Hip-Hop is forever changing, the sounds, lyrics, persona’s and especially the listeners, and because of that, it is hard to find substance in a genre that is always shifting. I definitely fall into this category, because I am always looking to find the “next dope rapper” and I often become very critical of anything remotely mainstream. However, I consider myself a very open and mixed listener of all types of artists in the genre we love. Having said that, I want to state that I am a very BIG fan of J. Cole and his whole movement. I latched on to his who style and music back in 09’ when I first heard Grown Simba on this very site. I saw him go from a forum joke (back when DS forums were up), to arguably the most anticipated artist the genre has produced since … shit I don’t even remember. Previous artists came out of nowhere and just took over, while Cole grew up right in front of our eyes. For some he represented more than just a rapper, his whole back-story resonated with the struggling college student as well as the dreamers just holding onto that last inch of hope. The young Carolina native has traveled an extremely long road, and although he has not reached the end of his journey, it is a very big checkpoint in his career. Being the first signee to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, Cole World: The Sideline Story is the debut album from J. Cole and comes with enormous expectations. This album is years in the making and the world is waiting to see whether Jermaine gets a chance to take game winning shot at the buzzer or if he puts up a brick just as the horn sounds.
Production – 9
On the first listen I realized that the amount of growth J. Cole made production wise on this album is extremely amazing. The piano keys, guitar cords, snares and horns are just incredible throughout the entire project. The beats are especially impressive considering there are only four additional producers on the album, which means 11 of the 15 tracks were entirely handled by the up and coming Carolina native. It is important to keep this in mind when dissecting the album; the mixture of up tempo beats and relaxing sounds mesh so well together. Now it is obvious that many fans have gravitated to Cole because of his thought provoking lyrics, however the sounds of this album gives the listener another reason to cherish his skills. Unlike many of the songs and albums that have come out this year, CW:TSS is multidimensional in terms of its sound. One minute you’re vibin’ out to an introspective soothing piano sequence and the next you are thrown into a futuristic euphoric haze. Now, it could be just me but I need to have variety and different sounds throughout a project in order to keep me coming back for more. Musically it sounds fluid; several of the samples are chopped and flipped so incredibly well that old fans will hear similar drums and kicks that give off that traditional Cole feel. The maturation and growth make the album great, it is easy to see that Jermaine has studied and learned a lot since his “Come Up” days as a producer. Personally, I have a soft spot for hip-hop tracks engulfed with piano keys and the large part of the album satisfies my ear drums wonderfully.
*Side Note – I know that rappers these days go and get big name producers to craft an infectious beat, and Cole has been adamant about not wanting to do that; However, I think it slightly takes away from his greatness. He knows his style and is comfortable on his own beat which is understandable, I just wish he would grab a couple of those big names and just destroy the production like I know he can. (I.e. – Just Blaze x J. Cole, damn just imagine)
Lyrics – 8.5
Now I struggled over this category a lot, simply because I know Cole is mainly known for his lyrical integrity. Now before I get trashed because of the score, I think the lyrics are extremely well crafted and are head and shoulders above most rappers out. Having said that, I felt he did a phenomenal job catering to his old fans and their desire for that Food for Thought while also making sure to Dumb it down enough for the mainstream. As previously mentioned, the beats on this album are so good that you often find yourself entranced having to rewind the track to truly understand what is being said. Throughout the album Cole gives off a very rough and hungry feel constantly boasting about how superior he is than the competition, his life’s struggles and his loved ones. Right from the start Cole kicks bars like, “They tried to call me underground, I spun around like, you wish, Homie my backpack Louis, now watch just how I do this, I got the nerds rappin’ hard shit, dummies rappin’ smart shit, Mozart meets Humphrey Bogart with this from the heart shit” in order to reassure fans and critics alike that his style cannot be boxed into one category. He continues the lyrical trashing with “In a game full of liars it turns out that I’m the truth, Some say that rap’s alive, it turns out that I’m the proof, Cause the ones y’all thought would save the day can’t even tie my boots, The ones y’all thought could hang with me can’t even tie my noose, Let these words be my bullets ni**a, I don’t rhyme I shoot, bang”. Here the listener is reminded that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword. However the most impressive part of J. Cole’s lyrical game is his story telling ability. Cole’s verses throughout the album play out like small stories that leave the listener either smiling due to the wittiness or frowning at the sheer emotional weight. There aren’t many rappers out today that can do this; sadly skills like Cole’s are a lost art in hip-hop and fortunately for listeners, Cole seems to thrive in this aspect. I felt personally connected to a few verses which made me reminisce about being a young kid that initially fell in love with hip-hop.
* Side Note – Even with the amount of positives throughout the album, there are a handful of generic lines about farting and pasta (i.e. Spaghetti, lasagna) which show a slight let up by the young rapper. I also wish that a few verses were entirely improved or placed on different tracks; the entire second verse on “God’s Gift” just didn’t fit the song for me. I wish Jay Z would have just man’d up and spit his 16 on there as previously planned. The content is diverse but there are a lot of repetitive themes and I can see how for some listeners, the album can get stagnate after a few tracks.
Songs – 8.5
I expected more of the typical “struggle” rap that J. Cole is known for but for whatever reason I didn’t get it. The obvious first knock on the album is having 2 or 3 songs that are ridiculously old and have already been featured on mixtapes. I honestly have no problem with a song like “Lights Please” being on Cole’s debut, because of the back story and the quality of the song. However the Drake assisted “In the Morning” has been played to death by most Cole fans since an early version of this song was out in 08-09. When I first ran through the CD I obviously skipped those two songs and even bypassed the lead single, “Work Out” which has the now famous sample of Paula Abdul and Kanye West respectfully. After all that, I was able to dive into the remaining songs and be thoroughly satisfied. Songs like, “Dollar and a Dream III” and arguably the best song on the album, “Rise and Shine“, depict Cole just as old fans know him, clever, witty, insightful and displaying his true lyrical capacity. Other songs such as “Cole World” and “Mr. Nice Watch” featuring the boss himself, Jay-z, are the up tempo “bangers” many fans have been dying to hear from Cole. However for me there are two standout tracks which spoke to me more as a 24 year old Male then just a hip-hop listener. On “Lost Ones,” Simba tells the story of a couple struggling to deal with and unexpected pregnancy and their disagreeing points of views. The last verse is a third person perspective in which the somewhat unbiased party reminds the listener there are two sides to consider in such a delicate topic. The second song “Breakdown“ which is Cole’s favorite track off the album has a very “Hold Me Down” feel to it. Cole raps about his broken relationship with his father and his personal struggles in a way that is just remarkable. The radio ready songs are without question the Trey Songz assisted, “Can’t Get Enough“ which is the second single and “Nobody’s Perfect” which features Missy Elliot. The latter of the two has a very old school vibe seeing how the hook was specifically written for Missy by Cole himself. Overall, the album has variety of songs with an assortment of topics and aspects.
* Side Note – I didn’t really like “Never Told,” it doesn’t really work for me and I wish it was nowhere on the album. Also, I hate to say it but I do wish Cole would have saved songs like “2face” and “Farewell” for the album. I know Cole had little say in which songs made the final cut and if he had it completely his way I’m sure the entire project would have been differently formatted and put together.
Conclusion – 8.7
Let me start by saying that J. Cole gave us an incredible album. He managed to stay true to his word and didn’t give into the watered down mainstream appeal. However, with ridiculous expectations it’s unrealistic in thinking he was ever going to meet them. Even with an amazing album, there is room for improvement, and that’s just being honest. The production on the project is just amazing, the lyrics, while great, could have been slightly better and with the exception of a song or two the variety of substance and content throughout the album was impeccable. His album brought the best of his mixtapes plus a sign of things to come. The listeners hear pain, happiness, triumph, defeat, heartbreak and most importantly passion in each song. Stories are told through the eyes of many, and listeners get the feel that the songs are about them. I myself feel the emotion behind many of the songs and topics addressed throughout the album and can’t help but be blown away. I cannot say whether Cole World: The Sideline Story is album of the year just yet, and I especially can’t say whether the album is a classic either since I haven’t had enough time to digest it. However, I will say that it is without a doubt one of the best debuts any artist has put out in sometime. With all the expectations brought on by being the first artist signed to Jay-z, and being labeled the savior or chosen one in a “dying” genre, J. Cole displayed that he welcomes all challenges and criticism. He is ready to ball, and has spent countless weeks, months, years even, practicing and honing his talents. Cole has finally made it off the bench, his hard work and determination has paid off. However, I get the feeling that playing the game he has dreamt about isn’t all that Cole wants to do…in his eyes, the game has only just begun.
Review By: Edgar Gomez For Defsounds.com