Boy, talk about pressure. J. Cole has been dubbed everything from "hip-hop's savior" to "overrated." No one doubted his wealth of lyrical depth, mind you. But questions about his commercial viability lingered: "Is he capable of making an album?" "Is he the real deal?" More on that later.
First, let's establish one thing. Cole World: The Sideline Story is not 2011's Illmatic and J. Cole is no hip-hop messiah (whatever that means these days). That's too much to demand of anyone.
What Cole World offers is a personal tale about graduating from the minors to the majors—a finely produced concept album about life as an underdog. Using his story as a canvas, Cole paints a vivid portrait of his journey toward the American Dream.
To invoke a hip-hop cliché, J. Cole is hungry. His hunger is born not of starvation but of a desire to silence his critics, gift his mom with nice things, and maybe someday feast with kings. He's the missing link between Drake and Kanye West: a real person with real emotions, not a stuffed t-shirt; the scion of rap royalty sans the hubris.
There's no better testament to Cole's hunger than "Dollar and a Dream III," which lunges the album head-first into a lyrical marathon. Halfway in, the beat slowly drops off behind Cole, exhausted. His voice sprints on. The music continues to drop off until there's nothing left but a piano and a lonely voice. "Stevie with his glasses off, 'cause I still don't see hope," Cole sighs. You can almost hear the sweat pouring from his temple.
With its final lap "Dollar and a Dream III" recedes into momentary silence. There's a few seconds, a heartbeat, and a dynamic switch from exhaustion to exhalation. The song is over but the next one hasn't begun. Cole gives us a small window to catch our breath, then it's right back to business. In comes the staccato blast of "Can't Get Enough," his Latin-flavored, Trey Songz-assisted single. Those two tracks back to back create an unholy union, and we almost feel dirty, like capping a big meal with dessert.
Things get serious on "Lost Ones." A drippy piano lulls its way to the surface and widens like a midnight skirmish. There's a frigid feel to it as if the track was cut in a meat locker. Cole presents a heart-wrenching picture from three different perspectives, raising his pitch to channel the female character. He approaches the song with a movie-grade commitment unfamiliar to his peers.
But The Sideline Story is far from a one-dimensional picture. The seductive simmer of "In the Morning," the anti-infidelity sentiment of "Never Told," the dubstep bass of "Mr. Nice Watch," and the powerfully evocative "Breakdown" all signal Cole's versatility.
One of the album's best moments is "Nobody's Perfect," aided by a rejuvenated Missy Elliott. It's exactly the kind of song Cole's critics will find irresistible: a lush, spine-tinglingly catchy ditty about the uncertainty of relationships. "Hey, Cole heatin' up like that left-over lasagna/Remember when I used to get stressed over Diwanna/Now a n-gga only textin' distress over Rihannas," Cole brags. Missy reassures him: "Nobody's perfect, but you're perfect for me."
Another highlight is the chest-thumping "God's Gift," where Cole constantly spins spiderwebs of syllables until it's impossible to identify the patterns.
No matter where you land, Cole World is an unmistakable sound. It's instantly recognizable-delicious loops, itchy drums, raw emotion oozing from every note. It stops you dead in your tracks and leaves you frozen like a stunned doe in headlights. Pulsing. Sparkling. Slightly pissed.
It's not perfect: the interludes add dead weight and there are songs that could've benefited from the burnished touch of veteran producers. But none of those minor complaints can obscure the fact that Cole World is the most compelling major rap debut since Lupe Fiasco's Food & Liquor.
In its first-rate lyricism and sprawling production, Cole World: The Sideline Story answers the question "is J.Cole the real deal?" with a resounding "yes." A star is born.Cole World - Best Songs