The release of J. Cole’s Cole World: The Sideline Story is preceded by a more-than-loaded question: Can J. Cole save hip hop? Or to go meta, does hip hop need saving? Most would reply “yes” to the latter (Where is this year’s MBDTF?). As for the former, the same question could easily be asked about Drake, Jay Electronica or Big Sean — all young upstarts with impressive and powerful mentors (Lil’ Wayne, Diddy and Kanye, respectively). Cole doesn’t have just any mentor, though. Most aspiring rappers would give up their ability to rhyme to be taken in by Jay-Z, signed to Hova’s label, Roc Nation, and have their first guest spot on The Blueprint 3’s “A Star is Born.” Talk about a head start on the game. No pressure, right?

J. Cole

Cole World: The Sideline Story
Roc Nation

Inevitably, it does beg the question: Can J. Cole summit the mountain of his own hype? The answer: not yet. But that’s not to say he isn’t climbing. On Cole World, he delivers his verses with a hard-to-pin magnetism — there is no denying Jermaine Lamarr Cole has the X-factor. He’s articulate, relatable and possesses a fastidious intelligence — all qualities that are in short supply in current hip hop (we’re looking at you, Tha Carter IV).

He’s not lacking confidence, either. On “Cole World” he raps, “My reign gon’ last like three, four eras / Say hello to the real ‘I can be your hero.’ ” Though you can’t help rooting for the guy, Cole spends more time talking about being hip hop’s hero than actually delivering songs that transcend “pretty good.”

Cole’s style fluctuates from boastful to introspective to self-conscious to straight-up frenzied. On “Sideline Story,” he goes hard on his haters over a sauntering, cocktail-hour beat as he recounts his rise to success. On “Lost Ones,” he poignantly role-plays a drama between a couple dealing with an unplanned pregnancy. It’s this balance between his two personas — the hedonistic player and the neurotic intellectual — that makes Cole a compelling rapper.

With the exception of the polarizing “Work Out,” which samples Kanye’s “New Workout Plan” and Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up,” and the Trey Songz-assisted “Can’t Get Enough,” Cole World suffers from a dearth of light radio hits. It’s easy to see Cole is more comfortable with his introspective, personal songs than the ones where he rattles off pithy lines about women and fame. As with his mixtapes, he still favors the old-school soul feel of piano laced around his self-produced beats.

In arguably the only genre that is still evolving in exciting ways (sorry, chillwave, you’ve gone as far as you could), Cole tries his hand at playing hip hop’s savior. Drake’s Thank Me Later was a step in the right direction (Take Care remains to be seen), Big Sean’s Finally Famous was a dud and Jay Elec still hasn’t gotten it together and put out a real-life record. That leaves J. Cole. Many expected (perhaps unfairly) Cole World to be a messianic gift — one that could tip the scales of a genre vacillating between producing High Art and total garbage. His mixtapes — especially Friday Night Lights — certainly packed enough punch to add to the build-up.

But then again, what more can we expect? The guy’s 26 years old, his verses are superior to the majority of his contemporaries and he produced most of his debut album by himself. J. Cole has had the weight of the hip-hop world thrust upon him by desperate speculators, industry gods and even his own idols. Give the guy some time.

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