I can’t express how excited I am to finally be able to sit down and write this review. After listening to Cole World: The Sideline Story essentially 24 hours a day for the past week thanks to an unfortunate (or fortunate, depending on how you look at it) leak, I couldn’t have waited much longer to record my thoughts about one of the highest profile releases of the year. I thought about writing up a short review this past weekend, but I really wanted to look at it as if the album hadn’t leaked, so I decided I would publish my official album review the day of the release – September 27th, 2011 – today.
Cole World is a masterpiece. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect, but for one of the most highly anticipated debut albums from any hip-hop artist in the past decade, it’s pretty damn close. I’ve talked with a lot of people about this album, and no matter how each person felt about the collection of music as a whole, everyone seemed to agree on one thing: Cole delivered under pressure.
For the past two or three years, hip-hop fans have been touting J. Cole as the heir to the throne, reciting popular catch phrases like, “Make way for the chosen one” and coming up with endless forms of wordplay off the “Cole World” tagline. Everything from The Warm Up to Friday Night Lights to the Any Given Sunday collections displayed J. Cole’s incredible lyrical ability, and his material has consistently been some of the best free music of all time. With a world tour announced and a couple of catchy singles, “Work Out” and “Can’t Get Enough” hitting airwaves this summer, Cole’s buzz leading up to the release of his debut album was at a higher level than most artists attain throughout an entire career.
I think that so much hype has surrounded the release of Cole World because my generation in particular has been desperately searching for the hip-hop album of our time. What I mean is that I was born in 1990. I’m one of the hundreds of thousands of kids that missed the Pac and Biggie era, grew up through the latter half of the Nas and Jay era, and have yet to have had a true “classic” album released in our teenage years that serves to define our adolescence and transition into adulthood. No Illmatic, no Reasonable Doubt, no The Chronic, no All Eyez On Me, no Ready To Die… The closest album to a “classic” for all of us that turned 16 sometime around the mid-2000s might well be The College Dropout, but even that may be considered a little before our time depending how you look at it, as most of us didn’t understand its genius until years later.
Cole World has the potential to be the debut album from an artist that we, in our late 20s and early 30s, may eventually look back on and say we “grew up with Cole World,” just as so many old hip-hop heads tell us the same about Illmatic. Our generation has become accustomed to finding a way to download everything for free, but I pre-ordered Cole World a month ahead of time, and most of my friends did too. The Best Buy near my apartment in Boston sold out of hard copies. People, teenagers, kids, are purchasing this album.
So, did J. Cole really deliver? Is Cole World all it’s cracked up to be, or everything it could have been?
For this review, I wanted to be able to provide my own opinions and reactions to the album, but I also wanted to call upon numerous other sources to share their feelings as well. The greatest thing about music is that it unifies people. It’s the universal language everyone speaks, and it allows and almost beacons for people to connect whether in some way or another. I’ve never seen my Facebook newsfeed taken over by one hip-hop artist’s name in such a positive light for such a long duration of time before J. Cole’s in the past week or so. If my theory is correct and Cole World may one day be dubbed the album that defined our generation, I find it essential to share not just what I think about it, but to share the thoughts of my peers as well.
I’m going to do a quick track-by-track review and sum up my thoughts in a handful of sentences, then I’m going to pan the spotlight over to the reactions of a dozen others from the social media generation – fittingly, in 140 characters or less.
For each track, you’ll find a link to the Rap Genius lyrics with song meanings explained as thoroughly as you’ll anywhere. I highly recommend you take a listen through Cole World while following along with the RG lyrics and explanations. I guarantee it will give the album an incredibly wholesome feel, and you’ll gain a level of insight into Cole’s words you thought not possible.
1. Intro – Cole reminiscing about the day he got signed by Hov and fantasizing about what he’s got waiting for him over a soft piano key beat. Solid intro. “When my story’s told, let it be known I’d never fold, I took my time, I gave my soul, I watched you shine but me I glowed, so I’m comin for what I’m owed…” (Intro – RG Lyrics)
2. Dollar and a Dream III – This song is beautiful. I don’t throw that word around a lot when it comes to hip-hop songs, but “Dollar and a Dream III” is a work of art in and of itself. A fitting sequel to its predecessor off The Warm Up, the first verse off this track is Jermaine at his absolute best. He’s tapping into some heavy emotions and tugging at the heartstrings of everyone who hears this song. Every time the climax of the beat kicks in when he breaks into “Shit, life at the bottom, nobody but God got’em…” I get the chills, for real. This is one of the 15 (of 18 total) tracks J. Cole either produced himself or helped produce (alongside The University, Canei Finch, and Ron Gilmore in this instance), so that just gives us another reason to sit back and admire what he was able to do with this four minute, 43 second segment. Cole’s determination and drive comes through clearer than ever in this song, as he questions himself early on and closes the track with a guarantee that he won’t ever fail those prayin’ on him. (Dollar and a Dream III – RG Lyrics)
3. Can’t Get Enough (feat. Trey Songz) – One of the six tracks we had all heard prior to the leak and the release. “Can’t Get Enough” was the second official single to drop this summer after “Work Out,” and it was received fairly well early on. While it isn’t one of my standout tracks, it still has a nice feel to it and flows well within the tracklist. The sort of island-like feel of the beat was supplemented with the music video that debuted on MTV two weeks back. If this follows the pattern of Lupe’s Trey Songz featured track, “Can’t Get Enough” is going to receive a good amount of radio play in the coming months. (Can’t Get Enough – RG Lyrics)
4. Lights Please – In all efforts to sound like a 14-year-old girl, this one’s an oldie but a goodie. “Lights Please” has been around for a few years, and a lot of people were disappointed to see it on the Cole World tracklist for that fact, but regardless it’s one of Cole’s best songs of all time, in my opinion, so I just can’t bring myself to hate that it’s on here. Like one of my boys said, this is one of the tracks that might be holding CW back from achieving “classic” status simply because it’s old material, but at the same time I understand why J. Cole might’ve wanted to include it. It brings the OG fans back to a time when we were part of a select few bumping Cole, and it serves as a reminder as to where he came from. Plus, it fits conceptually, and those six closing lines will just never, ever get old. (Lights Plesae – RG Lyrics)
5. Interlude – A continuation of the intro. J. Cole picks up the story about getting signed where he left off in the intro, and provides a bit of comic relief by sharingthe irony of getting pulled over and dragged to jail for driving illegally minutes after the news that he was signed. “That was the easiest night in jail a nigga could ever do son..”
6. Sideline Story – Jermaine gets back to spitting real hard on this one, providing a real ass view of everything it takes to get off the sidelines and into the game – the struggles, the falters, and eventually the dream realized. “Tired of comin’ up short, fuck abbreviated, want my whole name spelled out, my own pain spilled out, no pain, no gain, I blow brains, Cobain..” Not my favorite beat on the album, but I think it’s effective nonetheless because it drives the focus to the lyrics. (Sideline Story – RG Lyrics)
7. Mr. Nice Watch - I’ve been really up and down on this song since it first released a couple days prior to the album leak, but I’ve come to the conclusion that “Mr. Nice Watch” is probably the weakest track on an otherwise very strong album. It just misses for me. I was extremely disappointed when I first heard it because I was expecting something deeper and more lyrical for the Jay-Z feature, but then I started vibing to the dubstep-influenced beat and the track grew on me a bit. The more I listen to it, though, the more I realize that J. Cole just does not bring anything to the table lyrically on this one. I’m not a fan of the chorus, and contrary to what a lot of people are saying, I’m not blown away by Jay’s verse at all. There’s definitely some neat wordplay, particularly the opening Tebow lines, but I’m just not feeling this track as a whole. It’s not bad, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t fit as cleanly within the album as the other 17 tracks do. I will say that I went to the gym today, plugged my ipod into the speaker system, and balled out for the entirety of Cole World and I ended up going extra hard during this song. We’re gonna be hearing “Mr. Nice Watch” in stadiums across America for sure. (Mr. Nice Watch – RG Lyrics)
8. Cole World – Ah, the Sallie Mae reference in the first verse bringing back “Blow Up” off Friday Night Lights gets me every time. That’s kind of irrelevant I guess. I don’t know why I shared that. Anyway, the title track features Cole spitting hard and having fun with some pretty cool wordplay, but the song is nothing special to me. Still, I’m a big fan of the beat, which was one of the 15 produced by J. Cole himself, and I think it’ll be a banger at clubs and parties. I can’t wait to see it performed live in three weeks. (Cole World – RG Lyrics)
9. In the Morning (feat. Drake) – Another ancient track by today’s standards, and another one that has a lot of people confused as to why it made the final Cole World tracklist. I don’t understand it myself, but at the same time I never skip over it. I’ve always liked this song, and the video starring Norwegian model and actress Alexandra Joner only makes it better. (In The Morning – RG Lyrics)
10. Lost Ones – This was the track that leaked back in the summer and apparently had J. Cole pretty upset. I sort of wish I hadn’t listened to it so I could’ve been surprised when the album came out, but c’mon it’s not like I wasn’t going to. The beat was changed up a little bit for the final version – for the record, I like the original version with less going on better, but I’m not complaining. This song is absolutely brilliant, and if there’s gonna be a cut off Cole World that has people talking, not just for the next couple of weeks but for years to come, it’s “Lost Ones.” The concept is incredible – looking at the prospects of abortion through the eyes of both parties. It’s such a touchy subject, but Jermaine approaches it flawlessly. This is just one of those songs you have to literally sit back, close your eyes, and watch it all come to life. Storytelling in rap does not get any better than this. “But what about yo’ seed nigga…” (Lost Ones – RG Lyrics)
11. Nobody’s Perfect (feat. Missy Elliott) – This is where the album really starts to pick up for me. Cole World goes from being solid in the first eight or nine tracks to being nearly flawless from “Lost Ones” and “Nobody’s Perfect” on. Despite Cole’s claim that “nobody’s perfect,” he and Missy come pretty close on this one. His own beat is great, and the kind of staggered rapping for the song’s opening 30 seconds works brilliantly. I just love the line “I’ve stepped over pirhannas, death over disahonor, they killin’ niggas for J’s that’s death over designer..” Cole’s flow is perfect in the second verse, and no one can even attempt to deny that the last line of the song is not as real as it gets. Missy’s chorus is real nice. All in all a great collaboration. (Nobody’s Perfect – RG Lyrics)
12. Never Told – This track has a unique feel to it, and Cole touches on the responsibilities of growing up and understanding women and relationships. He admits that maybe his lack of knowledge could be a result of the absence of a father growing up. This is another sit back and think type track. There’s a lot to contemplate with lines like “The objective, tryna score, you got a wife, you find a whore, you fuck her fast, she find her drawers, pull up her pants, you find the door, you drive her home, she mop you off, you bust again, and drop her off, then repeat like an episode; why we cheat, I’ll never know…” and the closing line “cause Cupid aims and throw the darts, there go the sparks and broken hearts, who wanna build Noah’s Ark just to have shit torn apart?” (Never Told – RG Lyrics)
13. Rise And Shine – The Jay-Z interview excerpt at the beginning sets the tone for this song (see the Rap Genius explanation), and Cole quickly breaks into a verse about his come-up and setting himself apart from the competition. The second verse goes hard as fuck with crazy lines throughout, and the third verse contains a Shane Battier diss! Nice! Can’t forget Cole is a diehard UNC fan, so even a Duke fan has to understand where he’s coming from. The snare in the beat works real nice, and possibly my favorite line sets up a strong close to the track: “No criminal record but I’m makin criminal records, isn’t it ironic? Isn’t it iconic? (Rise and Shine – RG Lyrics)
14. God’s Gift – I remember seeing a pretty shitty quality video of a live performance of this in Toronto about a month ago, and right then I couldn’t wait any longer to hear the CDQ version. I was find out that the song actually did live up to my initial expectations. At one point, J. Cole was trying to get Jay-Z on this track, which would have been craazzzy, but Jermaine shouldered the weight just fine. “God’s Gift” really showcases Cole’s producing and songmaking talent in addition to his lyrical ability. (God’s Gift – RG Lyrics)
15. Breakdown – Like “Dollar and a Dream III,” I’m going to go as far as to say this song is beautiful. “Breakdown” is another real, down to earth, emotional track about J. Cole’s experience growing up without a father and wanting one in his life more than anything. It’s easy to forget that there are bumps along the road for everyone, even those who have risen to fame quicker than the rest of us. Cole’s story on this track develops into a girl, potentially his own, growing up without a father and how not having such a figure in her life leads her down an unfortunate path. In a way, Cole is making a promise to himself to always be there for a child he may have one day, even though (and especially because) his pops wasn’t there for him. (Breakdown – RG Lyrics)
16. Work Out – Here’s the first single off Cole World that everyone knows well by now. A lot of people hate it… I love it. “Work Out” really grew on me, and three months later I still listen to it anytime it pops up on my shuffle. I feel like people might start feeling it a little more now that the album is out, but who knows. Either way I’ll keep bumping it. (Work Out – RG Lyrics)
17. Who Dat – I remember a little under two years ago when people would ask me who J. Cole was, I would say, “You know, “Who Dat” and “Higher”?” Those were the two tracks that people could always identify with, so if you haven’t heard this song already then you’re definitely a brand new J. Cole fan. I was never a huge fan of the track, but like seemingly every Cole track, it’s hard to find anything tangibly wrong with it. I can still listen to it any time of the day. (Who Dat – RG Lyrics)
18. Daddy’s Little Girl – In all seriousness, I could write a whole review on the concept behind this song. I got into it a little bit with my review on the official video for “Daddy’s Little Girl,” but this song’s subject is one I just have a lot of strong feelings about. The track basically talks about the shame that is young girls growing up too fast in today’s world. Daddy’s little girl becomes some dude’s “bitch” or “hoe,” and I think it’s something we fear every day when it comes to our daughters or our sisters. Young females face far too much pressure growing up, and that combined with a shortage of self-confidence leads to the sense that it is men that they need to impress and please before taking pride in themselves and growing up at a comfortable pace. But getting back on track, I give J. Cole a lot of credit for tackling this subject, and I think the song is fantastic. His self-produced beat is one of the best on the album, and the song is concise and to the point. It tells a very visual and thought-provoking story without being too overbearing. (Daddy’s Little Girl – RG Lyrics)
Score: I’m giving this album a 4.5 out of 5. For a debut album, especially considering that the entire world seemingly has its eyes on J. Cole, Cole World: The Sideline Story is extremely impressive. Is it the album that will define our generation? I don’t know if I’d go that far. I think there are a handful of tracks, specifically “Lost Ones,” “Daddy’s Little Girl,” and “Breakdown” that may one day be considered classics as they tackle issues far too prevalent in the society we’ve grown up in, but the album as a whole is not as focused as some of the standout tracks are. That said, the level of variation in song type and lyrics is fantastic, and the production is top-notch. It was almost weird listening to J. Cole rap over such clean, complex beats and samples as opposed to his more raw mixtapes, but it was still the same artist we’ve all come to know and love. I think this will eventually go down as one of the strongest debuts – right up there with Kanye’s College Dropout, Jay’s Reasonable Doubt, and Nas’s Illmatic, and at this point Cole World is in a very close race with Kendrick Lamar’s Section.80 for my album of the year.
Now, I want to get into some other reactions to Cole World. I wanted to do something unique and get other people involved with this review, so I put up a status on Facebook and a tweet on Twitter asking for some help:
I asked everyone to share their opinions/instant reactions/emotions/feelings…anything Cole World related, all in 140 characters or less. I wanted to capture how people felt about what may be the hip-hop album of the year through fast-paced, limited space posts on Twitter. I figured that would give the essence of how an album released in 2011 may have differed from an album like The Blueprint released 10 years ago in terms of discernible critical reception from the public.
Let’s look at some responses: