Praise has been showered upon J. Cole, the youngest and most promising signee to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation record label, for exceptional lyrical skills that have drawn comparisons to rap legend Nas. As a debut, The Sideline Story seeks to tell the tale of how J. Cole, who grew up in suburban North Carolina, established a massive fan base that propelled him to rap stardom.
Tracks like “Rise and Shine” summarize the album’s ambiance as a whole: the verses are not just clever sequences of one-liners or word associations, but intricately constructed dialogues that analyze his youth, his doomed relationships, and the unstable psyche of fame. As the album’s main focus, this story gets old pretty fast. Cole is a mature lyricist, but the bulk of the album rarely deviates from the same overtly sentimental, piano-centric beats and the industry-standard “underdog story” that countless rappers have already told.
Album highlights are the tracks that were not produced by J. Cole, including a song-stealing Jay-Z verse on “Mr. Nice Watch” and a raspy, half-asleep Drake rapping the praises of morning sex on “In The Morning.”
This album is entirely the product of J. Cole. He is clearly a talented rapper, but his beats provide little to grab onto and his personal anecdotes are only mildly compelling. Nas went through some tough times, too. But he never tried this hard for sympathy.