 19 tracks is a lot to ask an average listener to sit through especially when the content isn’t easily digestable. Cole’s style and delivery are not commerically viable at this point. He doesn’t use the formulaic approach to commercial rap, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Nonetheless it isolates the average listener who looking to be entertained more so than educated. Cole tries to crossover with cuts like “Can’t Get Enough” which features Trey Songs and the single “Work Out”. These songs are both great but they aren’t constructed in the same way as what is being spun on the radio right now. Cole seems to have intentionally avoided being commercial which I admire but it may end up costing him a mainstream position.
The other glaring flaw is the including of old material like “Lights Please”, “In the Morning” and “Who Dat”. Yes, these are great songs but they’re old and offer nothing to the album in terms of expanding Cole’s range. Speaking of range, Cole rarely steps outside his lane. The album is full of the same narrative of being broke, being looked over and down trodden. Not that it isn’t strangely motivating to hear an artist hungry for his shot but Cole’s been in the spotlight for two years now. Things have changed. There are a few moments when we actually get a glimpse of how it feels to be signed by the biggest icon in Hip Hop when he teams with Jay-Z on “Mr. Nice Watch”. A song that is a banger and perhaps the most radio friendly track on the album. He also gives us a nice ballad type narrative about the Hip Hop equivalent of the Femme Fatale on the pulse riding “Daddy’s Little Girl” which seems to be a tongue and cheek attempt at a crossover song. This song is being touted as an official single and may get some love because of it’s simple head nodding drum pattern.
Now the good thing about this album is found in the driven, introspective and thoughtful content that Cole has consistently provided for the last two years. I nearly shed a tear after hearing the heart tugging “Lost Ones”. Cole provides us with the narrative of young people dealing with abortion. The narrative jumps from the perspective of the young man and then the young woman. It’s a vicarious experience for any young person that’s had to deal with the adult decision. The position of this song on the album is ironic as it comes right after “In the Morning”. The sequencing on this album is very fluid and purposeful which gives it the feel of an extended narrative.
The track “Sideline Story” is like a summation of Cole’s career so far and offers more insight on the prolonged time it takes to actually step into the shoes of what you believe is your future. This is another excellent song that you won’t hear on the radio. The explosive “Rise and Shine” should’ve been the intro to this album. It’s a classic J. Cole track with marching band drums and booming bass. It’s also has Cole being aggressive like the “Young Simba” he has often claimed to be. When Cole enters this mode he’s at his best. His tone is uneasy and it seems to be purposely trying to make pay attention. I hope that he never loses this drive no matter how much success he achieves in the future. Also be sure to check out “Breakdown” which sheds light on Cole’s childhood and the manhood examination on “Never Told”.
J. Cole’s album is essentially a gift to his core fans. I appreciate his stubborness to not conform to what’s hot right now and remain true to who he is as an artist and a person. Cole World: The Sideline Story may not fly off the shelves like other mainstream releases but it also won’t be cast aside next month when the next big thing hits stores. This is a solid album that has a few timeless songs that will be in rotation for years to come. It’s one of those hindsight albums much like Reasonable Doubt, in which it’s impact won’t really hit until we have time to understand it’s significance.