Weird, right? There have been 20 debut hip-hop albums that went No. 1, and Cole World sticks out like Ray J’s red hoody. The list has classics, solid releases, and some anomalies, but for the most part there’s something memorable about them.
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1. Beastie Boys - License to Ill
The first hip-hop album to go No. 1, period.
2. Tone Loc - Lōc-ed After Dark
Admit it, you chuckled. “Funky Cold Medina” lives on in karaoke bars everywhere.
3. Kriss Kross - Totally Krossed Out
“Jump” was the must-play track at the skating rink in 1992, and the backwards-clothing phenomenon has been a staple of Spirit Week at school. Spirit Week planners are forever indebted to Jermaine Dupri for giving them a theme to squeeze in between “Twin Day” and “Pajama Day.”
4. and 5. Snoop Doggy Dogg - Doggystyle and Tha Dogg Pound - Dogg Food
Everybody was lining up for Doggystyle, either with $12 or torches and pitchforks. C. Dolores Tucker’s Haterade-filled campaign was free advertising for Snoop. Kids everywhere saw these angry adults taking time out of their day to stomp on some CDs and came to the same conclusion: we’ve GOT to hear album.
Daz and Kurupt rode the Death Row Records tidal wave to double-platinum status. Unfortunately, they’re grown men who still end words with “cc” instead of “ck.”
6. and 7. Puff Daddy & the Family - No Way Out and Mase - Harlem World
While it’s technically Diddy’s debut album, it felt more like a Bad Boy Records showcase. Bad Boy owned 1997 between Life After Death, No Way Out, and Harlem World. After a chain of events that included the “Free the LOX” movement and Ghostface Killah’s fist causing Mase to find religion, we are now left with Diddy Dirty Money. *sigh*
8. DMX – It’s Dark and Hell is Hot
I’d like to thank the person who requested the “Get at Me Dog” video on The Box all those years ago for almost sending me into a seizure from a combination of the flashing lights and the feeling of “Holy shit, WHO IS THIS GUY?!?!”
9. Lauryn Hill - The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
Let’s play word association: Lauryn Hill. In my field test (okay, a mass text message), variations of “crazy” beat “talented” by a 2-to-1 ratio. Considering how amazing this and The Score were, that’s a tragedy.
From there, the list gets a little weird. There are still some obvious ones like Country Grammar and Get Rich or Die Tryin’ , but there’s also Let There Be Eve, Devil’s Night, and The Hunger for More. Let There Be Eve benefited from the Ruff Ryders bonanza from 1998-2000, Lloyd Banks was riding the G-Unit wave, and D12 had Eminem. The latest additions to the list (Thank Me Later, Pink Friday, and The Adventures of Bobby Ray) make sense due to their crossover appeal.
There’s an explanation for why these albums sold the way they did, so there has to be a reason Cole World did so well. Part of the reason is apparently not as many people were checking for the Blink-182 reunion album. Another is that Cole benefited from the lane that Drake and Big Sean are occupying: rappers who are stylish, cool but with doses of immaturity, and are ultimately some singing softies.
Cole World is co-signed by a number of people whose musical tastes I trust. Nothing glowing, but the consensus is that it’s solid. My views fall more into this camp; Cole World bores me. Cole deserves most of the blame, obviously, because it’s his album that made me scroll through my iTunes thinking “Damn, what else have I downloaded recently?” Having run through The Come Up, The Warm Up, the unofficial The Blow Up, Friday Night Lights and the Any Given Sunday series leading up to the album, I’ve got Cole fatigue. It’s not that he flooded the market with material, Lil’ Wayne-style. It’s that he flooded the market with a bunch of material that sounds the same. Cole World should have dropped instead of Friday Night Lights; he was album-ready by then.
Instead, we got another 20-track mixtape to give more time for Cole to complain to Rolling Stone about not having a Jay-Z verse on the album at the time. The public call-out method usually doesn’t work against Jay-Z (just ask everyone from Roc-a-Fella and Def Jam while Hova was president), but the fact that Cole had to take to the media to get his boss on his album shows the Roc Nation CEO in a poor light. Could it be that Jay-Z got bored, too? It’s in Jay’s interest that the album succeeds, but I got the sense that Jay-Z wasn’t pushing Cole World as hard as he could have.
Because of all the good will Cole built up through the mixtapes, the hip-hop community was hoping, wishing, praying that Cole World would help him blow up, the same way many people put their support behind Drake leading up to Thank Me Later. Once his marketing campaign said “Hiiiii Rihannaaaa” with the sex tape rumors, it became clear that Cole World was going to go through the typical hype machinations of the music industry and appeal to the lowest common denominator: sex, especially with Rihanna.
And just like the Drake situation, the debut became a pop-friendly, less-lyrical version of the mixtapes with too much singing. Like Theo Macdonald said in his review, “J. Cole is a better rapper than that.” With 300K sold in the first few weeks, hip-hop got its wish: J. Cole had the top album. It wasn’t the album that mixtape fans wanted, but it’s the album that moved units (rumors of Roc Nation buying truckloads of copies notwithstanding). Considering that only a small handful of rappers manage to sell any albums these days, Cole World is an unqualified commercial success. Maybe in 20 years when we look back on Cole World in the context of J. Cole’s career in 2031, the reason for the album’s success might be clearer. But for now, I feel like Big L out here, because I don’t understand it.