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J. Cole, Cole World: The Sideline Story

“Cole World, World Tour with no album,” J. Cole tweeted earlier this month.

Such mobility should be a blessing. Not always, though.

Yes, in all of the obvious ways, what J. Cole has been achieving in the more than two years since he signed with Roc Nation and dropped his acclaimed mixtape, The Warm Up, certainly is amazing: rocking stages domestically and abroad; gaining legions of fans and feeding them free, purchase-quality music; shining as a featured guest next to the likes of Jay-Z, Kanye West, Talib Kweli and more; and simply having the ability to make a living doing what you love.

But it’s these same factors that have positioned J. Cole’s major label debut, Cole World: The Sideline Story, in an uphill battle against expectations.

Thanks to a number of factors (most glaringly, the Internet, and all it has spawned) the current moment of hip-hop music consumption is unparalleled—a fact particularly relevant to artists’ debut albums. Sure, everyone from N.W.A. to Nas to Kanye West created anticipation for their soon-to-be-classic debuts, but the blanket of expectations now flaps more expansively for those anointed as “next” by excited fans and critics, on the heels of album-esque mixtapes, the national tours that they trigger, and rampant release date delays.

The last two tapes that the Fayetteville, North Carolina native has dropped (The Warm Up and Friday Night Lights) have been deemed great by some and even classic by others. And this, in many ways—the heightened, if ridiculous, expectations—prove the leading detriment to a very strong debut album from J. Cole. Cole World: The Sideline Story is possibly better than either of the two lauded mixtapes for which he’s become known. Yet, it was looked upon to be much more—that Cole would take a leap, not a step—and it’s not quite that.

Preconceptions aside, the album is able to put a check mark in each of the boxes next to the laundry list of abilities that have thrust Cole into a discussion as a possible torch-bearer for a generation.

There’s the piano-backed “Intro,” presenting the same kind of solemn yet inspiring opening with which he’s begun his last two projects. “Dollar and a Dream III” is vintage Cole, spitting for nearly five minutes about highs and lows, dreams and reality. He does so over a looming, slow-building beat that has a few distinct sections, each sounding developed but derived from the previous one. Here, on the first full track, we get a taste of Cole’s growth as a producer that continues to reveal itself over the 16-track project’s entirety.

The lyrical workouts continue on cuts like “God’s Gift” and “Rise and Shine,” where, on the latter, he spits, “The ones y’all thought would save the day can’t even tie my boots/The ones y’all thought could hang with me can’t even tie my noose.”

But it’s not all boasts from the 26-year-old. With songs like “Breakdown,” a deeply personal recounting of his staggered relationship with his father and his mother’s battle with drugs; “Lost Ones,” an impassioned and touching tale from multiple perspectives of the considerations when contemplating an abortion; or “Nobody’s Perfect,” featuring an outstanding hook from Missy Elliott, we find Cole able to straddle the line between crafting a contagious head-nodder and a meaningful examination of human relationships, asserting his ability to speak to and for so many.

“Mr. Nice Watch” is an erratic, dub-step influenced built-up collaboration with Jay-Z, where Hov get’s the better of his protégé (something he was unable or uninterested in doing on their Blueprint 3 joint “Star Is Born”). Current single “Can’t Get Enough,” featuring Trey Songz is more accessible than Cole’s shown to be in the past and is able to remain stellar. His other single, the bonus track “Work Out,” lacks this.

Though previously released “Lights Please” (TWU) and the Drake-assisted “In The Morning” (FNL) remain excellent (“Lights Please” proves particularly timeless), their (possibly label-obliged) inclusion on the album seems a bit curious, specifically to earlier Cole fans.

Cole’s DIY methods—producing the bulk of the album, enlisting limited guests—are admirable if, at times, restrictive. His beat-making has evolved, and the instrumentation displays that growth, but his sound will be allowed to further progress if he teams with others in the future. Same for his hooks, which are often disproportionately small when compared to the vigor of his verses.

Was the height of the bar set for J. Cole unjust?

No. On the contrary, it’s complimentary and deserved. It wouldn’t be placed there if it weren’t something he was capable of reaching. On Cole World: The Sideline Story he taps it a few times, and shows he’s on his way to fully grasping it. —Adam Fleischer

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