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.

-Jeff Harvey


  • Chris B

    Hey Jeff I think that review was great. I personally think not enough weight is given to how much range he has, when people say he tries to be everything to everybody. I think he should be held to a high standard, but almost every track on the album is better than what 97.56% of artists are putting out these days. Anyways, I really enjoyed the review and have a good one.

    • KD06

      @ Chris B. Cole is better than 97% of what’s out here but in this era of hip hop that isn’t saying much. The album lacks cohesion and great production. Usually artist early work is some of there best. He may move units via the 106 & Park crowd but he’s losing support over here…

    • Charlotte

      completely agree, i loved every track off this album. kind of surprised “Can’t Get Enough” wasn’t mentioned in the review, its my favorite.. the video’s really cool too. check it out http://www.vevo.com/watch/j-cole/cant-get-enough-clean-version/USQX91101318?recSrc=artB&source=watch

    • @ KD06 @ Charlotte @ Chris B: I can’t agree more, especially coming from Roc Nation. Hova of all people should know how money it is to make an insane first album. Not to mention Hova’s most famous protege, Kanye spent FOUR YEARS on College Dropout. In the day of mixtapes and free music, when you ask for someone to pay for something you have to deliver (because otherwise they won’t.) As you all said I think J Cole is better than most hip-hop currently, but I think that he rushed his first album. Especially from someone who is trying to be the next great rapper/producer, you can’t do that. Having listened to Cole’s mixtapes there is some sample overlap, so I know that some of the beats were stirring around in his mind for quite some time, and those are the better tacks on the album. I think he needs to re-evaluate his position as rapper/producer, especially if he is going to be compared to the likes of Kanye West for the simple reason they are both Hova proteges. It seems like Cole was trying to release the album fairly quickly and it shows. I think with his Roc Nation connects he should be more open to tracks from other producers, especially because the best track on the album wasn’t produced by him (can’t get enough). If he wants to be a great rapper/producer he simply can’t release the album that quickly.

  • I loved your review. And your site is wonderful! So much great content.
    I have live footage from J.Cole’s recent show in Baltimore.

    Follow the link below: http://www.tonedeflounge.com/2011/10/jcole-live-at-baltimore-soundstage-1020.html

  • Hassan

    Jeff, I thought your review had lots of validity. Yet, I think what makes J Cole’s music appealing is that he’s versatile, from his wordplay to his subject matter. Instead of being a “one-trick pony” and rapping about money, cash & hoes (pun intended), I applaud him for discussing topics that float under the radar (the two-sided argument of abortion, false masculinity through the concept of cheating, etc). Yet, I do feel some songs from his mixtape could’ve replaced some on his album (Workout especially) & his niche might just be the mainstream “lyrical storyteller”, which is missing in Hip Hop.

  • FrankWhite3

    I think the review doesn’t do the album justice. I think the complex descriptions you give about the different topics he addresses denotes the strength of the album and his ability as a rapper. The essence of hip-hop is one’s ability to negotiate the party and the political/social. Cole does this with style. I do believe the production was a bit wanting at times and he should have shopped out production duties to others more often, however, he is not Jay-Z and I think he definitely defines who he is on the album. He is the chipped shoulder underdog, flossing front-runner, introspective romantic, and unrepentant poon-hound. As Walt Whitman might say “he is large, he contains multitudes”. I think this was an awesome debut worthy of about an 85, especially given the high ratings other music on this site receives. Everyone will not be as direct as Phonte or musically edgy as 9th wonder. But Cole’s album definitely has a coherence, musically and thematically, that few other artists have exhibited lately or in the past. This dude is a storyteller and a future bright spot in Hip-Hop, the unrecognized Common, black thought, Jay-Z of this era. This is a Reasonable Doubt in the waiting.

  • matt

    Nice review but this album was amazing, much better than those that were given 90+. I strongly disagree with a 77 rating, I can understand this rating if you only listened to songs off the album that made the charts but if you listen to the entire album there should be no less than a 97 rating. With songs such as Mr. Nice Watch, Work Out, God’s Gift, and Daddy’s Little Girl may take a few listens to get used to but joints like Rise and Shine, Breakdown, Never Told, Can’t Get Enough, The Sideline Story, etc. are instant classics. Even the intro and the interlude was perfectly executed. To me Cole World: The Sideline Story is album of the year and J.Cole is the greatest mc of all time but hey everyone has there own opinion,