(Today's Reader Review is the long-promised (I think, I've kind of lost track) forum for J. Cole's Roc Nation debut, Cole World: The Sideline Story, that you two have been waiting before. Just in time for Jermaine to celebrate that he actually sold over five hundred thousand copies of his first album, which is impressive in this day and age. It's just pure coincidence that it appears on Roc Nation president Jay-Z's birthday. Dag Diligent handles the actual review: leave your thoughts for him below.)
Let's start this J. Cole review by not actually talking about J. Cole. Instead, let's talk about his mentor Jay-Z. We all know that Mr. Hova co-founded Roc-A-Fella Records, then was elected president of Def Jam (or something like that), then used his high office to completely take over Roc-A-Fella, turning it into a label-owned company, which caused all kinds of infighting, and then left Def Jam (dropped the label) and started another label, this time the inventively named Roc Nation. Soon after that, he signed his first artist, North Carolina native and mixtaper J. Cole.
Jay-Z isn't exactly known for supporting the talent he acquires, so it was surprising to see Cole dig his way out of obscurity with a few very strong mixtapes. They were so strong, in fact, that he was quickly labeled a potential hip hop savior, a label that can only lead to disappointment. However, he still earned me as a fan (and I hate everything): he even got me excited about his debut album, Cole World: The Sideline Story. Why? Cole knows how to produce, he's got a ear for classic beats, he can spit (punchlines, story raps, conscious shit, pretty much anything), and he can write a chorus worth listening to. It's obvious why Jay signed him.
That being said, I was worried about this album. Very worried. Since his 2007 mixtape The Come Up and its 2009 follow-up The Warm Up, Cole has dropped single after single, hoping that one of them would stick and capture some megabuzz, but nothing ever worked. In fact, his recent singles have ranged from mediocre to terrible. I would even guess that his third mixtape, Friday Night Lights, was supposed to be this debut album but wasn't deemed good enough by his bosses at Roc Nation, possibly because no one song had blown up. As far as I know, Cole still hasn't had a hit record, and he probably needs one to make Hov happy. As for me? I don't really care, hit or not, I just want to hear some dope shit, and Cole has a record for dropping dope shit.
Let's back up a bit. Technically, Cole World: The Sideline Story is J. Cole's fourth album. He had his small-time debut that nobody heard (The Come Up), then his blow-up tape that got him mad attention and caught my ear (The Warm Up, which I still spin). After that came the competent follow-up, the label-backed mixtape Friday Night Lights, which had some classics, but was a step down in quality from his previous work. After that, was the road to his fourth release, the subject of today's review, which involved another mixtape of album throwaways (the Any Given Sunday series). So why am I telling you all of this? Think about other artists and their fourth albums. Busta Rhymes had Anarchy, Snoop had No Limit Top Dogg, Redman had Doc's Da Name 2000, and Mobb Deep had Murda Musik, which were all lousy. The fourth album is extremely difficult to crack, and this is Cole's fourth album.
Before going into this album, I have a strong suspicion that Cole’s best days are behind him, and we've hit that fourth album slump. Let's find out.
Cole does the same thing on all of his intros: he plays the piano and talks. Is this one better than his previous intros? Sure. Spitting improves rap album intros, that's a proven fact. Will it go onto my mp3 player? Probably. Will I get upset every time I hear it? Definitely. You'd think that this new generation of MCs would have learned the dangers of using intros.
2. DOLLAR AND A DREAM III
Nobody heard the first “Dollar and a Dream” (it was on The Come Up), and the second iteration was an average song off of The Warm Up. This sequel to a sequel is okay: it builds on the intro well enough, but it has a ridiculously polished sound, to the point that it's almost soap opera music. Even though I wasn't feeling it at first, it gets better as it plays out, especially after the change up. At some point Cole just rides the beat and the song quickly becomes the shit. Two quick points though: Cole sounds incredibly fake making threats ("I got that red dot waitin' / I'm wasting your whole regime"), and this line is awful: "You can't outsmart me / I let you feel like you the shit, but boy you can't out-fart me".
3. CAN'T GET ENOUGH (FEAT. TREY SONGZ)
This beat is on some terrible slick generic shit. Cole pulls his old trick of copying the flows of his idols, this time Jay-Z and his double-time flow. Cole should really avoid the double-time anything. (He should also avoid Trey Songz.) This song is a skip, but this line is amazing: "I'm from the 'Ville where they bang for the money / and carry four fives like change for a twenty".
4. LIGHTS PLEASE
I'm not happy to see this song on Cole World: The Sideline Story at all. I am surprised that Cole had the nerve to include any of his free mixtape songs on his full-length album (that people are actually paying for). I'm definitely not saying that this is a bad song: it's okay, the lyrics are incredible. But it's not his best work (even though this song is the one that got Jay-Z to sign him). My main issue is that I got this track for free three years ago and already wore it out, so this is a skip if I spin it on CD and lousy filler on a digital purchase. That being said, this is a decent song, and the beat is very slightly amped up from the original, but not amped up enough to make me happy.
This is the story of J. Cole receiving the news that he was signed. How sweet. I think it could have used more piano. Also, I've never heard the story of anyone else getting signed because it's a dumb thing to talk about on an album.
6. SIDELINE STORY
Finally a good beat: this almost sounds like an old Pharcyde beat, or maybe something Jay would have used on Reasonable Doubt if he had a massive budget at the time. As good as this is (and Cole kills it), it comes across like rap elevator music aimed at the adult contemporary market: smooth sounds you can chill to, but nothing too exciting or demanding. It does have one ridiculously dope line though: "Cole World, it couldn't be mo' clearer / The time is now it couldn't be mo' here-er". Nice.
7. MR. NICE WATCH (FEAT. JAY-Z)
This is the song that I've been dreading since I found out about Cole and Jay's working relationship. I suspected that someday Jay would get a guest spot, and I had hoped that he wouldn't say something like "you've been hired now do your thing" (which, unfortunately, he does actually say on here). The premise of this song is good: Cole's nice watch cost him a lot (time, energy, persistence, etc.). But the song itself is a disaster. Cole is a very grounded MC, acknowledging his humble roots and his struggle getting signed pretty frequently. All this humility makes it hard to accept his boasts, and this song is a lot of boasting over a terrible beat (was Cole doing his dubstep impression of Swizz Beats on an off day?). Next, the hook is unbelievably bad: "No more Mr. Nice Guy / Hello Mr. Nice Watch”. It's not clever, there's no double meaning, and it doesn't rise above the fray. The refrain is nice: "it cost me a lot". But that's the best part of the track. If this were my first exposure to J. Cole, I wouldn't give him another chance because his verses are average at best. Which leaves us with Jay-Z, who also comes average even with the beat stepping up during his verse. Granted, Jay spitting average is better than most rappers on their best day: Jay ties everything together by spitting exclusively about time, and he has some very clever lines ("ball half-time"), but it still isn't a good verse. What a waste.
8. COLE WORLD
Another terrible beat, this one sounding like it a The Blueprint 3 reject. Cole starts off by moaning about the lack of innovation in rap,and then he uses a stock "modern" beat that everybody's heard before. Now I have to say, out of this entire album so far, "Cole World” has the chorus that stuck with me, not because it's good but because it's odd: “I got a hundred fifty bitches in the club staring at me / How that feel? Very Happy!” So I'll give this song a pass for that. But it still sucks.
9. LOST ONES
Apparently Jay-Z and Kanye West blew everyone's collective mind with their track written for their future sons called "New Day" (from Watch The Throne). Well, Cole spits to his future kids in every other song in his catalog: this is one of those songs. In fact, this appears to be Cole's specialty: to be a Cole fan you have to appreciate his deep and depressing story raps. And as a Cole fan, I liked this.
10. IN THE MORNING (FEAT. DRAKE)
This is another track pulled from a previous mixtape, and once again it's not his best work, but this time it features a big name in Canadian rap. I don't care if a song features Drake or Inspectah Deck: if the song ain't dope, it won't be played. And this song is not dope: hell, it's barely tolerable. I can't imagine who would listen to this shit. Maybe it's a song for the ladies, because I can't imagine any dudes spinning it, but then again I can't imagine any ladies playing it either, except maybe for preteens who loooooooooove Drake. It is kind of nice to have a song I can skip during my first listen of an album, though.
11. NOBODY'S PERFECT (FEAT. MISSY ELLIOTT)
The first time I spun Cole World: The Sideline Story, I didn't look at the track list or guest spots because I wanted to be surprised. As soon as Cole started singing on this song, I thought, "Oh, he's mirroring Missy Elliott". Then, sure enough, Missy comes in. I would say that about half of Cole's style is copying the flows of other rappers: he's done it since the beginning, and I'm not a fan of it. I'm also never a fan of anyone copying Missy. Missy's okay and all, I just choose not to listen to her music, and this sounds like a Missy Elliott comeback song featuring J. Cole. I got the impression from an interview with Cole that he recorded this track and the song with Jay-Z in just a couple of days. I can tell because they both suck.
12. NEVER TOLD
Every aspect of this song is terrible.
13. RISE AND SHINE
Finally a song that sounds like it's from the same guy who made The Warm Up. Cole's taken the formula from his previously released single “Who Dat”and cooked it down to it's purest form. Sure, that previous sentence is nonsense, but this track is so nice I didn't have anything else to say.
14. GOD'S GIFT
Another banger, another epic beat. Two good tracks in a row! Fuck, it took long enough. Cole is mirroring Lil Wayne this time around, but it works well.
The goodness continues as the album comes to an end. This is a personal song that Cole performs for his father, and it's the MC at his best. The beat is just amazing: it reminds me of “Up North Trip” by Mobb Deep (which is a really good thing, kids), and it's one of those rare tracks where the lyrics and the beat blend perfectly as you ride out. Plus it's actually got skillful lyrics worth listening to, very nicely done.
(The next song is labeled as a bonus track.)
16. WORK OUT
I would call this Cole's first failed single for this album, which is why it appears at the very end. It came out way before the album dropped, and I think that everyone's reaction was surprise at the cracks forming in Cole's solid reputation. I mean, he recites lines from Paula Abdul's “Straight Up”; nobody wanted to hear that. Sure, the beat is weird in a good way, but fuck, it's not enough to save this. Skip. Straight up.
(The iTunes version of Cole World: The Sideline Story included the following two bonus tracks.)
17. WHO DAT
Another failed single for the album, only this one was from like two years ago and even had a video. I like this song a lot. The beat is insane, and Cole brings it lyrically, although he doesn't say much. It's a cool song and nothing more, which is why you'll never hear it anywhere but as a bonus track on this project.
18. DADDY'S LITTLE GIRL
And Cole World: The Sideline Story limps off into the sunset with a story rap in the vein of “Black Girl Lost” by Nas, except nowhere near as good as that song. I can't say that I don't like this: the beat is nice and the lyrics are on point (with the exception of the hook). But it's just not much of a song and definitely no way to end an album. Depressing.
THE LAST WORD: Well folks, I can safely say that J. Cole peaked with The Warm Up. Cole World: The Sideline Story is depressing both because it doesn't have the same high quality as his previous albums, and because Cole gets very deep with the subject matter and isn't hitting many happy notes. It's not that the album is all bad: the end is very strong, as strong as anything Cole has ever done, but the first half and every track featuring a guest star is a problem. Cole's last two mixtapes contained several songs that I would call classics, but I don't think that this album has any (except maybe “Breakdown”). That's not the way this was supposed to work. Cole is still on point lyrically, but the boy sounds like he wanted to make The Blueprint 4 instead of his own album. Oh well, on to the next one. One more thing: Chicago emcee Omen has appeared on all of J. Cole's mixtapes and has always ended up improving great songs. Where is he on your full album, Cole?
(Questions? Comments? Concerns? Leave your thoughts below.)