Remember when Nas proclaimed hip hop was dead. Seems a long time ago right? In 2009, a new generation was born. XXL’s Freshman List featured the likes of Wale, Kid Cudi, Asher Roth, Ace Hood and B.o.B. Cudi had ‘Day N Nite’ and ‘Make Her Say’. Wale’s ‘Chillin’, Asher Roth’s ‘I love College’ and Ace Hood’s ‘Cash Flow’ were credible singles too. Not to forget Drake’s ascent which saw him earn a Grammy nomination without releasing an album. When Jay Z’s Blueprint 3 dropped in September that year, going through the track list I was familiar with every artiste featured bar one. Jermaine Cole. He was known as the only rapper signed to Jay Z’s Roc Nation label and that was as good as it got. Fans were curious to know if he was going to be the new Kanye West or Memphis Bleek. Track 9, ‘A Star is Born’ was Jay Z’s ode to the Industry. He dropped verses name checking and praising anyone who was anyone (If you didn't get a shout, your credibility needs to be checked). On that track, Mr. Cole held his own and dropped a remarkable verse that saw us rewind our iPods’ screaming “What?!”. Indeed a star was born.
Cole dropped another memorable verse on Wale’s ‘Beautiful Bliss’(He actually ate Wale up) and showed that he was indeed worthy of the attention he was getting. It was at this point that I went to search for his previously released mixtape ‘The Warm Up’. After one listen, I was hooked. I had not been excited about any new artist like that in my life. I told everyone who cared to listen he was the best thing since sliced bread. His story telling ability was spectacular and he actually had decent punch lines. And his raps weren’t necessarily based on having sex with every girl he’d met or how many kilos’ he’d sold. His music was actually based on things related to his life. Hustling to get a record deal? Student Loans (Sally Mae)? Studying for a degree he didn’t plan on using? Working a job he had no interest in? Getting disappointed? We could all relate. I remember saying he reminded me of Nas in the sense that he was a highly credible rapper who was comfortable in his lane and wasn’t too bothered with selling one million records or fooling us that Pop and Hip Hop are cut from the same cloth. My best track on that project was his remix of Kanye West’s ‘Last Call’. 7 minutes long, he shared the joys and pains he encountered as he marched towards gaining relevance.
“Yeah, look now to the few niggas out there who heard my last shit
Which if I must say so myself that was a classic
I never been the type to ride my own coat tail
But it's obvious I'm here to stay, a fucking hotel
I came up, I warmed up!
The next up, I blow up!
If you ain't peep the trend by now, with each rap I go up
Look all he wanted was a deal so when he got it he just faded
But tell me what's a deal when you want to be the greatest?
So Jay I appreciate it, hell of a stepping stone
Wonder if he see it in my eyes, I'm trying to get the throne
Wonder if the people know, how many nights I spent alone
Making beats, writing rhymes, thinking deep, fighting time”
Cole was finally reaching the mainstream. He’d opened for Jay Z on his 2009 ’Fall Tour’. He covered Source magazine and was also featured on XXL’s Freshman List in 2010 alongside of Big Sean, Wiz Khalifa, Nipsey Hussle, Freddie Gibbs and Pill. He built on his reputation holding his head high on the lyricists’ wet dream, Reflection Eternal’s ‘Just Begun’ alongside Talib Kwali, Mos Def and Jay Electronica. He took it a notch higher on the G.O.O.D Friday track ‘Looking for Trouble’ delivering the most remarkable verse. He then released the mixtape ‘Friday Night Lights’.
Cole World: The Sideline Story begins with a piano accompaniment where he recounts his getting signed. He does this over two interludes. Cole sticks to his mixtape roots by reworking some old material and creating better tracks. ‘Dollar and a Dream III’ documents the feeling of being broke and staying optimistic despite the challenges. He asks “Tell me, what do you do just when you're on your last dollar/ and the stress of this mess you in can make your ass holla?” Do you fold, grow bitter and grow cold?/No longer fightin' now the only thing you grow is old/Or do you flip that fuckin' dollar to a dream?/Whether a scholar or a fiend, watch a pawn become a king/Cole! ” Cole isn't new to disappointment. His life goal was to get signed by Jay Z and the story goes, he once stood for three hours in the rain outside Baseline Studios hoping to meet Jay Z and hand him his demo. He would find out Jay Z would not be recording that day and left there more determined that his dream would come true. Months later, when his beat tape reached Jay and got rejected, he didn't give up. Cole’s story inspires. It shows that hard work and determination are the key to earning success. Cole teaches us to stomach disappointment and focus on the things we’re after. ‘Sideline Story’ also sees him express a sense of entitlement of some sorts.
J Cole’s said in the past that he wanted his debut LP to have minimal features. Of the 18 tracks, only four feature other artists. His Boss, Jay Z showed up on ‘Mr. Nice Watch’ and typically delivered a solid verse half screaming “show off”. He then passes the baton on to Cole “Uh, what up, Cole? /It’s yo’ time, let this niggas know/Adjust your Rollies on these mo’fuckin’ hoes/ Whenever you ready, go”. The ultimate cosign, right there. On the Caribbean infused ‘Can’t Get Enough’, Trey Songz does a decent job. Remember Missy Elliott? Arguably, the last woman to make great music in Hip Hop. Her appearance on ‘Nobody’s Perfect’ was a high point and made me somewhat hopeful that should she decide to make a proper comeback, it could turn out well. I’m not sure what I think of Drake’s appearance on ‘In the Morning’. I’ll assume that makes it ordinary.
When it comes to woman matters, Cole never fails to paint the perfect portrait. ‘Lights Please’, the song which got him signed sees Cole details a set of multiple sexual encounters where he tries to get all deep and mushy with his lady friend while her only interest lies in him ‘unzipping her jeans’ and ‘unhooking her bra’. He then goes on to describe the joy gained from giving the female sexual organ a good time. *wink* He has a message for deadbeat dads. “And ain't it shameful how niggas blame hoes for givin' birth/ To a baby that took two to make/ Coward nigga you a fake/How gon' look in your sons face and turn your back/Then go start another family dog what type of shit is that?”
My favourite: ‘Lost Ones’ is a deep number where he makes use of a double viewpoint technique in detailing the story of being a young and unfulfilled man who gets his girlfriend pregnant. He offers his view suggesting an abortion under the premise that they’re still young and unable to fend for themselves, much less a child. The second verse from the girls view sees her curse him for coming up with the suggestion and point out the self-contradictions of a man who claimed he didn’t want to be like his father and is on track to turn out just like that.
Jermaine Cole is on course to be a hip hop legend in his own right. He shares a lot of similarities with a certain Kanye West. Middle class ish backgrounds aside, Cole is the best Rapper/Producer to hit the mainstream since West. Not to forget, they’ve both been offered the path to greatness by the same person. Cole must take credit for shunning the trend of accumulating different Producers’ with clashing sounds and actually trying to tailor his sound in one direction. No I.D (Mr West’s mentor) assists him in doing this for the bulk of the album. Cole and West have similar setback filled stories and that similarity amongst others makes me view ‘Cole World’ in the same light as ‘College Dropout’. If in a couple of years’ time, Cole’s raps start to reference women who give blow jobs with shades on, then remember you heard it here first. With this, it’s only appropriate Cole takes a page out of the Kanye blueprint. ‘Work Out’ contains a sample of Kanye West’s ‘New Workout Plan’ off ‘College Dropout’.
Cole World: A Sideline Story is a winner. Yes, it could have been better if he was able to channel more of that X factor that saw it become one of the most anticipated albums of recent times. Listening to it, some of the songs could come across as boring. The average hip hop head would definitely play it back a couple of times while the untrained ear would probably trash it after the initial listen which begs the question: What was his motive when making the album? His production ability would also require some improvement.
The boy from Fayetteville, North Carolina has succeeded on one front. He’s delivered a standout freshman offering that’s been commercially successful and critically acclaimed. Come December, when Grammy nominations are announced, I would expect that Cole would earn a nomination for ‘Best Rap Album’ and if lucky, ‘Best New Artist’. If that comes to pass, the next challenge would be ensuring he doesn’t fall victim to the sophomore curse. Goodluck, Jermaine.