After a four-year string of name-making mixtapes and guest appearances, J. Cole’s debut album is finally here. The long-delayed Cole World: The Sideline Story is one of the most anticipated rap releases of late, and rightfully so: Cole has steadily proved himself to be an exciting and capable artist. The North Carolina-bred rapper/producer has clearly grown a lot since 2007, when he first started turning heads. Now that this album has arrived, it’s time to kick back and find out if the wait was worth it.
Remarkably, its 62 minutes pass without a major misstep or awkward moment – rare for a major-label rap record in 2011. (There’s also only four guests: Jay-Z, Drake, Missy Elliott, and Trey Songz.) Immediately following the brief intro track, “Dollar and a Dream III” sets things off nicely. Featuring four-and-a-half minutes of almost non-stop rapping and three distinct major sections, it borders on prog-rap in terms of structure. It’s also just one of many Sideline Story songs in which Cole raps about his ascension from the grassroots of the genre – “I got a dollar and a dream,” goes its refrain – to Jay-Z protégée and budding superstar. Surprisingly, that never gets as annoying as it could.
Musically, The Sideline Story is mostly what’s come to be expected of Cole (who produced 15 of the 18 tracks here), if slightly more urbane than usual. Most songs are built around major-key piano passages and stock kick-snare-hat drums, with pretty strings and guitars wafting through in fits and starts. There’s hardly any clutter or superfluity here; track for track, it’s rock solid. Cole understands that too many bells and whistles can really spoil an album of this nature. When it comes to contemporary beatmaking rappers, he’s getting up there with Kanye West and Big K.R.I.T.
That said, The Sideline Story is a safe album; rarely shooting for the stars, it consequently lacks extreme highs. At its best (“Dollar and a Dream III“, “Rise and Shine“, the Jay-Z featuring “Mr. Nice Watch”), it proves that Cole is worthy of the hype surrounding him and this album. It’s a few outstanding moments short of the masterpiece many fans were expecting, but it clarifies that Cole has officially arrived as a major player in rap – at last.
Essential Tracks: “Dollar and a Dream III”, “Rise and Shine”, “Mr. Nice Watch”