Anyone who encountered his numerous mixtapes can tell you that before his official debut landed, rapper/producer J. Cole had spent some time bringing the whole Drake, Wale, and Big Sean style to a more street level. It’s worth mentioning because Cole World: The Sideline Story has little of that debut desire to cross over, and while the multi-talented Cole is a skilled, interesting beat-maker in his own right, a superstar production would have certainly made this album more approachable. Instead, No I.D. -- the biggest behind-the-boards name here -- turns in a sluggy, druggy construction for “Never Told,” Cole's deep, rich study of father/son confidence. Cole handles most of the rest on his own, turning in B+ stabs at dubstep (“Mr. Nice Watch” with guest and label boss Jay-Z), indie-hop (“Cole World” or “flossin’ with a laptop”), and his own humbler version of the Roc-A-Fella sound (the great single “Lights Please”). Add an “Intro” and then a part III -- the first two parts to be found on earlier mixtapes -- and you’re practically telling the aboveground crowd they’re stale from the start, but the tradeoff is a talent that has matured in the underground and is free of any forced outside influence. Cole’s fantastic style shoots off bold punch lines one minute (“I blow brains, Cobain-style”) and then goes deep the next, with equal skill and all while stringing together eye-level, real-life stories that have that classic flow. The reservation count is high and the flaw count is zero, and in this case, that’s the proper formula for a rich hip-hop album. Take a couple listens, let it sink in, and then discover that Cole World is one hell of a debut.
AllMusic Review by David Jeffries