[19 October 2011]
“But, you’ll never play me like LeBron vs. Jordan/Twenty years, wonder who they gone say was more important/Both changed the game, came through and made a lane/ Who’s to say that who’s greater, all we know, they ain’t the same.”
—J. Cole Sideline Story
J. Cole makes the obvious reference of him being LeBron James and Jay-Z, Michael Jordan. He could be considered one of the more talented MC’s to come in the game since Nas broke in 1994 with Illmatic. Although blessed with all the intangibles of a true MC, the Roc Nation rapper and Jay-Z protégé has literally sat on the sidelines of hip-hop for four years since he released his debut mixtape while the likes of Kanye West, Drake, and Lil Wayne etc have dominated the charts. In the meantime he’s dropped critically acclaimed mixtapes (The Come Up, The Warm Up, Friday Night Lights) and stayed busy touring. Now it’s time for the highly touted MC to make his major label debut with the album titled Cole World: The Sideline Story and show the world of hip-hop he belongs the field.
The album only has four guest stars (Missy Elliott, Drake, Trey Songz, Jay-Z), surprising in this day and age of star-studded hip-hop albums, but he picked from the very best. Two songs featured on his previous mixtapes are also present here (“In the Morning” and “Lights Please”) with him and Drake crooning to the ladies on “In the Morning”, while “Lights Please” has Cole tell about the ill-thinking of women who just wants him to “unzip her jeans.” Those songs, like his tapes before, show the lyrical talent, hunger, and intellect that has become his trademark, as well as his production (15 of the 18 tracks were produced by him). Standout songs of this demeanor “Dollar and a Dream”, “Lost Ones”, and “Rise and Shine” are like the many songs on his mix tapes and leaks that helped him become a rising star and seen as rap’s wordsmith according to many.
The album’s production is based off a lot of piano-themed, drums/string heavy music. Not too much of a mainstream sound, which is reminiscent of his mix tapes. For his first album, the sounds are solid and he will only continue to grow as a producer. All in all, the record overall is very good. Lyrics are up to par. The aggression, passion, and easy story telling is on each track. And there isn’t necessarily a song you may consider filler. Not too many songs of his at that.
The only issue that may come to concern is Cole’s not-yet ability to progress as a songwriter. Not lyrics-wise obviously, but more as in the ability of crafting songs that could be considered popular and aiming for the charts. Jay-Z began mastering songwriting on his fourth album Vol. 3…Life and Times of S. Carter and T.I. became a better creator of songs on his third LP, King. The release of “Workout” over the summer seems to note that theme of him needing to start developing more as a crafty song architect as the release didn’t show the lyrical Cole we all have witnessed. It also seems that Cole’s “Struggle Rap” is starting to become a recurrent theme in his music. While listening to the album, I just had to think what was he going to do on his next album? Songs such as “Breakdown”, which talks of giving up, and “Sideline Story”, which discusses him finally making it are, although good, recycled themes in Cole’s music. The actual standout track “Can’t Get Enough” with Trey Songz is perhaps one of the better written radio songs to come out in recent memory. But the other two songs for the radio, “Mr. Nice Watch” and “Workout”, both fall short in the mainstream category, which is why his songwriting ability to make hits consistency must improve.
Despite the flaws, Cole shapes up his debut to be a well-rounded effort. With someone as lyrically gifted as Cole, progression is going to be the only way up for him. A few flaws are to be expected from this record, despite many people claiming it to be a classic already. His lyrics are already there. And as soon as he puts it all together—production, lyrics, songwriting ability, and charisma—you could possibly see a new king of hip-hop in the near future.