After spending the better part of the past two years at the top of the internet hype machine, J. Cole finally releases his official debut, almost entirely produced and rapped by Cole himself.
In terms of 2011's most anticipated hip-hop releases, I'm not sure there was a bigger consensus pick than J. Cole's Cole World. He had songs on previous mixtapes like "Lights Please" and "In the Morning" that appealed to the pop crowd, "Grown Simba" and the "Royal Flush" freestyle for hardcore heads, and stuff like "Losing My Balance" or the early version of "Lost Ones" that struck a chord with listeners who demanded a more conscious voice from their mainstream heroes. Oftentimes his music played all three lines deftly, and for the most part Cole World delivers on that much of Cole's potential.
It also provides us with a more energetic, experimental J. Cole in some respects, like on second single "Can't Get Enough", where he turns in a performance heavily indebted to Kanye West's most chauvinistic verses, and the most obvious pop attempts of his career to date, the mid-album near-train-wreck "Mr. Nice Watch" and the title track. These songs give us a side to J. Cole we might not have felt aware of before, but they're also the three tracks -- particularly the latter two, what with their dubstep affliction -- that feel most out of place on Cole World as a whole.
The rest of the album leans hard on crystal clear pianos dancing around some very cinematic production that feels very much in the now, if not another in a series of steps forward for arena-minded hip-hop music in the past two to three years. Most of this is handled by J. Cole himself, and anyone who's been listening to him since The Warm Up took over the internet in 2009 should be in awe of the ways he's grown as a producer in a short period of time. Granted, much of this album's promotional press over the summer involved No I.D.'s name and, while he's rarely directly attached to any tracks themselves, it's often hard to imagine he wasn't looking over Cole's shoulder for a majority of these beats.
But even the older tracks have been developed into bigger, better versions of themselves. I've always enjoyed "Lights Please", but the song that caught Jay-Z's ear pops out of the speakers much crisper now, and it really feels like one of those great singles that should have been. The song not only sounds great, it's concept perfectly encapsulates J. Cole's lyrical approach, delivering the story of a girl he'd like to explain to and solve all of the world's problems with, but for some reason all she wants to do is have sex and all he wants to do is accept the offer.
The sexual conversation doesn't stop there, of course. The sound and delivery of Cole World makes it seem at first glance like an album for the fellas but there is a lot of empty pillow talk going on here. "Lost Ones" details a two-sided conversation -- always popular among hip-hop critics -- between a young man and woman about an unexpected pregnancy, debating the merits of abortion and child raising. "Nobody's Perfect" features a beautifully sung hook and chorus from Missy Elliott about the expectations men and women have for each other, while songs like "In the Morning" (which features a much thicker bassline and a Drake verse that seems more languid and cigarette-drenched than it did on Friday Night Lights) and "Lights Please" place Cole in an easier setting, where the women say yes with no consequences other than a well-cooked breakfast.
This is balanced off by tracks like the album-opening (and Kingdom Hearts II sampling) "Dollar and a Dream III", "Sideline Story" and "Rise and Shine", which delve more into Cole's life away from women, trying as hard as he can to put himself and his friends in financially secure positions. The last one in particular feels like a moment of vindication for Cole as he wraps himself in an amazingly massive beat worthy of some National Treasure montage and opens it with a sample from Jay-Z's Backstage DVD that seems to snicker in the face of former protégés like Beanie Sigel. "Sideline Story" is also a blatantly inspiring track, addressing southern east coast bias among other things over a truly beautiful beat that builds off a wonderful segue from the mostly throwaway "Interlude", a humorous skit about Cole's arrest for driving with expired plates the day he signed his deal with ROC Nation.
If it weren't for the two-fisted punch of "Mr. Nice Watch" and "Cole World" being placed where they are, Cole World would be a remarkably easy album to recline into and let wash over you. But these songs so dutifully struggle against all the sound that surrounds them it immediately pricks careful listeners' more critical eardrums. On repeat listens, one begins to notice that most of the tracks on this album feature the kind of lazy radio-bait rap that goes on during "Mr. Nice Watch" for a few lines at a time, like when Cole threatens rappers who think they're the shit but they couldn't even out fart him, which brings to mind Lil' Wayne's most cringe-worthy codeine hallucinations.
Almost as damning, the second half of the album, which reverts back to the light, contemplative sound of the first six tracks, just feels like more of the same in many respects, as Cole continues to straddle the various lines drawn among hip-hop listeners without finding much else to say. "Never Told" is a particularly tiring listen, thanks mostly to Cole's flow but also to it's hinging on man's inability to avoid cheating on women. Maybe I just can't relate with my extra faithful ass, but it's a boring song regardless.
This portion of the album really could have benefited from "Who Dat?", the album's lead single released last summer which, like so many other hip-hop leads these days, finds itself mysteriously absent from the album proper because the internet kids have worn out its welcome. Repetitiveness aside, though, Cole's debut album mostly delivers on all the promise he showed as a rapper coming up at St. John's University. His producer chops are the real star of the show, though. For whatever flaws listeners might be able to take away from Cole World, it's near impossible to argue it's not an easy or flagrantly enjoyable listen. Cole's flow is constantly on point and the production is frequently quite beautiful, making Cole World not quite the genre-defining release fans were anticipating but certainly a perfect transition for hip-hop from a scorching summer of bangers to the more introspective autumn.