Album Preview: J. Cole, Cole World: Sideline Story

by Tzvi Twersky | @ttwersky

If walls could talk, the paneled ones at Jay-Z’s Roc the Mic studios in Manhattan would tell over tales of all-night recording sessions, of Jay/Kanye conversations, of the production of platinum plaques and best-selling albums. And now—after this past Wednesday’s advanced album preview—they would comment on J. Cole’s debut album, Cole World: The Sideline Story (September 27, 2011).

Alas, no matter how many speakers are embedded in them, walls can’t talk. Luckily, there was a slew of bloggers present for the the album preview. Lucky for me (and, hopefully, you), I was one of them.

Some who were present have already weighed in on that night. So, this being a bball site and Cole being a big bball fan, I’m gonna flip the script and assess the preview of the hoops, hoes and hope-heavy Sideline Story from a roundball perspective.

Pregame Interview

From the 90 to 45 minute mark before every NBA game, both teams’ locker rooms are open to reporters. It’s not the best atmosphere for an in-depth interview, what with people antsy for the game to begin and all, but it’s usually good for a quote or two.

Well, a little bit after all present piled into a sweltering sound room, Cole sauntered in. Everyone was ready for the music to start, but before plugging his MacBook into the speakers, the North Carolina-bred, St. John’s-schooled MC shared a few of his own pregame thoughts.

“I’m super nervous,” Cole said. “This is crazy…This is the first time I’m playing the album for people other than selected fans.”

And with that said, the Roc Nation artist turned up the speakers and let Cole World: Sideline Story take over the conversation.

Hustle Beats Talent When Talent Doesn’t Hustle

Don’t get me wrong, J. has talent for days. Not only does he spit well-polished bars for 17 straight tracks on this album, he also produced the majority of them (No I.D. and a few others pitched in soundboard work as well). But there are a lot of talented cats who are still making beats and music in their momma’s basement. In some cases, that’s because they don’t go all out.

Hustle’s never been a problem for Jermaine, though, and you can hear that passion and urgency in his delivery, voice and words and keys-infused production throughout his long-awaited debut. Cole’s camp asked writers not to use song titles or quote lyrics, but if I could, I’d point out at least five or six lines that pack as much oomph as a punch from Pacquiao.

Every Game Has a Winner…

Every game has a winner, and so does every album. When it comes to Sideline Story, there are a nice amount of winners—some by a slim margin and some by blowout.

The biggest winners? The storytelling tracks. As established on past mixtapes, Cole’s particularly adept at conveying emotions and creating real-life situations. That trend continues on multiple cuts from the album, including one that centers around a boyfriend and girlfriend discussing abortion.

And on a basketball note—you knew that was coming!—J. sprinkles in some notable name-drops or references on at least half of the tracks. The most memorable one included a  lengthy Jordan vs. LeBron debate. But more than that, with each song serving as a chapter, Cole tells over the tale of a boy who’s went from the end of the bench to the brink of starting for a top team. If that’s not compelling to a hoophead, I don’t know what is.

…And a Loser

There’s a lot of goodness on Sideline Story, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to want to listen to every track on repeat. There is one song in particular where J. seems to have gone out of his comfort zone (certainly from a production and hook standpoint), and though it’s solid, it’s not exactly a game-changer, either. The album also includes a few cuts (“In The Morning,” “Lights Please”) that you’ve already heard plenty.

All that said, Cole didn’t cut any real losers on this project. No. In this case, as the music attests, the only loser is anyone and everyone who passed on signing Cole to a deal when they had a chance.

As the Dallas Mavericks Proved, You Don’t Need Multiple Stars to Win

In 2007-08 three stars joined together in Boston and won an NBA title. In the summer of 2010, three stars joined together and led Miami to the Finals. But the Heat didn’t win; the Dallas Mavericks did, teaching a lesson in the process. A team of stars is great, but one superstar and good chemistry can outflank them.

So in the same year that Eminem and Royce teamed up on an album, and in the same summer that Kanye and Jay-Z teamed up to release Watch The Throne, J. Cole has chosen to release his debut album with barely any help. The short list of guest appearances includes Drake, Trey Songz and a female hip-hop sensation that J. asked us not to name. Otherwise, Sideline Story is all Cole everything.

As for Jay-Z, Jermaine’s saving him a verse, but as of the listening he hadn’t yet provided a 16. Aside from having to answer endless questions on the topic, Cole said not having Jay on the album wouldn’t bother him, though it would provide him with yet another chip to carry on his shoulder.

Spoken like a true (ball)player.

You Have To Repeat At Least Once To Be Considered a Dynasty

A week prior to the listening, I had a conversation with a current NBA player about hip-hop. When Cole’s name came up the player, a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder, said that Stephen Jackson recently had referred to Cole as “Baby Hov.”

Wise words from a decent man, no doubt. But slow ya premature roll, Stack Jack! As J. Cole’s Cole World: Sideline Story proves, the young MC is on the right path. But he doesn’t not belong in the same sentence as Hova—at least not yet.

Game Recap

Jermaine began the night by opening up and talking about his nerves. More than an hour-plus of Sideline listening later,  it was safe to say he didn’t have any cause to worry. Like he spit on “Return of Simba” this past Spring, “I only make classics. What that take? Timing/Cole under pressure. What that make? Diamonds.”