J. Cole Is Still Warming Up In Shadows On Cole World

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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.

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Craig Jenkins
Craig Jenkins

Savage but ultimately appropriate basketball analogy there. Cole's got all the pieces, but they rarely come together.

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