Let’s get this out of the way. Cole World is not Reasonable Doubt. It’s not illmatic. It isn’t even Get Rich or Die Tryin’. Cole World doesn’t break any new ground. It didn’t feature a fusion of styles the way Miseducation of Lauryn Hill did. It didn’t take rapping to new heights like Food & Liquor. It didn’t push the boundaries of production like Chronic 2001. It didn’t change the sound and direction of hip-hop like Ready to Die.
That’s what the album WASN’T. Let’s talk about what the album WAS.
Cole World: The Sideline Story was solid. It was a strong debut from a very anticipated artist who was under an immense amount of pressure. I think your view of the album will depend heavily on your own personal expectations. Let’s look at it two ways.
If you looked at Cole as Jay-Z’s protégé; the main artist on Roc Nation receiving Jay’s guidance; if you think of the three or so years he spent crafting the album; if you take Jay’s words about wanting to create classic music; if you look at J. Cole as the next great superstar? If you look at it from that perspective, you might be disappointed.
If you look at J as a humble artist from North Carolina releasing his first album; an artist on a visionary record label that places a heavier emphasis on touring than album sales; as an artist who can toe the line of both commercial and underground, yet still remain true to his personal direction; if you root for him to succeed because he represents everything an aspiring artist should? If that’s your view of him, then my guess is you’ll be very happy.
I had only skimmed through Friday Night Lights once before listening to Sideline Story and won’t listen to Wale’s 11.1.11 Theory until after Ambition. (Sidenote: he took offense to me not listening, but for me, it’s the only way I can even semi-fairly judge an album and maintain my anticipation).
Most of us have formed an opinion about an artist and an album far before we ever experience it. Wale is a prime example. He’s already comparing his Ambition album to Reasonable Doubt and guaranteeing it’s a classic. That almost forces you to judge it against the greatest albums of all time. Cole has maintained a relatively quiet persona – only tweeting intermittently, not granting many reviews – and rarely brags about his album. You hear more of a frustration when he speaks. You can relate to his struggle, therefore many will listen to the album wanting to like it. Rarely, if ever, has an artist ever said he’s going to create a classic album and then actually do it. Classic albums just happen. With that said, I my feeling is that this album will not be an era-defining classic.
Let me say this – recording a classic album is extremely difficult. If you were to ask me, the last album that I would consider classic would be Skyzoo’s The Salvation. Before that? Maybe Lupe’s Food & Liquor. Kanye’s Graduation? Arguably. In the 2000’s, I can only think of those and Get Rich or Die Tryin’ offhand, though I’m sure there’s a few more. Point is, they’re far and few between. Blu’s Below the Heavens, maybe. Marshal Mathers LP, for sure. You get my point, though. I hold the title “classic” in very high regards.
Great albums? Those are pretty rare too. If classics are no hitters for a baseball player, great albums are triples. A little more attainable, but still extremely difficult for most. Did Cole release a classic? No. Did he record a great album? I think he falls a shade below “great”, but again, it depends on your standards and expectations.
It is definitely very good, though. The production throughout is solid, but with the exception of songs like Dollar and A Dream III (which he co-produced), is mostly unremarkable. Most of it sort of blended together. He could’ve used a few more producers to add a different vibe and feel to a few more records. Even the ones that were produced by others sounded similar to his own distinctive sound. When I’m listening on shuffle, it’s hard to tell if I’m on track six, nine or fourteen. I certainly respect the effort of wanting to do it on his own, and he scores points as a musician for crafting most of his own songs. But just judging the music? It needed some variance. Kanye can produce an entire solo album himself because he’s so versatile, but even he ventures out and brings in a Just Blaze or Nottz to add a different flavor. And he’s now taken to collaborating with the outside producers, which has been very effective.
But to give equal ink to the positives, let me just say that there weren’t any weak beats either. If we’re rating them from 1-10, there weren’t any 5s, but very few 9s. There were a lot of 7s. Lost Ones, Nobody’s Perfect, Rise and Shine, Nothing Lasts Forever – these all show off his strengths. He certainly knows how to compliment his voice.
The mood of Cole World is mellow, which I personally enjoy. The feel of the album reminded me of Drake’s Thank Me Later. A great sound, but lacking some oomph. When an album has one consistent vibe, we complain that it doesn’t switch up. When it switches too much, we say it doesn’t have a direction. That’s just the nature of being an artist, trying to satisfy us fickle fans. One of the things I usually dislike about an album is when it tries to be a little bit of everything instead of establishing an identity. That was the biggest difference between Jay-Z’s critically acclaimed Blueprint and the underwhelming Blueprint 2. Blueprint was one, beautifully cohesive soulful sound, while Blueprint 2 sounded like more of a compilation, using experimental sounds while trying to do a little of everything.
The difference with Cole World is it didn’t really define or redefine a sound.
His lyrics were very solid, very true. They sounded forced only a few times (“you can’t out-fart me”? Word?), but overall, they were very strong. He sounded authentic, even on the crossover records, which is important to me. It was all very personal. I felt like I really knew Cole once the album was over. He’s the opposite of Rick Ross in that regard. It definitely takes multiple listens to truly appreciate all the gems that he drops. If you aren’t really listening, he’ll sometimes fail to hold your attention. Luckily, he has a voice that’s easy to listen to, so even if you aren’t really paying attention, the songs sound right. Every now and then, he’ll use a catchy flow or melody to snatch your attention back. Unfortunately, when he does, it usually isn’t with one of his stronger lines.
By the way – anybody who knocks Drake for regurgitating the same story better not praise Cole, because they both tell similar stories over different beats.
Speaking of his crossover songs, I never hold radio singles against artists. It’s important to reach a wider audience. That gets your music to more people, increases the investment a label is willing to put into the project, etc. I wasn’t mad at Wale recording a song with Lady Gaga and I wasn’t mad at Eminem recording with Pink. Unfortunately, J. Cole’s attempts just aren’t very good. He has yet to display the ability to create a hit, and until he does, it’ll keep him from reaching that superstar plateau. The song with Trey Songz wasn’t bad. That Kanye-sampled Workout wasn’t horrible either, though it was largely unnecessary. Mr. Nice Watch ended up being a solid song, but if it didn’t have a Jay verse, I don’t think he could’ve held that song on his own. Ironically, his best and most successful radio attempt was In the Morning featuring Drake, which didn’t feel much like a crossover at all. He was recently featured on Wale’s single Bad Girls Club, which I thought was easily better than any of Coles’ solo attempts. I get the feeling that Wale and Cole will have opposite problems. With Wale’s MMG affiliation, singles shouldn’t be a problem. I wonder about the rest of his efforts though. Cole’s problem is when he just creates J. Cole type music, he’s great. But it’s the crossovers that are holding him back.
He attempted a few concepts, which I enjoyed, and he executed them well. Lost Ones, Breakdown, Rise & Shine, Daddy’s Little Girl – these properly display his versatility and lyrical ability. Unfortunately, one problem is, pretty much all of these stories have been told before – numerous times. I know, there aren’t too many topics that haven’t been touched on in hip-hop, but – except for Daddy’s Little Girl – Cole’s tend to really feel “been there, done that”-ish. They’re executed well, but they’re still overdone topics. When Jay dropped Reasonable, he talked about the hustler life that had been tackled dozens of times, but approached it from a completely different vantage point. Cole didn’t.
Lost Ones was an example of a very well executed song, but a redundant topic. Cole’s take on abortion was impressive, but it pales in comparison to Common & Lauryn Hill’s Retrospective for Life. Breakdown was a beautiful, heartfelt letter to his father who wasn’t around, which was already tackled more impressively by his boss Jay and Beanie Sigel on Where Have You Been. Dollar and A Dream III was done better by Kanye on Last Call and numerous other artists. D&D III was also eerily similar to Sideline Story, both in musical composition and content.
Daddy’s Little Girl, however, was the ultimate teaser to this man’s talent. A purely ingenious song. It had his skill on full display. When Cole is good, he’s really good. Rise and Shine is another obvious standout, starting with a Jay Backstage sample of him talking about signing that hungry, young rapper who wants his spot. I’m very glad that J. didn’t give in to the pressure and release this album too early. So many good songs hint at his potential and this album should be an incredible learning experience for him.
I also thought the collaboration with Missy Elliot was a brave surprise and brilliantly done. One of the better songs on the album. Missy sounded amazing. The whole song was tremendous.
As far as hooks and choruses, unfortunately, he shows us the enormous gap between him and Drake. A lot of his hooks, especially those he sings on, had very similar feels and melodies. I found myself humming the wrong melodies to the wrong songs at times because they sounded fairly interchangeable. Many of them seemed like you could’ve switched it with any other chorus. The bright side was, he did create songs, which is something his fans often wondered about. They didn’t hold the songs back, but they failed to take them to another level. Most of them were forgettable. He should hang out with Drake a little more.
When I first heard Work Out and Mr. Nice Watch and was very afraid that he would fall into the trap – trying to follow a formula – but thankfully, he. He dumbed down a bit at times, but overall, he sought to simply make great music. I think fans of The Warm Up/Come Up, as well as more casual fans will both be satisfied, which isn’t easy. And he accomplished his mission. He has a very successful career as a performer and he definitely created enough fan favorites to keep him on stage for the next couple years.
I’m not going to deduct points for some of these songs being years old, although some people will. Since he didn’t release many leaks, the album didn’t feel old to me. Besides, I won’t assume that everyone lives on the internet, downloading every breath a rapper records. Many people only know what’s on the radio and what they buy on iTunes.
If this is your first introduction to Cole, you’ll probably really enjoy the album. But if you’ve been listening to the dozens of songs he’s put out over the past 18 months, then this isn’t a huge improvement. This album isn’t a quantum leap over what he’s already released – and that’s certainly a disappointment because you’d like the album material to be vastly superior to the free music that an artist releases. It’s just a bit more focused and polished. He didn’t push the envelope or take many changes. That could be a good or bad thing, depending on your expectations.
Over the years – especially in hip-hop – we’ve been spoiled by some really amazing debuts. Reasonable Doubt, Ready to Die, illmatic, Capital Punishment, Food & Liquor, Get Rich or Die Tryin’, 36 Chambers, etc. The advantage an artist has during his first album is he has his entire life to write it. He has his 20 or so years to write about his experiences and emotions. It’s usually an artist in his purest form. Cole had some obstacles that many of these other artists didn’t have, however. We live in an age of instant gratification. It used to be standard for an artist to wait 2 or more years between projects. That’s still the norm in most other genres. But in hip-hop, we’re expected to release songs on a constant basis and albums annually. We were anticipating illmatic because of Nas’ incredible Live at the BBQ verse, but we weren’t blogging, talking and reading about it every day. But with Cole, there was so much attention on him because of his signing to Jay-Z and the nature of our society today, that every day the album didn’t leak felt like a year. We begin to lose interest. We treat an album like stocks. Instead of judging over a long period of time, we build it up and tear it down daily. Every pushback raised expectations to a level where he might’ve never had been able to achieve overall satisfaction. Signing to hip-hop’s living legend didn’t do much to quell expectations either. Unlike Reasonable Doubt or Ready to Die, J. Cole didn’t have the advantage of being able to sneak up on anybody. We’ve also heard so much music from him over the past couple years that this hardly feels like a debut. He’s almost like a veteran. We’ve heard his story before, now we’re just hearing it over better mixed records and in a slightly more cohesive form.
Cole World comes off as a more polished version of Friday Night Lights, or any of the other original songs from his mixtapes and EPs. It’s better than most recent releases and better than most artists’ debuts, but falls far short of revolutionary. I know my review sounds harsh, but it really isn’t. I’m actually a fan of the album. If I was to give it a rating, it would probably be somewhere around a 3.75-4/5. For most other artists, this would be an incredible debut. But when compared to the almost unmatchable expectations? It fell just short of living up to the hype. I’m sure there are those of you who will disagree with my assessment and consider it a 5/5. And to those of you, I salute you. I wish I had your ability to listen to music unbiased and just appreciate it. If I had never heard of J. Cole and somebody handed me this album, I’d probably give it a 4.5/5. Unfortunately, my brain is no different from any others. When I see a piece of art, I automatically compare it to every other piece of art I’ve ever seen.
Cole World will get plenty of spins in my iPhone and it’ll get my $10. I would strongly recommend it to anyone who is a hip-hop fan. Help bring this natural type of music back.
SIDENOTE: This is definitely natural hip-hop. I spoke a lot in my previous blogs about change. People who were upset with the Troy Davis situation complained, but didn’t actually DO anything to initiate change. Well, here’s your chance again. J. Cole has nearly 900,000 followers and he created an album that was more hip-hop than pop. We have the power, as fans, to support a movement. A movement towards natural rap. See, labels are a business, and their business is to make money. J took a chance by not filling the album with “club bangers”. We now need to support the album and show the labels that this sound sells. We say we want “real hip-hop”, but then we don’t buy it. Yet, a million people will go buy the Gucci Mane record. It’s time for us to stop being hypocritical. Regardless of what you think of the album, support the movement. Support the artist. Support natural hip-hop.