T.S. Eliot wrote that all art, and all life, can’t be experienced in a vacuum. Humans are the sum of everything they’ve experienced, so it’s impossible to look at a painting without thinking of every other painting you’ve ever seen, impossible to listen to a song without, consciously or unconsciously, comparing it to every song you’ve ever heard. Hell, it’s impossible to eat a taco without comparing it to every other taco you’ve ever crammed into your mouth.
Those who claim they listen to “just” the music are self-delusional at worst and naïve at best. There’s no such thing as an objective opinion, the phrase itself is a contradiction. Instead, it’s far more honest to openly embrace our subjectivity and acknowledge the context surrounding albums. Every time we press play our ears are passively listening, but our brains are actively recalling the last video we watched from that artist, comparing to their last album, reacting to the hype, remembering what our girlfriend said about them the other night.
I know, I know, you’re getting worried. Relax, this is the review of J. Cole’s Cole World: The Sideline Story. But Cole is far more than an average rapper and so he deserves far more than your average “this song was hot, this song was wack” album review. Unfortunately for Cole, it’s impossible to “just” listen to Cole World without a single question humming in the background of your brain: “Is this the hip-hop savior we’ve been anticipating? Does this sound like a man JAY-Z should have made the flagship artist of his label?”
Only time will tell what J. Cole will become, and to be sure his future still looks bright, but here and now, with Cole World pacing through my headphones, it sounds like Cole couldn’t quite hold up the weight placed on his young shoulders.
Let’s just get the bad news out of the way first. Rap stars, the kind of star Cole wants to become, can’t just make great music, they have to make great hits (see also: Kanye, Eminem, Jay etc.) and it’s here that Cole World feels lost.
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Lead single "Work Out," which at this points feels like an obligation to include on the album, inspires indifference more than love or hate, and in the modern game, nothing’s worse than indifference. I guess by that measure, I actively dislike his long-awaited collab with Hova, "Mr. Nice Watch." What should have been a coronation, a passing of the torch, instead feels like a formulaic cut that purposefully disavows the “I’m just like you” bond he’s built with his most loyal fans.
And while both "Lights Please" and "In the Morning" (Cole’s biggest hit to date) are exponentially better, I’m mystified by their inclusion. I can’t think of another example of songs released on a previous mixtape, in the case of "Lights" literally two years earlier, making it onto a debut album. "Can’t Get Enough" is the sole bright spot here, thanks largely to its instantly addictive beat, but Cole World is full of evidence that when Cole sits down to write a hit, he mysteriously loses that intangible quality that first earned him these weighty expectations.
Or maybe it’s not so intangible. After all, Cole World is also filled with the kind of lyrically driven, emotionally honest and often intensely narrative tracks that places him so far above his average peers, starting with "Lost Ones." Sadly, this is exactly the kind of song hip-hop needs but gets so little of. The same goes for "Never Told," one of the few examples of anti-infidelity rap you’ll ever hear and the captivating "Breakdown," which finds Cole daring to let us closer to his life than any established “star” could ever afford to.
All of these songs combine his seemingly innate sense of soul as a producer and an often only-barely contained aggression, and nowhere is that balance struck more perfectly than on "Nobody’s Perfect." Simply put, this is the kind of track I was hoping Cole World would be filled with, tracks that inspire equal parts dance party and self-reflection. "Nobody’s Perfect," but at his absolute best Cole’s not far off.
So while there may be one pleasantly surprised Nat King Cole fan who accidentally downloads Cole World on iTunes (it is right next to The World of King Cole), the rest of us will inevitably listen to this album with “rap’s next great hope” expectations. Placing those expectations on Jermaine Lamarr Cole may be setting the bar impossibly high, but from LeBron to Kanye to Obama, that’s what the greats do—exceed impossible expectations. That means J. Cole is not yet a great artist, the operative word being yet.
This album is a beginning, not an end, and in time Cole may become the timeless artist so many hope for, but only if he truly fights to develop his own sound, independent of the literally thousands of execs, fans and sideline critics telling him how he should sound.
As T.S. Eliot said, “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”