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WIRTB Review - Cole World: The Sideline Story

Good morning, one and all. It is I, the man who killed hip-hop, only to rebuild it in my image, the man who battled Drake and won (not really), Speed on the Beat back with a solo WIRTB Review with a purpose. I know, hold your applause and hatred until the end of this one. In a discussion with True, we attempted to figure out some future WIRTBs, since the "good versus bad" format seemed to work well. Ultimately, I said, "hey, True. Let me look at J. Cole's debut album alone, because trolls be trollin' and shit and Cole had some influence on how I approach music." As a J. Cole fan, I've always wanted to talk about this album in-depth, so...let's review the "crap" so you don't have to.



Cole World: The Sideline Story, released on September 27, 2011, was J. Cole's debut album. People were excited to see what the young NYC transplant from Fayetteville, NC could do. They'd heard The Warm Up and Friday Night Lights and all those critically-acclaimed mixtapes and wanted to see what Cole'd do with a legitimate budget.

The album's first two singles "Who Dat" and "Work Out" were, to put it lightly, received with a lukewarm response. Critics and listeners seemed to like the bounciness of "Work Out," even though it "Let Nas Down." Meanwhile, "Who Dat" fell flat, plain and simple. With those two tracks out there, it seemed like a lot of the hype around the album was tempered. But, was it really that bad?


The album begins, as many rags-to-riches debuts seem to, with a skit about how Cole got signed which leads into the piano-heavy intro. It hits the right notes for an intro, but...the overly moody-ass pianos just give me a feeling of "oh, shit. Cole's about to sadden the fuck out of us on his debut." I'm all for piano intros. Hell, I've done my fair share over the years. However, when it's your first album and your intro ends with heavy-ass chords, you're saying two things. You're saying:

  1. I'm a struggle rapper who is still struggling to find who I really am, so I'm setting up this melodramatic story of me being the underdog so you get it.
  2. This album will probably be all over the place, since my bars on this intro were kind of on some "nigga we made it" shit, but my beat was on some "damn, nigga. I made it...now what?" shit. 

Personally, I would've said "fuck this intro, just go into 'Dollar and a Dream III' and tack the skit on the end of that track." But, I'm not Jermaine, so...shrug it. Speaking of "Dollar and a Dream III," this is one of my favorite beats on the album. Sampling "Darkness of the Unknown" from the Kingdom Hearts II soundtrack, it's a beautiful beat. However, just like the intro, it feels over-the-top in terms of its dramatic overtones, even as it's fucking beautiful. Bruh, even Logic with his "album that changed everything," TITS, didn't prop him up to be this much of a tormented musical savior. And then we get one of many lazily-lobbed punchlines.

Life can't get any worse, Stevie with his glasses off/'Cause I still don't see hope. Looking for a quick fix, when everyone I see is broke/Get[ting] lost in weed smoke, knowing it make it worse/Thoughts roaming uncontrollably, barely trusting niggas...over a decade they've been knowing me...

This is an example of what people who hate Cole fans seethe with anger over when people say that Cole is the next GOAT (which is a term that should be cancelled outright, I've come to realize). Following this line is "...but I'm falling like it's autumn." I get that Cole's trying to pain a story of despair and anguish. But, to do so in such a way that almost contradicts the dramatic awesome that Cole gives us on the beat? You're damn near rendering your plight "meh" before it's truly underway. I do like Cole's voice on this one, even with the corny-ass set-ups and punchlines. There's a bit of youthful veteran confidence underlying it all.

But, then he starts his second verse with a send-up of "Lose Yourself" and lines like "you logged off 'cause I'm online." Dammit, Cole! Stop being basic in this shit. This is a perfect time for you to straight-up wreck this beat. Give us that 2014 Forest Hills Drive flow in 2011 (since that album is more of a perfection of the Warm Up/FNL Cole with the evolution needed to become a great artist; he becomes One-Punch Man Cole), not "Internet Rapper of the Week."

If I wanted to hear wonky sing-songy bars with punchlines that sometimes fall flat over hard-ass beats produced by the rapper who's rapping on 'em, I'd just load up some of my own shit and show you what "Mozart mixed with Humphrey Bogart" really looks like. Better yet? Here's Unhinged. You're welcome.


Next up (and now I've gotten one shameless plug out the way), we're given the obligatory "girl, your pussy good" track in the Trey Songz-aided "Can't Get Enough."


In the first minute of this song, we're given lines like "[her pussy so good it'd] probably make a gay nigga reconsider" and "gotta tell your old boyfriend 'skate,' girl/'cause a nigga don't play them X-Games." It's worth a chuckle or two, but would anyone bring up the X-Games/ex games bar up as an example of dope lyricism? If you think that's a dope line, you'd probably think that "snort up these dope lines like a cokehead/oh shit...too much, now they all dead" is a shining pinnacle of lyrical genius.

The song is, like "Work Out," fun and bouncy. But even Trey Songz sounds dead on this song. It could be because Cole unashamedly spouts lines like "I love when you gimme head/I hate when you gimme headaches." Maybe he was going for, a la Lupe, a spoof of the mainstream "gimme dat pwussy" song? Either way, it's a skip, even with its cool DITC sample.


But quick! What do you do if you're a rising artist in the late '00s, early 2010s who's made his name on mixtape buzz? You include one of your best songs from your mixtapes, of course! So, Cole followed this trend by adding "Lights Please."


When I first heard this song, I fucking loved it. It's chilled out and speaks on the flipside of the sexual energy of a "Can't Get Enough." It wasn't the freshest idea, but it still holds up. However, it's a bit maddening. Cole, on this track, didn't rely on a bunch of wonky punchlines and it works. It works well! However, it shows a conflict we see throughout this album--and one that Cole himself didn't seem to solve until 2014 Forest Hills Drive.

Cole, when he's on, he has the capability to deliver a story that's enthralling and makes you say "oh damn, I can see myself in this situation. My nigga, I feel your pain." Even with a corny-ass "first time" story like "Wet Dreamz," people can relate to that shit. That makes a dope artist. However, for all that relating, we get taken out of the moment in some of his tracks because he has easy punchlines and wack set-ups. "Lights Please" honestly pisses me off because it's such a great track that it makes you want to say "fuck Cole World. Lemme go back and peep The Come Up or something."


After "Lights Please," we're given another skit detailing Cole's signing day where he details his police detainment right after receiving the call. It adds some humanity to the story, as it allows people to see Cole as more than just another rapper, but more as a "real person." The title track which follows compares his plight to MLK's (which we see again, in another way, on "She Knows" from Born Sinner) and discusses how Cole wants to have his "reign last, like, three, four eras."

The track is sound, but suffers a bit from Cole's chill flow on it. This is the title track of the album and we have Cole halfway mumbling his chorus and lines. If I wanted to hear mumbled approaches to getting on, I'd just pop in some random local artist, not the guy who's supposed to be the future of the game. Or, ya know, just play some more SOTB! at the highest volume possible to the point it distorts space-time and we open up a time warp.


Oh, look! A wild Hov appears.


Jay Z comes to aid Cole on a track that seems ripped from WTT or BP3, "Mr. Nice Watch." It's a sonic disaster that works, in that its dubstep and EDM roots sound both fresh and a bit cliched. Additionally, Jay provides a decent verse that seemingly tries to both prop Cole up as the Next Big Thing and to snuff out the flame before it sets more things ablaze. 

On "Cole World," the second title track on the album, Cole raps "the problem with the game now? There's no innovation." This album lacks innovation. No, no, stick with me, fellow Cole fans. It's a paint-by-numbers victory lap that doesn't feel that fresh. It feels like most of the tracks on this project are leftovers/repurposes of tracks from The Warm Up or FNL. Hell, "Lights Please" and "In the Morning" were on those projects! For an album that's supposed to herald the birth of a new era in rap, it depends on people either wanting more of what made Cole hot in the first place or people not knowing who the fuck Cole was before hearing "Work Out." 

I won't break out the bottle, since I'm abstaining. But, my God! Listening to this album as a fan of Cole's work, it angers me at how much it feels like a retread. And critics kind of ate this shit up when it first dropped. Meanwhile, I'm sitting here, in 2016, like "niggas, have any of you herb-ass nerds heard Cole before this?" If so, even if you, critics of the world, rocked with this project, you'd know damn well that he can do better than this. I don't care if he did get signed from his mixtapes, your first album is supposed to show hunger, ambition, fire. Cole's beats were great on this, but mostly everything else lacks in one way or another.

"Lost Ones" is a great track, though. It offers up a pretty realistic portrayal of what someone may go through when discussion whether to abort a pregnancy, something we don't see to often in hip-hop. I've also found this track slightly problematic over the years. Yes, it's an honest portrayal and Cole's male character does concede some ground. Additionally, Cole provides the woman's counterpoint, "speaking" from the woman's POV on the second verse. But, it's his "speaking" from the woman's POV that almost negates the woman's POV as it's borderline caricature.

I do like the "nobody's perfect" mantra running throughout this track and how it leads into, well, "Nobody's Perfect." 


A laid-back discussion of "making it" and women Cole'd like to have sex with, "Perfect" has its moments of honesty, possibly seen through the corny set-ups ("Cole heating up like that leftover lasagna" comes to mind). Additionally, Missy provides a hook that makes this song feel like a throwback. It's not too much else I can say about this one. It's a decent radio-friendly track with a couple real-world nuggets in it.

From that high, where we're told to "multiply by three" the number of men a woman says she has had sex with, we're taken back down to some lows where Cole discusses the man's side of adultery (both the cheater and the cheatee). Armed with some No I.D. production and, per the usual (it seems), slightly lazy punchlines, Cole paints a picture of cheaters. It's one that actually tries to delve into the "why" versus just focusing on the "what," possibly putting his own cheating tendencies on his relationship with his father. It's a dope track which displays Cole's storytelling. However, his punchlines and similes keep it from achieving the highs it probably should.

Next up? The NBA 2K16-featured "Rise and Shine." It's the perfect hype song from the early 2010s. "I'm meaner than Katrina mixed with Gina--'shut up, Cole!'" is still a chuckle-worthy line and the track itself is dopeness. It takes that "corny Cole" we see throughout this project, mixes in "serious series Cole" and adds a bit of growth for good measure. From that goo of a track, we're given Two-Punch Man Cole (a/k/a J. Cole as some see him after 2014 FHD). He may not be able to dead a beat with just one punch, but he still packs a wallop. Afterwards, "God's Gift" features more of this TPM Cole. It's probably also because of the damn beat. 

"Breakdown," however, is one of the highlights of the album. We get a vulnerable artist who, despite his, at times, tired similes and shit, he's still a man who wants his family to be there with and for him. That's why SOME people flock to Cole; they see themselves in him and his fuck-ups. That's something I'd go as far as to say he does better than most artists, that connection with his fanbase. The boombap-focused track draws you in and the lush samples hooks you, but it's that "I'm just like you" feel that keeps you there.

As I've already talked about "Work Out" in our intro, I guess it's time to get to the question you've all been waiting for.

Why does he seem to look like someone just shat in his oatmeal more than he looks legitimately happy?

Was Cole World: The Sideline Story Really That Bad?

For years, I've played with the idea that Cole World had more "meh" moments than overall good ones. Revisiting it for the first time in a while, it turns out that, in my opinion, the album isn't really that "bad." There are worst things to vibe to than Cole World.

BUT!

It sure as hell isn't that "good," either.

There, I finally fucking said it.

It's melodramatic as fuck (even though the beats bang more often than not) it often feels like a retread of his previous mixtapes, the punchlines were shrug-inducingly "meh" more than they are outright meta-referencing genius (which brings down Cole's ability to tell an engaging story), and Cole was, obviously, still finding his voice on the project, which led to a lot of awkward sleep-inducing Cole flows. Could you do worse damage to your ears? Yeah, probably.

But, if you're an actual stan of the guy and want to "prove" that he's dope, could you do better by not using this album to make a claim that Cole is a lyrical miracle full of spiritual missiles or what-the-fuck-ever?

Hell, yeah. Even the greatness on this project is often overshadowed by the things many who don't like Cole chastise him for. So, truth be told? If we had just this project to base his career off of, I'd have absolutely no problem saying he's overrated, underdeveloped, etc. And while he's grown as an artist, you have to be absolutely blind to say that this is a great album.

Most of the project teeters on that fine line between "oh, ok. This cool" and lazily slopped together to try and rehash goodness while broadening his fan base. There are great tracks and good moments on this project. But, a couple dope tracks on an album don't make the entire album great. If you want Cole at his best, go burn 2014 FHD ad nauseum and skip this one. I mean, I like Cole and have been a fan of his for years, but I'm not blind.

"But, Speed, could you have done better," some of you are probably asking. To that, I've only ten words. And I'm not sorry for any of them.

No-fi or otherwise, the entire SOTB! catalog trumps this project. 

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