J. Cole, 'Cole World: The Sideline Story' (Roc Nation)

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Cole World: The Sideline Story
Critical Mass
Release Date: September 27, 2011
Label: Roc Nation

by Phillip Mlynar

J. Cole waits until the sixth song on his official full-length debut to invoke the name of Jay-Z, the man who hand-picked the Fayetteville, North Carolina–raised rapper as the inaugural signing to Hova's RocNation venture. The reference is delivered defiantly: "Niggas asking me why Jay never shout me out / Like I give a fuck." This vow of independence isn't just a jab at those who wondered whether Cole's perpetually delayed debut was even a blip on Jay's schedule -- it establishes the 26-year-old as an artist mature enough to shun the coattails of a superstar co-sign and lay the groundwork himself.

This sentiment of self-determination is Cole World's motif. The rapper produces ?all but three songs here, and grants guest ?vocals only to Drake, Missy Elliott, Trey Songz, and Jay; his most persuasive songs are personal tales of persistence, as when he muses on the complexities of an abortion decision ("Lost Ones").

But often, it's the production that shines, with liberal swaths of rolling piano and melancholy guitar loops hinting at a sound you'd imagine golden-era rap troop A Tribe Called Quest embracing for a comeback. Kanye West's youthful charge Big Sean stumbled through a calamitous debut early this year, but with Cole, Jay-Z can look on proudly -- and from a respectful distance.

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