Album Review: J. Cole, Cole World: The Sideline Story

J. Cole

Cole World: The Sideline Story (released September 27, 2011)

When I was a kid the debate (about best rapper) was LL versus Run DMC, or later, Kane versus Rakim. Next year it might be Drake versus J.Cole

– From Jay-Z’s book Decoded, which is much better than this album. SPOILER ALERT!!!

A year or so ago, when everyone was proclaiming Drake the greatest thing to happen to hip hop since four-finger rings, my eyes were on a different light-skinneded young’n – J. Cole. Drake had the charisma and radio-friendly catalogue while Cole had the lyrical prowess and cockiness. The hip hop peanut gallery, always eager to find the next big thing, immediately began to compare the two with rap’s heavyweights.

If they were taking the SAT, Jay-Z : Drake :: Nas : J. Cole.

After a series of phenomenal mixtapes, anticipation has been sky high for Cole’s long awaited debut, Cole World: The Sideline Story.  In fact, Cole’s latest mixtape release, Friday Night Lights, is among the best mixtapes I’ve ever heard, period.

And that’s why I’m so disappointed in Cole World.

The first red flag was hearing Friday Night Light’s “In The Morning” on this set. While I’m a big fan of the song, which features – guess who – your favorite rapper Drake,  I was hoping Cole World would build upon the strength of his mixtapes, not feature tracks cherry-picked from earlier releases. It’s even more upsetting that “In The Morning” is Cole World’s best song. Why are we being asked to buy a song we got on a superior release a year ago – AND FOR FREE?  But that’s not the only “greatest hit” that makes an appearance. The ultra-moldy “Lights Please” shows up too. Playa, that song was released before Georgia Mae moved its headquarters to Birmingham. Bush was rocking to that while he was still in the White House!

That’s just the talk of a frustrated fan. I think newer fans definitely will warm up to Cole World. “Lost Ones” is the type of track that made me a Cole supporter. The song, a heated conversation between lovers over the fate of an unborn child, lays real-life situations on wax. I’d rather hear songs like this than Rick Ross bragging about eating pancakes overseas in his Maybach. “Never Told” and “Breakdown” both serve as a looking glass into Cole’s life, with solid production and engaging wordplay to boot.

Perhaps the greatest guilty pleasure track of the year is “Workout,” which (very) heavily borrows from Kanye West’s “The New Workout Plan.” Yes, the song is as hollow as a Jersey Shore marriage proposal but the beat burrows in your brain and bounces around endlessly. I’m serious, the song has been in my head for a day and a half. I just can’t hate on it – even when Cole sporadically breaks into Paula Abdul karaoke.

But as I mentioned earlier, there IS a lot to hate on here, sadly. The current single, “Can’t Get Enough” sounds like a knockoff Timbaland track from 2002. It features Trey Songz, who should be called Trey Talkz here because it sounds like he’s literally READING his hook. And perhaps the biggest offense is “Mr. Nice Watch,” the long-awaited collabo between Cole and mentor Jay-Z. Jay’s verse sounds like he got it out of a box in the attic labeled “Memphis Bleek Throwaways.” And Cole is equally lazy, with amateur-hour punchlines: “I rap like it’s Christmas Eve.” Playa, please.

If only Cole had more tracks like “Nobody’s Perfect” (with my girl Missy Elliott) which are both radio friendly and introspective. For some reason, when Cole goes into ultra-serious mode – “Sideline Story,” “Cole World” – he seems like he’s going through the motions. The spark he had on his mixtapes seems lost.

Maybe I’m being too hard on Cole and expected too much. If this album is your introduction to Young Simba, you’ll likely be pleased and it’s definitely worth a look. But for those of us who have been riding with him for years have heard better. And for free.

Best tracks: “In The Morning,” Workout,” “Nobody’s Perfect”

3.5 stars out of 5


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