J.Cole is one of those rare rappers who have managed to gain an intense and loyal fanbase even before the release of an official album. Releasing not one but three critically acclaimed free mixtapes in the past 4 years (The Come Up, The Warm Up, and last year's Friday Night Lights), he has finally released his debut on Jay-Z's Roc Nation label.
The amount of hype behind J.Cole is almost impossible to scale. Regarding his previous work, people have said that he's the next big thing in hip-hop, and the guy saving the whole genre. Others deem him as massively overrated, while others worry that his commercial album won't reflect the kind of music he's created for his early fans.
Thankfully, the album manages to balance both cross-over commercialism and his classic, appealing production sound to produce a major-label debut album that is both excellent and true to his roots. Here is a track-by-track review:
Intro - A soft piano plays in the background while you can hear J.Cole happily telling people he got signed to Roc Nation. The piano gradually builds up then fades quietly. A nice start. 8/10
Dollar and A Dream III - An epic beginning to the Sideline Story. J.Cole samples a track of Kingdom Hearts II, mixing heavy string and flute instruments under a hip-hop beat. During the middle of the song however, the song transitions wonderfully into a piano melody and essentially is two songs in one. Lyrically it shows the quality of his rapping, which has made him stand out from the crowd today. 9/10
Can't Get Enough - The second single from the album, this one features r'n'b singer Trey Songz. The song has a Carribean feel and despite being one of the commercial songs on the album, it's chilled and fun. Production-wise, it's great. 8.5/10
Lights Please - Originally on The Warm Up, the production is changed slightly, so that the piano sounds stronger. The song that Jay-Z heard leading up to his signing, it already feels like a classic. 9/10
Interlude - J.Cole tells a hilarious story to friends in the past where he found himself behind bars. Not really a song, but still entertaining. It's a nice introduction to the next song. 7.5/10
Sideline Story - Has a classic hip-hop beat, and as a result it's a relaxing song with Cole working his storytelling skills. 8.5/10
Mr Nice Watch - features Jay-Z. A first thing you notice is how crazy the beat is. A thing to note is Cole produced most of the album himself, which shows multiple sides to his talent. It's a very enjoyable track, and when the electric guitars kick in, you feel like jumping around the room! However there are problems with the song. I feel like it's in the wrong position in the album because it sticks out like a sore thumb and thus ruins the flow. Jay-Z's verse is a little boring too. But the song does grow on you despite this. 8/10
Cole World - has that classic J.Cole sound. He spits some hard rhymes on this one. Also, great electronic influences. 9/10
In The Morning - features Drake. This is where the album gets all introspective. Originally on Friday Night Lights, this was the standout track on that mixtape. I'm glad it's on here, its simple piano melody is both hypnotic and laid-back. Drake delivers a stand out verse, too. 9.5/10
Lost Ones - Cole proves he can deliver when it comes to emotional, heartfelt lyrics, that are full of meaning. It's sad and touching as it sees Cole taking different perspectives on abortion. This new version on the album features updated production such as the added inclusion of violins. It really adds to the depth of the song. 9.5/10
Nothing's Perfect - features Missy Elliot. One thing that will shock you is that Missy Elliot's feature is not what you will expect, but without spoiling anything, she really adds to the song. The production of the song is fantastic, with a recurring beat that kicks in and fades out. It's very rhythmic. 9/10
Never Told - Cole goes r'n'b with this one. Its chilled production is pleasant to listen to, although fades in comparison to other songs on the album. 8/10
Rise and Shine - HANDS DOWN this is the best song on the album. The beginning starts of with a past Jay-Z mentioning in a documentary how one day he will sign someone great. The production is mesmerising on this. It reminds me so much of songs from Kanye's debut (using high-pitched singing and sampling techniques) to produce something that sounds so brilliant. It features that classic J.Cole sound and Cole delivers his verses with an unmatched level of confidence on this. 10/10
God's Gift - also feels like a classic. J.Cole's production is always enjoyable to listen to, and when he makes beats that sound as good as this, you can't help but cheer for this guy to succeed. 10/10
Breakdown - lovely, lush production. Feels old-school and Cole sounds wise beyond his age. 9/10
The bonus tracks are worth a review too:
Work Out - initally I disliked this because it sounded nothing like his previous stuff. However on multiple listens it really grows on you. What Cole has done has created a catchy, bouncy hip-hop track that has a chorus you just want to sing along too. I love how towards the end Cole adds electric guitars; gives the song an extra kick. It's quite iconic to see him sampling Kanye's 'The New Workout Plan' on this. 9/10
Who Dat - was intended to be the first single but flopped. The reason behind it is because it's not commercial at all, but the production is tight and the catchphrase 'Who Dat! Who Dat!' is awesome. 8.5/10
Daddy's Little Girl - has a weird electronic beat but the lyrics are reflective and thoughtful. 8.5/10
Overall it's an undeniably strong debut album that is sure to be a hip-hop classic as the time passes. J.Cole is one of the strongest rappers as of today and his album confirms it. It's rare to find someone who can match his lyrical and production quality, especially given his age. This is his big break and it's great to see him fully embracing his one-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Definitely pick this up if your a fan of artists like Kanye, Jay-Z, Drake. However, bear in mind Cole has his own tricks up his sleeve. One of the most well-rounded hip-hop albums in recent times.