J. Cole has flown a long way from Frankfurt. An 808 beat machine bought for his fifteenth birthday, a string of successful Internet mixtapes and an oversized kiss from Jay-Z have cemented his position as the most promising commercial rapper since Papoose found his Yoko Ono. In between birth in Europe’s most economically prosperous country, and majoring in a fascinating communications degree, Cole spent the majority of his childhood in Fayetteville, a highly pleasant, environmentally friendly city in North Carolina.
Cole evidently chased the Beamers, Benzes and Bentleys rather than the Toyota Prius, and left his leafy hometown for college in New York City, notepads packed with lyrics scrawled past the margins and a hard-drive loaded with heavy, soulful instrumentals. Despite his scholarship at St John’s University, J. Cole had one ambition in NYC, and it seems his naivety can be attributed to his success: from waiting outside Jay-Z’s studio in the pouring rain, to his belief that a record deal was as inevitable as a picture of Kanye West’s penis eventually surfacing on the internet. His naivety, and a talent for beautifully attaching himself to beats; in the three mixtapes released since 2007, Cole has flowed both triumphantly and effortlessly about scrapping for success, his tender treatment of women, and unfortunately of late, the dangers of fame.
Either way, J. Cole has landed in the right place. Penning lyrics and crafting beats on the sidelines has paid off for a man who is now very much the main event. Four years’ worth of recordings comprise Cold World: The Sideline Story, and with a Sony Music-sized budget, a flow for all the family and the obligatory Curtis Mayfield sample, J. Cole should become a star, which isn’t to say the album will actually be good. Really, it suggests the opposite.
The album begins with a beat that sounds worryingly like Scarface’s satirical introduction to “The Diary”, which thankfully heats up — no stray slugs necessary. Before bravely referencing what many would consider the greatest hip-hop album of all time, Cole teases with a handful of enticing bars. A beat sounding overly dramatic and sentimental at such an early stage then takes its cue, and J. Cole perfectly summarises his appeal: “I got the nerds rappin’ hard shit / dummies rappin’ smart shit”. With such a broad fan base, both commercial and critical success relies on satisfying the earnest detractors and the shameless fans of Dwayne Carter.
An early ode to the ladies, “Can’t Get Enough“, sets a trend, featuring the man that proudly re-invented the slow jam, Trey Songz. The single has a playful samba texture to the beat, with Cole switching his Kanye West-Bun B mode on to pleasant effect. “Lights Please” tackles the same hot issue, and is rumoured to have tickled Jay-Z’s fancy before the famous Roc Nation offer. This song is recycled from an earlier mixtape, The Warm Up, evident from its less commercial and sparser beat. Surprisingly, therefore, it isn’t any good.”In The Morning“, featuring a KY Jelly dripping verse from Drake, fails in both rappers’ inability to seem distinguished over pleasantly bland production.
It’s the first interlude, and Cole and his friends, probably real, reminisce over some fantastic times. Jermaine remembers his life before his record deal, drinking ginger ale and driving without a license, whilst DeShaun claps him on and laughs enthusiastically, and Keith delicately strokes the piano keys in the corner. The interlude introduces the transition from the Sidelines to a Cole World, reflected in the ensuing second half of the title-track, a well-handled success story over a completely uninteresting beat. Cole World rounds off J. Cole’s album title, minus the colon, the triumphant, braggadocio companion piece, which falters with generic lyrics and a forgettable radio beat. Appropriately, a Jay-Z collaboration falls in between the two, as Hova paved the way from swivel chair to sold-out arena for Cole. The host sounds effortless over this track, which should get its fair dues in the club, but not in the ear of a more mature hip-hop fan, possibly what Cole would refer to as a “nerd”.
Cole World: The Sideline Story’s freshest moment comes right in its core, where J. Cole’s storytelling skills are wonderfully showcased in “Lost Ones“, an unsentimental but appropriately emotional narrative that subscribes to both perspectives of a teenage pregnancy. “Heating up like that leftover lasagne” is an interesting standard for Cole to set for the rest of his album, and an old, lukewarm meat pastry would be a harsh comparison for the track with Missy Elliot, but is appropriate for the next effort, “Never Told“, a Drake impersonation in every bad sense of the notion. Cole has already proved at this point that he can rap well, so this desperate plea to the radio feels very disappointing. The final song of Cole World: The Sideline Story is highly reminiscent of the ending note to early Jay-Z albums: contemplative, regretful and reflective. It isn’t quite selling crack to your grandma, but following two relatively enjoyable songs, the lower note feels appropriate for an album that has been a disappointment, and a depressingly predictable one.
If J. Cole was born in the 70s and rapped in the 90s, Cole World: The Sideline Story would probably have been a very enjoyable album. Listen to his mixtapes for evidence of this. Buckwild would have provided Cole with some jazzy loops and tough drums to flow to, there would have been fun pager and gold rope references, Redman might have contributed a guest verse, and who’s to say a classic Preemo beat wouldn’t have filled the penultimate song spot? Over a year ago, J. Cole told MTV that his studio album would include songs he’d recorded before the mixtapes, before the hype and way before the Jay-Z interest, because “they were too good” to give away for free. “They can never go. They have to stay”, he said firmly. I fail to recognise which these songs are, or believe that the young man’s tough, possibly naïve stance did not falter. It’s a shame when record labels abuse their power, and interfere and meddle with an album’s artistic direction, because the result is a product that might shift half a million copies, but ultimately sounds as plain and generic as any other major label hip-hop release this year. J. Cole is a better rapper than that.
By Theo Macdonald (Rap Genius editor)
J. Cole – Breakdown Lyrics
J. Cole – Cole World Lyrics
J. Cole – Daddy’s Little Girl Lyrics
J. Cole – Dollar And A Dream III Lyrics
J. Cole – In The Morning (Remix) Lyrics
J. Cole – God’s Gift Lyrics
J. Cole – Intro Lyrics
J. Cole – Mr Nice Watch Lyrics
J. Cole – Lights Please Lyrics
J. Cole – Lost Ones Lyrics
J. Cole – Nobody’s Perfect Lyrics
J. Cole – Never Told Lyrics
J. Cole – Rise and Shine Lyrics
J. Cole – Sideline Story Lyrics
J. Cole – Can’t Get Enough Lyrics
J. Cole – Who Dat Lyrics
J. Cole – Work Out Lyrics