Album review: J. Cole’s ‘Cole World: The Sideline Story’

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“Got a dollar and a dream,” J. Cole raps near the beginning of his major-label debut, but who’s he kidding? No rundown of this North Carolina native’s possessions is complete without the star-making endorsement of Jay-Z, who in 2009 signed J. Cole to his Roc Nation label, sparking the kind of industry buzz that last week led to a sold-out show at L.A.’s Club Nokia. Like a string of recent hip-hop protégés — think of Drake (sponsored by Lil Wayne) and Kid Cudi (Kanye West) — J. Cole used that A-list association to establish a lucrative mainstream presence prior to the release of any commercial product. “Now I’m living just like them [people] you see on TV,” he bragged on 2010’s “Friday Night Lights,” one of several free mix tapes J. Cole posted online during the lengthy run-up to “Cole World: The Sideline Story.”

The result of all that experience is the satisfying confidence with which J. Cole delivers his rhymes, in many cases over slickly inventive beats he crafted himself. Even opposite Jay-Z in “Mr. Nice Watch” J. Cole sounds assured of his skills — and of the uncommon detail he brings to an otherwise familiar rags-to-riches narrative. (In “Cole World” the St. John’s University graduate name-checks Sallie Mae, the student-loan company.) But J. Cole’s early-onset veteran status also saps some of the energy you’d hope to hear on a debut as feverishly anticipated as this one, especially in cuts like “Never Told,” which ponders fame’s unexpected dark side. Can the dream have already become a nightmare?


J. Cole
“Cole World: The Sideline Story”
(Roc Nation/Columbia)
Two and a half stars (Out of four)


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