J. Cole’s debut album, Cole World: The Sideline Story, is officially out. Finally. Leading up to its release, Cole has been up-and-down. Moving from fan-favorite to internet-hated and back. So I’ve been anxious to hear what he had to say, and how he was gonna go about doing so, especially after numerous delays and floundering singles.
It starts strong with “Dollar and a Dream III.” Remaining consistent with his mixtapes — where Dollar and a Dream I and II reside — Cole continues the series here, spitting triumphant rhymes over some slick strings and strong snares. Moving from this to “Can’t Get Enough” to “Lights Please” to “Sideline Story”, I can’t complain.
Up next is the Jay-Z-assisted “Mr. Nice Watch”, which leaked a couple weeks back to “cole” reception. Reminding me very much of “Off That,” it sounds better in the context of the album, but feels somewhat uncomfortable. He snaps on “Cole World”, “In The Morning” is nice, I love the joint with Missy, “Lost Ones” is poignant… everything on here is solid.
Not a whole lot is great or really, really good, however. As is the case with so many cats, it’s not a question of whether Cole can rhyme — he does that with the best of them, and flows well on every song on the album. It’s whether he can construct a great record. Conceptually and thematically, Sideline Story is cool and cohesive. He raps about relatable everyman topics: insecurities, imperfections, ambitions, turbulent relationships, dualities of life, etc. But as showcased by the struggles of Who Dat and Work It Out, making a commercially-appealing song is not his forte — at all. The two songs, lead singles 1A and 1B, ended up being bonus tracks. That’s pretty damn telling. I’ll say it again for effect: neither one of the lead singles made the final album. Not shockingly, both songs are produced by Cole.
So it seems as though his biggest road-block might just be himself. It’s the production. I don’t know what his creative process is, or how he goes about producing songs, if he takes input from others or not, but he should. The beats are cool, that’s it. The Kanye comparison is inevitable because of the rapper-producer me-against-the-world thing, but let’s be real — it’s not even close. Cole is actually a better rapper and lyricist than Kanye may ever be, but production-wise, the story reads vice-versa. Young Kanye was cookin’ up classics for Hov, Scarface, Alicia Keys, Ludacris, Beanie Sigel and Freeway before he made his own rapping debut.
Honestly, now: who has J. Cole produced for other than Kendrick Lamar? To his credit, “HiiiPower” is crazy. It’s also arguably the best beat he’s ever made — at least that I’ve heard. It’s cool that he makes his own beats. That’s part of his MO. But that doesn’t mean the shit is crack (it’s taken some time for me to realize this myself.) His snares slap; they’re sharp. But the bass lines, by and large, are boring as hell. I mean, damn…
I hear him, but I don’t feel him. It’s not because of his rapping necessarily, but the music, the production. “Sideline Story” is a perfect example. Same drums as the rest of the album, but the bass moves the song. You can actually feel it. Many of the other tracks, while solid — even stellar, at times — lack that.
It’s not ironic, then, that the two most viable radio singles are those produced by other parties. Brian Kidd, a former Timbaland affiliate, handles “Can’t Get Enough,” and L&X are responsible for “In The Morning.”
Clearly, some other marketing balls have been dropped, most notably the album cover itself. After purchasing the album on iTunes, I finally took a critical look at the cover. It’s so plain. Nothing about the cover intrigues one to delve further, unless you already know who J. Cole is. To make matters worse, his name, and the album title, are buried in the bottom right corner. How careless is that? It sounds picky, but there’s serious research (and money) that goes into understanding and analyzing reading patterns and other subtle, but crucial human tendencies. We read, — or scan — more or less, in a “Z” pattern…
I’m not here to ruin his moment, though. Cole World: The Sideline Story is pretty good and J. Cole is without question a damn good rapper. The features — Trey, Jay, Drake and Missy — are on point, too. (He’s the only cat outchea with Missy Elliot on their record, gotta give him that!) But I think with better, more varied production and producers, it could have been improved. I understand that he may not be concerned with mainstream, commercial success. I don’t have a problem with that at all. Even so, with a higher-grade canvas, his message could be better conveyed, regardless of who the audience is.