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

North Carolina rapper J.Cole has accomplished a reportedly long 8 year struggle to complete and release his debut album Cole World: The Sideline Story. After a slew of 3 critically acclaimed mixtapes and the strength of one song that convinced Jay-Z to sign him as the first artist of his label Roc Nation (after rejecting a demo cd in 2007), Cole steps into the limelight and makes use of his time and effort wisely for this LP.

What is highly commendable is that Cole either produced or co-produced every track on Cole World; something you wouldn’t expect from an artist signed to the most connected and established rapper in the world. Fortunately this was the right decision, because all of the production moves fluidly with Cole at the helm of it all throughout the entire album. The most prominent instrument used is the piano which is once again a wise move due to how Cole’s flow seems untouchable when combined with piano samples/interpolations. A lot of the tracks can easily transition to live performances with a full band. Listeners who favor live and big sounds will enjoy what Cole brought to the table in the production department.

As far as lyrics are concerned, there is a balanced range of substance and style from the emotional depth and vulnerability of tracks such as “Sideline Story”, “Lost Ones”, “Breakdown”, “Never Told” to the very shallow yet enjoyable “Cole World” and almost all of the tracks with cameos. This balance reaches it’s pinnacle on “Lights Please”, the song that got Cole signed to Roc Nation. Definitely a gem in the artist’s arsenal, “Lights Please” serves as a social awareness message delivered in a song about sex. The contrast is amazing and it’s inclusion into the album despite being released on his previous mixtape The Warm Up, seems to make sense as such a great song should be pushed towards the masses.

Four high profile cameos by Jay-Z, Trey Songz, Drake and a previously MIA Missy Elliot give some highly mixed results. Jay-Z appears on Cole’s most experimental production in his catalog, “Mr. Nice Watch” with a verse cleverly structured around time references that puts down any controversial doubts of him not putting any effort to his heralded apprentice’s track, though Cole seems to have let his guard down on this occasion. Trey Songz lends a lackluster hook on the “Big Pimpin”-esque “Can’t Get Enough”, which could have easily been sung by Cole himself. Cole’s collaboration with Drake “In The Morning” was obviously attached (another previously released track from a past mixtape) for commercial appeal, as this track is nothing more than a slow jam in rap form catered to the ladies. Missy Elliot surprisingly does not rap on her contribution to “Nobody’s Perfect”, delivering a safe singing hook that suits the track well. Despite the negatives, all of these tracks are very listenable in the structure of the album.

Cole World: The Sideline Story is a sonically pleasing album with a nice balance of emotionally charged and thought provoking lyrics along with aesthetically engaging beats, but is a far cry from any progression in the hip hop genre other than maybe more artists will decide to acquire more control over the sound of their albums once this LP makes its way through the market.

Usually, I would take out any tracks I disliked on an album to make my ideal playlist, but surprisingly, I did not have to take out anything from Cole World (including bonus tracks), which is a statement in of itself.

Rating: ★★★★☆