Review : J. Cole - Cole World: The Sideline Story
PitchforkJ. Cole is the kind of rapper who worries aloud, and frequently, if he's getting too deep for his own songs. A St. John's University magna cum laude graduate raised in poverty by a single mother, Cole distinguished himself in his early career as much through effort as talent. Over a string of fiercely earnest, frequently impressive mixtapes, he rapped in writerly thickets in which the semicolons and embedded clauses were audible, and he produced all his own tracks. He became a leading light of the conscious-rap crowd, who, always eager for a viable mainstream entrant in rap's ongoing culture wars, fervently embraced him. And then, perhaps inevitably, Jay-Z swooped down and signed him.
The resulting major-label debut, Cole World: The Sideline Story, which finally saw release this week, is shaping up to be an actual Big Moment for Cole: Despite a tepid radio presence, it is projected to sell nearly 250,000 copies. Those are startling first-week numbers for a new rapper these days, and they assure that J. Cole will get at least a partial promenade through the spotlight. People appear to care deeply about this guy. But it's difficult to imagine why from the evidence of this studiously bland and compromise-riddled record, which seems to be searching for the meeting point of every conceivable middle.
About half the album bears Cole's production signature: a glimmering update on 1990s jazz-rap, spiked with live-sounding boom-bap drums. As a rap aesthetic, it's about as rigidly conservative as they come. But Cole is admirably committed to it, and he fleshes it out with surprising musical detail-- backup vocals, comping jazz guitars, lots and lots of grand piano. The songs that stick to this template feel warm, pleasant, and Cole-ish. The rest of Cole World is a 2011-era pop-rap project with a varying success rate: the madcap, syncopated single "Can't Get Enough" feels like a lost transmission from 2002-era rap radio, and it succeeds only insofar as it compels you to imagine how much better an '03-era T.I., or even N.O.R.E., would have finessed the beat than does Cole, who deflates the track's bounce....full text
XxlmagYes, 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....full text
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