It’s easy to see what inspired rap’s reigning Renaissance man Jay-Z to take on J Cole as a protégé and the inaugural signee to his burgeoning Roc Nation label. Like his mogul mentor, Cole possesses the full arsenal of rap weaponry: an effortlessly intricate flow, clever word play, and an ability to adjust his talents to a variety of subject matters and song styles. Yet, the one component he lacks is perhaps the very element that enabled Hova to hold the throne even through his less inspired musical moments – an identity. As a result, Cole World – The Sideline Story plays more like an iTunes shuffle of generally enjoyable, if less than memorable hip-hop than the statement debut that many expected from the Roc’s heir apparent.
Is Cole the chip-shouldered underdog spitting with steel jawed intensity on the string laden “Dollar and a Dream III,” or the flossing frontrunner stunting with a double time flow and sing-song hook on the jittery “Mr. Nice Watch?” Is he the introspective romantic, carrying the compelling “Lights Please” with an insightful analysis of relationships, or the unrepentant poon-hound urging the ladies to “drop it down low to the floor” on “Workout?” Ultimately, it is hard not to feel as though the most accurate answer is “none of the above.” The true genius of Jay-Z’s adaptability comes in his capacity to tackle any track with any artist in any style without sacrificing his quentessential Jigga-ness. Cole seems to let the other elements of the track dictate not just how he rhymes, but who he is at a given moment.
To that end, J Cole the producer doesn’t do J Cole the MC any favors. Where not long ago he seemed inspired to lyrical ferocity over the jubilant bounce of Wale’s “Beautiful Bliss,” or pretty boy swag over the bass heavy neo-soul of Miguel’s “All I Want Is You,” too many of the self-produced tracks on Cole World fall into a similar mid-tempo malaise that seems to sap Cole’s delivery of much of the fervor that fueled his early mixtapes and guest appearances.
In music, as in life, trying to be all things to all people can be a drain, and J Cole might have been better served by focusing his energies on a more introspective, lyrically oriented niche for his debut, much like Jigga himself did with Reasonable Doubt. When Cole focuses his considerable rhyme skill on exploring issues of personal and social relevance on “Breakdown” and “Lost Ones,” he truly shines, proving that his story is compelling enough to get him off the sideline, and onto the playing field with the varsity.