Before he’d even shown his face at his debut listening party last night, Roc Nation freshman J. Cole made it known that lyrics were the focus on his album. Adorning the walls of downtown NYC staple Santos Party House were large posters with block quotes from Cole World: The Sideline Story (out September 27th) – white text stenciled on black backdrops, highlighting what would soon be revealed as the album’s brightest lyrical moments. Finally emerging after a lengthy DJ set of hip-hop classics, Cole begged for silence from the rowdy crowd of hip-hop elite and industry influencers: “If you came to listen, thank you for coming,” he said graciously. “But if you came to drink and talk and all that, please step to the back. This is ’bout to be some real shit.”
Cole World narrates J. Cole’s uphill battle against compromise: a 15-track opus on his two-year ascension in a hip-hop landscape that values danceable pop beats and viral videos over his brand of glitz-free lyricism. “I’m coming for what I’m owed,” he declares on somber opener “A Dollar and a Dream III,” before launching into “Can’t Get Enough,” which features Trey Songz and will serve as his next single. The bachata-sampling track nods to radio without pandering to it, retaining Cole’s blitzing wordplay: “I’m from the ‘Ville where they bang for the money/And carry .45s like change for a 20,” he lip-synced fervently as his entourage mobbed in the crowd.
Often, the young MC sounded more like a devoted fan of his work than the star showcasing it. “This is the song where you may skip it the first time around, but then like six weeks later, you’ll hear it and you’re like ‘Oh shit!'” he warned playfully before playing the No I.D.-produced “Never Told.” It’s a hypnotizing waltz on which he frames infidelity as hereditary, passed from unfaithful fathers down to their sons under the pretext of manhood. Tellingly, it silenced the audience for the first time that evening.
It’s in these moments that Cole World is strongest, crafting lucid portrayals of young black males reckoning with their ideas of masculinity and maturity. The album’s clear standout, “Lost Ones,” narrates a wrenching dialogue between a teenage couple who’ve just found out they’re expecting a child. “Journalists always ask me what makes me different from any other rapper,” he told the applauding crowd as the song faded. “This is what separates me from Rapper A and Rapper B. They don’t tell these stories.”
But the album wasn’t entirely brooding. The oft-hinted Jay-Z feature was solidified with the massive “Mr. Nice Watch,” a Throne-esque no-brainer featuring a menacing drum roll, flashy guitar solo and infectious hook. “You go Cole, it’s your time,” Jay nudges on the song’s third verse. His absence from the night’s proceedings was noted, but not shocking. “Jay’s always late, but he’s always on time,” Cole joked of his boss.
Cole World: The Sideline Story is very much a manifestation of J. Cole’s own challenges as an artist: the introspective stories he wants to tell, contrasted against the crowd-pleasing bangers he has to make. As Cole dished thank you’s to Roc Nation personnel, family, and close friends, the crowd shouted over him for an encore of “Mr. Nice Watch.” After a brief pause, he sighed, smiled and hit play.