J.Cole is undoubtedly the most known unknown in the current hip-hop mold. Since releasing his first mixtape in 2007, The Come Up Vol. 1, the bulk of hip-hop based message board topics have centered on the young up-and-coming (pun intended) rapper out of North Carolina. Although popular opinion on Cole has remained considerably divided, a lot of that has changed since the release of his debut album on Roc Nation in September, the appropriately titled Cole World: The Sideline Story. Surprisingly, Cole managed to produce great sales numbers, even beating out the seemingly more popular radio-presence, Big Sean.
Due to the domineering nature of internet pure-pressure and hysterical hype, I decided to give Cole a listen about two years ago, starting with his Friday Night Lights mixtape. Despite my genuine attempts to ward off my pre-bias skepticism, I was unsuccessful, and inevitably I was for the most part unimpressed. Part of the dilemma in hip-hop is that new artists who begin to gain recognition always seem to draw two camps, both equally idiotic. The first camp belongs to the overly-passionate fans, or, excuse my French, the dick riders. These people are usually so firmly implanted on the dicks of their favorite artists that they begin to suffer third-degree ruptures in their kidneys and inexplicably never buy records, always dumbfounded by why these uncharted rappers never make the charts. These were the people hyping up Cole as the new messiah of the rap world, a throwback to the ‘90s golden age of hip-hop where legends such as Pac, Tribe, Wu, Nas, and Biggie reigned supreme and classic albums were abundant. As always, it was difficult to take these people seriously when they were shamelessly boasting ludicrous claims such as “Cole’s album will shit all over 36 Chambers.” The second camp needs less introduction: to paraphrase Yezzy, these are the haters, who subsequently marry hater bitches and spawn hater kids. According to them, Cole sucks, and despite the vast and varied movements of the universe over time, there will never be anything to change these facts.
When Cole’s new album came out, I decided to give him another chance. Prior to the release, I had listened to the former first single, “Who Dat,” and dug it, but unfortunately it didn’t make the final album cut. The official first single, “Work Out,” is a typical track aimed at female audiences, reminiscent of 90% of the songs currently in rotation on hip-hop radio across the nation, but somehow it surpasses them. Cole’s solid lyrical ability pushes him in the frontal tier of a market saturated with corny hooks and gimmicky rhyme-schemes targeted at sixteen year old girls who seemingly have no idea Limewire exists and actually purchase records in 2011.
When reviewing albums, I take the practical approach, mentioning songs I found mind-blowing or conversely, mindless songs that blow. However, on first listen to Cole’s debut, I was surprisingly impressed by the symbiotic relationship of each individual track to the next. In other words, Cole World: The Sideline Story is absorbing in the way that the record can be played from start to finish with little to no skips (aside from the horrendous “Hit it in the Morning”) in between. This is a rare feat in the iTunes/Ring Tone era of music in which we live, where artists rarely release a cohesive album that flows from one track to the next, instead electing to produce a few viable singles and lots and lots of filler. In this regard, Cole’s debut is Illmatic-esque, but anyone who believes Cole showcases the same advanced lyricism on his album that his hip-hop forefather did in 1994 should be shot with about ten tons of horse tranquilizer. Still, Cole manages to fuse the modern hip-hop sonic agenda with the ways of the golden past on his album, and for that, I am excited to hear more from him in the future.
Judging by his album and mixtape titles, Cole is adamant about equating his rap career to a sports analogy. In sports, the tangible qualities like strength, speed, and endurance are usually necessary to a player’s overall performance. However, it is the intangibles that separate the legends from the mere men on the field. The players willing to excel in crucial areas of gameplay that are not counted on statistics sheets are the ones who succeed. Cole’s intentional sports comparisons are obviously meant to signify his rags-to-chilling-with-Jay-and-Beyonce story, but unintentionally they mean a lot more. Cole’s flow trails in comparison to Wayne, he can’t sing as well as Drake, his metaphors are light-years behind Nasir’s, and his beats are damn-sure not better than Kanye’s. However, there is something about Cole that people find magnetic, something that most can’t really put their finger on, and it is this major quality that leads me to believe that he has the potential to achieve legend-status in his career.