One of the most notable samples in J. Cole’s proper debut — Cole World: The Sideline Story — comes from Backstage, Jay-Z’s 1999 Hard Knock Life tour documentary. “In between Apple Jacks he writing some shit and he want my spot,” Hova said of his ideal signee. But as J. Cole reveals, impressing Jay-Z isn’t that easy. “Didn’t want to even take my CD when he see me/ Two years, bitch we made it / on, onto The Blueprint,” he spits over chipmunk-voiced moaning and heavy bass thumping. His voice shakes, though not out of fear. Cole doesn’t just want this — he’s got this.
Respectable producers (Brian Kidd, No I.D.) occasionally surface in Sideline Story. High-profile guests (Missy Elliott, Jay himself) feature, too. But Cole is still in his usual spot: hunched over the piano, drum machine and the mic. He’s largely revisiting the minimalistic production of his mixtapes, though he’s also creating an album, it seems, of songs drawn from Planned Parenthood counseling sessions. “Lost Ones” is a conversation between a couple too young to take care of their forthcoming baby. “Breakdown” is an ode to his father, who abandoned his family and became “a Martin with no Coretta.”
Over interpolations of melodies once sampled by Tupac and with musical nods to both Paula Abdul and Billie Holiday, Cole wrestles with heartbreak, reminiscence and parenthood largely on his own. And while faced with Jay’s expectations, he’s, perhaps unwittingly, created this decade’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.