Easily the most anticipated rap debut since Nicki Minaj’s Pink Friday, Cole World: The Sideline Story at last gives us a chance to see Roc Nation benchwarmer J. Cole step up to the plate. If the album doesn’t do quite enough to establish him as the star player Jay-Z clearly wants to add to his team’s roster, it still contains enough impressive moments to land it a full tier above recent debuts by Class of ‘11 rappers Wiz Khalifa and Big Sean. Like fellow Southerner Big K.R.I.T., whose own major-label debut was pushed back to avoid competing with Cole World, J. Cole is a double-threat rapper-producer, but where K.R.I.T.‘s gorgeous tracks redeem a flow that lands just north of meh, Cole is a more workmanlike producer who gets by on his taut rhymes and knack for delivering hooks sans guest crooners.
That said, an inventory of Cole’s technical gifts doesn’t do much to explain his appeal. Most rap fans don’t know or care which rappers produce their own material, and Cole’s flow is solidly in the same nimble-but-not-acrobatic range as Wale or Royce da 5’9”. It’s honesty more than lyricism that makes Cole so enjoyable to listen to, as he effortlessly renders a persona that’s easy to like—even more so than, say, Drake, even though Cole doesn’t try nearly as hard to play up the nice-guy angle. But if Drake’s shtick is to play the sensitive dude blindsided by fame and thereby grant the listener some access to his world of lonely glamor, Cole skews populist, choosing quotidian settings and characters for his dispatches from small-town America. He invites our vicarious enjoyment of his success, promising to “put us all on the map…you can bet the bank on me” on “Sideline Story,” and in doing so vies for the same hometown-hero vibes as Scotty McCreery.
Cole’s production choices—favoring live percussion, piano, and electric guitar over the more-fashionable synthesizers and 808s—resonate well with this persona. Kanye West’s production work circa Common’s Be and his own Late Registration is evidently a major influence, and as with West’s sophomore album, Cole World has a tendency to skew too far into soft-rock simper, though I suppose if Bon Iver can turn heads by cribbing the Eagles, there’s no reason why Cole shouldn’t be scanning AOR stations for inspiration. Besides, he’s got a good sense of humor about it. “Work Out” is endearingly schmaltzy funk, with Cole weighing sex against commitment while quoting Paula Abdul and making off with the weird, synthetic trumpet melody from “Straight Up,” and the piano on “Lights Please” recalls both Motown and Billy Joel. Only when Jay-Z stops by for “Mr. Nice Watch” does Cole break character, trading bars with his mentor with SBTRKT-like future-funk for an early album highlight.
Unfortunately, Cole World‘s would-be inspirational story arc impels it to present the shambling, reflective stuff toward the first half of the album. Cole pulls the “Jesus Walks”-like drama stuff neither poorly nor especially well, sounding half-convicted on “God’s Gift” and squandering a rare Missy Elliott guest spot on the pedestrian “Nobody’s Perfect.” I admire Cole for wanting to get conscious, but his affable persona makes it hard for him to tap into the self-righteousness that rappers like Common can’t help but channel. “Lost Ones” shares its title with one of Lauryn Hill’s best songs, almost definitely in homage since the track finds Cole trying to replicate Hill’s gift for directly and coolly dissecting matters of the heart and groin, but it’s one of many instances where he primes his listeners for a dose of real-talk only to come up with little to say. As insights into small-town domestica go, “She’d put a ring up on his finger if she could/But he loved her ‘cause the pussy good/She ain’t a wife though” is more black Mellencamp than black Updike; delivered over a bed of smooth-rock strings, it sounds even more self-serious and sappy.
“In the Morning” is probably Cole’s best chance at a star-making moment here, and not just because the song features Drake, which, I think, legally obligates urban radio stations to play it. The spare slow jam is one of a few tracks near the beginning of the album where Cole really sinks into the easy, conversational rapping style that could eventually become his calling card: not overly confessional in the Drake/Kanye vein nor as aloof and analytical as many lyrical MCs. The track is unfortunately saddled with a maudlin piano melody, but its path as a single is easier to imagine than that of a superior rap showcase like “Lights Please.” There, the easy interplay between Cole’s beats and flow show just what’s so exciting about a young rapper who doesn’t need an advance and an A-list producer to get in the studio and create. Amply stocked with warmth and charisma, the only thing Cole World really wants for is the kind of out-of-the-park highlight that would pull the whole album together; as is, it shows off the scattered but considerable strengths of a talented rookie whose potential for long-term success is palpable.