The number 1 album in the country this week belongs to Roc Nation’s premier signee J. Cole, whose debut, Cole World: The Sideline Story, sold 217,000 copies in its first week. These numbers would be impressive under any circumstances, but considering the fact that Cole has had very little radio play and no crossover single success, they are remarkable.
To put this into further context – Wiz Khalifa’s album Rolling Papers, which was preceded by the Billboard Hot 100 #1 hit single “Black & Yellow,” managed to sell 197,000 copies in the first week, debuting at #2. Big Sean’s Finally Famous managed to sell a respectable 85k its first week, even with the Chris Brown-assisted mega-hit “My Last,” and a Kanye West co-sign. Rick Ross & Maybach Music Group’s Self Made Vol 1., which spawned the inescapable summer anthems “Tupac Back,” “I’m A Boss,” and “That Way,” sold only 53k in its first week, and has managed to sell just over 200k to-date. So to sell 217k copies of your debut album with no hit single, in an era where few rap albums even get released, is quite the feat. Granted, sales figures have no bearing on quality, but clearly Cole has a sizeable fanbase that connects to his music on a visceral level – so much so that they felt compelled to support him on release week. Yet whenever Cole’s name is mentioned in our circles, there’s a general air of dismissiveness (he’s “corny” or “boring”) and indifference. In my estimation, Cole World is actually a very good debut album that deserves much less scorn than it has received.
Cole falls into the ever-growing ‘Post-Kanye’ category of rappers –which includes Wale, Big Sean, Drake, and all of the other new-school emcees who rap about “regular guy” problems, college, sports & sneakers in a punchline-heavy style. Songs such as “Sideline Story,” like much of Cole World, recall College Dropout/Late Registration-era ‘Ye, from the sped-up soul samples and minor-key piano loops to the tendency towards cringe-worthy toilet-centric punchlines (e.g. “I’ll let you feel like you the shit/But boy you can’t out-fart me” from “Dollar and a Dream III”). Where Cole differs from the innumerable rappers in this lane is his skill, his ear for beats, and songwriting ability. Cole is nothing if not a solid rapper – his punchlines are, for the most part, very clever (e.g. on standout track “Nobody’s Perfect” Cole nimbly spits “Remember when I used to be stressed over Dawanna/Now a nigga only text and get stressed over Rihannas/I’m talkin’tens and better – hood bitches in tims and sweaters.”) He has a variety of flows and rhyme patterns, switching between different multisyllabic rhyme schemes and double-time verses.
Of course, technical rhyme skills don’t necessarily make for great, or even good, rappers (see: Canibus, Cory Gunz, etc.). Luckily, J. Cole adds an engaging on-record personality to his arsenal. The best tracks on Cole World – songs like “Breakdown,” “Lost Ones” and “Never Told” – display Cole’s storytelling ability, songcraft, and knack for creating unique song concepts. “Lost Ones” is particularly interesting, tackling the issue of unplanned pregnancy and abortion from the perspective of both the guy and girl in a relationship. In the hands of a less adept emcee this song could have easily been cheesy at best and offensive at worst, but Cole handles it masterfully, drawing the listener into the situation and providing convincing, heartfelt perspectives from both sides. In verse one Cole spits “I’m not one of those niggas who be knockin’ girls up and skate out/So girl you gotta think ‘bout how the options weigh out.” The second verse, from the woman’s perspective: “See I knew this is how you’d act – so typical/Said you love me oh but now you flippin’ like reciprocals…. No different from from those other niggas who be claiming that they love you just to get up in them drawers.” The third verse of the song Cole steps outside of the situation, spitting “Swear they get pregnant for collateral, it’s like extortion/Man, if that bitch is really pregnant tell her get an abortion/ But what about your seed nigga?” The refrain of “And I ain’t too proud to tell you that I cry sometimes about it” manages to be sincere and earnest without ever coming off as “soft.” This earnestness and emotional honesty is what sets Cole apart from a lot of his contemporaries, and is the reason why he’s established such a strong core fanbase so quickly.
The song on the album that best displays this is “Never Told.” Ostensibly a song about “the game” and getting women , Cole approaches the subject with a level of candor that is actually somewhat startling. He starts off by spitting game to a girl, before undercutting his posturing with honesty, and an admission that ‘the game’ is complete bullshit. This is a great example of how Cole plays with expectations. The second verse is reminiscent of Nas’ more introspective work (something like ”2nd Childhood” from Stillmatic), with Cole saying “The hoes come, the seasons change/The hoes go, we rearrange/Fuck up her life she’ll never be the same/The O.G.s done beat the game/ Forever young like Peter Pan/35? Still playing/Child support? Still paying.” This is where Cole shines – his introspective tracks are insightful in a way that not many emcees are.
Other Cole World highlights include the 808-heavy “Cole World,” which sees Cole at his most radio-friendly, “Nobody’s Perfect,” which features Missy Elliott and sees Cole-the-producer doing his best Timbaland-circa-1998 impression, and “In The Morning,” which features Drake and first appeared on Cole’s 2010 mixtape Friday Night Lights. (It is especially notable for containing the most Drake-ian Drake couplet ever: “I got bath water that you could soak in/Things I could do with lotion”). Cole also clearly out-raps mentor Jay-Z on the album’s worst track, “Mr. Nice Watch” – which sounds like an outtake from the Watch The Throne sessions.
One emcee that came to mind constantly as I listened to Cole World was Big K.R.I.T. The similarities between the two are obvious – both emcees self-produce their music (Cole produced all but two of the tracks on Cole World), both artists shine when doing introspective “reality rap,” and both are traditionalists. Though both Cole and K.R.IT. are from the south, Cole’s music draws from the Northeast sonically, and I think this has a lot to do with the album’s perceived “corniness” – Cole is simply working within an aesthetic that isn’t in vogue with internet rap heads, and as a result his considerable skill is undermined and dismissed.
All of this is not to say that Cole World is a perfect album. J. Cole’s insistence on “singing” every hook is grating over the length of an album, and the similar sonic template Cole works with for every track makes for a somewhat dreary, if cohesive. The only sonic outliers here are “Mr. Nice Watch,” “Cole World,” and buzz-single “Work Out,” which is relegated to bonus track status.
Will Cole World end up being a touchstone for the next generation of rappers? That is doubtful. Is Cole doing anything new stylistically on this album, like his peer Kendrick Lamar accomplished on his most recent project? Definitely not. Cole World is a very solid debut album by a very good rapper – nothing more, nothing less. This may sound like faint praise, but it isn’t – the point being that in this era of millions of non-descript blog rappers, a rapper as skilled as Cole, with his knack for songwriting and storytelling, should be celebrated – or, at the very least, respected. Cole World is rap comfort food – “comfort rap,” if you will. It is good debut album by a good new talent, who will surely release more good music in the future. And there’s nothing wrong with that.