J. Cole stands in the intertwined shadows of two of rap’s biggest figures: Jay-Z, his label boss/idol/mentor, and Drake, the LeBron James to his Darko Milicic. This is true both in terms of the long view and on Cole’s debut album, Cole World: The Sideline Story, out today: Cole is shown up on his own terrain by both Jay, who turns in a uncharacteristically vicious verse on “Mr. Nice Watch,” and Drake, who steals dawn sex ode “In the Morning” despite sounding like he regrets the last three whiskeys and tossing out a bizarre anecdote about his aunt riding equestrian.
The guests have the effect of pulling the talented Cole in particular directions; “Mr. Nice Watch” finds him flaunting newfound wealth, while “In the Morning” has him doing a loverman act. This phenomenon isn’t new; since he became the first member of Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label in early 2009, Cole has starred on the rugged Kanye West posse cut “Looking For Trouble,” given Miguel’s arresting “All I Want Is You” the voice of a player with a soft spot, and lit up Jay-Z’s “A Star Is Born,” a song explicitly designed as a coronation for him, with a verse that blended narrative deftness and winning, winking braggadocio. But when Cole is left to his own devices, he can’t quite figure out how to turn all of the pieces that make him compelling into a cohesive whole.
Cole World, largely self-produced, is perhaps best as a testament to Cole’s inability to self-edit. Abysmal sequencing means the album lurches from the ponderously ominous “Dollar And A Dream III” to the bright, catchy “Can’t Get Enough” to “Lights Please,” a mixtape track that is more than two years old and explores the duality of wanting sex and wanting to dream about changing the world—and those are the first three proper tracks. They’re bookended by an intro and an interlude—which, as it’s about Cole being jailed immediately after learning he had a deal waiting, is terrific—that break up whatever early flow might have been produced. As the record progresses, Cole hopscotches from sounding like a rapper on the rise who possesses full control of the vernacular (“Cole World,” “God’s Gift”) to sounding like a twentysomething wrestling with more relatable topics (unplanned pregnancy on “Lost Ones,” infidelity on “Never Told,” resisting temptation on “Breakdown”), and it leaves the listener jumpy.
To make matters worse, songs can sound uncannily like one another: “Lost Ones” and “Lights Please” chug along with timekeeping drums; “Mr. Nice Watch” and “Cole World” both have alarms from alien spacecraft; “Rise and Shine” and “God’s Gift” both angle for revival rap. (The latter two pairs are consecutive tracks!) Songs that constantly echo each other are not exactly new to the Cole corpus—his mixtapes mined these veins, too&. But those had the privilege of coming first or second, not fourth, in his catalog, and they were studded with more moments of lyrical derring-do, too.
On Cole World, the quotables are fewer and further between. “Bitch, I made this in the crib, watchin’ Belly / Eatin’ peanut butter jelly, what the fuck could niggas tell me?” curls the nose, and Cole flips a derogatory “backpack” crack to “Homie, my backpack Louie.” But the same problems with contradictions (“Nice guy, just got a mean flow” and “No more Mr. Nice Guy, hello Mr. Nice Watch” appear in different songs) leave the overall picture muddled, and an epidemic of overstuffed hooks results in a lack of obvious radio gems.
Not all of Cole World is a faint sketch of his previous work. Cole’s strengths, the ones that allow him to stand beyond those Jay/Drake shadows, are still valuable, intriguing, outstanding. He’s got an understanding of women Drake pines for, one that allows him to slip convincingly into a woman’s voice on hook and verse alike and sound like he’s talking to an equal rather than a conquest if he’s so inclined. And he’s still compelling when telling variations on his origin story—smart kid heads from North Carolina to St. John’s, turns desire to rap into rap career by dint of hard work—despite it being well past its logical expiration date. (In this respect he has one step up on his boss, who is rhyming about selling crack for something like the 20th consecutive year.)
Plus, Cole suffuses much of his music with a warmth of spirit that marks him as the ascendant, optimistic counterpart to the ever-glum, this-pile-of-money-is-uncomfortable Drake; it’s easy enough to hear that in Cole’s frequent warming up metaphors (“Cole heating up like that leftover lasagna,” notably, on “Nobody’s Perfect,” which wastes Missy Elliott on a sung hook), and the first bars on “In the Morning” helpfully contrast paramours who are “summertime fine” and “wintertime cold,” just in case you weren’t aware of the distinction.
Combine those qualities with a firm understanding of how to rap, some production chops, and a (slightly cultivated) humble appeal that has done plenty to sway the blognoscenti, and Cole’s as close to a five-tool player as rap has at the moment. But though there’s enough good on Cole World to keep Cole’s stock high as a prospect, despite a whole that is less than the sum of its parts, he really shouldn’t be a prospect anymore. The progression of his mixtapes—The Come Up to The Warm Up to Friday Night Lights—would reasonably lead to stardom. Instead, we have The Sideline Story, an album that, like its artist, finds a breakthrough elusive.