Carolina MC stays course, shines on debut LP
Jermaine Cole knows a thing or two about riding the pine. Pause.
He never transacted kilograms of Colombian white like Pusha or Malice. He doesn’t boast the grandiore, iconic persona of a Rick Ross or the mattress spring-bouncing sex appeal of a Trey Songz. Hell, Cole hails from Fayetteville, North Carolina (Need a map?). Far from a hip-hop superstar breeding ground like New York, Atlanta or Chicago.
When Curtis Jackson was busy taking nine rounds of cold steel to his grill in South Jamaica, Queens, Cole was posted up on his desktop, scouring internet message boards for an audience for his homemade beats.
While Wayne was slurping white cup after white cup of promethazine and Sprite, spitting bars about masticating his colleagues, Jermaine graduated magna cum laude from St. Johns. Real rap.
If Sean Carter invented swag, Jermaine Cole might’ve hatched grocery bag. As in the ones Cole looks like he should be bagging at some Whole Foods in New Rochelle.
Truth is, he’s a lanky, awkward-looking, light skinned brother with pubic hairs hanging from his chin like a tenth-grader. Oh, and this dude call’s himself “Young Simba”. Excuse the rest of the rap game if they’re supposed take a guy seriously when his nickname derives from a kid’s Disney flick.
In no way, shape, or miracle was Jermaine Cole ever supposed to develop into some kind of rap mahatma. At least not one with a major label release.
Cole World: The Sideline Story marks the official transition from mixtape rapper to mainstream artist for Cole. A career watermark that often evolves into water-damage for one too many young emcees, effectively drowning their careers before they can paddle out of the shallow end of the pool of success.
Signing to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation in ’09 figured to be the beginning of the end of Cole’s hip-hop chastity. With major label A&Rs quick to dilute every ounce of a young emcee’s artistic identity with every female-voiced radio single-hook and synthetic forced club track, Jermaine figured to be next in line for execution.
Except that never happened. In fact, it is Cole’s relative superstar shortcomings and atypical disposition which ironically save him from ’selling-out’ on Sideline Story, simultaneously fanning the familiar flames of mediocrity and irrelevance.
Sideline Story isn’t Cole’s most lyrical project (see: The Warm Up mixtape) or even his most cohesive (Friday Night Lights). But it’s definitely his most prolific.
For 15 tracks on Cole World: The Sideline Story, Cole both chronologically and sonically narrarates his ascension from unsigned bill collecter to relative hip-hop superstar collecting bills with Ben Franklin’s silhouette. And he does so with little exterior assistance or supporting cast.
11 out of the 15 album cuts are produced exclusively by Cole himself. The 26-year-old showcases that he is surely no one-tricky pony, effectively utilizing a heterogeneous arsenal of 808s, dynamic snares, melodic piano solos and ponderous choir samples.
And rapping…well yeah, J.Cole can do some of that too. Cole saved some of his most emphatic bars for Sideline Story, packing prodigious lyrical pungence over his elegant, hand-crafted instrumentals.
One of the album’s more introspective moments appears on the title track, ”Sideline Story, in which Cole reflects on his unsettled relationship with protege and label boss Jay-Z, comparing it to that of LeBron James and Michael Jordan.
But, you’ll never play me like LeBron vs. Jordan
Twenty years, wonder who they gone say was more importan’
Both changed the game, came through and made a lane
Who’s to say that who’s greater, all we know, they ain’t the same
However, it isn’t until the album’s fourth quarter, tracks 13 and 14, that Cole elevates his game to the next level, taking a page out of the book of His Airness, rather than King James.
On “Rise And Shine”, Cole packs a vociferous flow, lacing a Greg Dykes and The Synanon Choir sample with potent lyrical venom.
In a game full of liars it turns out that I’m the truth
Some say that rap’s alive, it turns out that I’m the proof
Cause the ones y’all thought would save the day can’t even tie my boots
The ones y’all thought could hang with me can’t even tie my noose
Let these words be my bullets n*gga, I don’t rhyme I shoot, bang!
For his next act, “God’s Gift”, a three and a half-minute braggadocio assault over hard-hitting drums, Cole poses questions to both his friends and foes.
Would you miss me?
I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m going
Is you coming with me? Up, up and away…
Hey, do you trust me?
If I was on my last dollar
Dead poor, assed out, would you love me?
“God’s Gift” just may be the most complete track Cole has ever assembled, with “Rise And Shine” serving as the perfect set-up to the album’s 1-2 haymaker of a knockout punch.
Predictably, the only instance in which Cole fails on Sideline Story is when he strays away from his own organic sound and forces his own hand. ”Mr. Nice Watch” the album’s most anticipated track featuring a verse from Hova the God himself, may transcend into a Top 40 smash when all is said and done. But it feels completely out of place here, with a linear dubstep beat and soft rhymes from Jermaine.
Hov bodies his verse, leaving Cole in the dust with entendre on entendre on entendre.
Meanwhile I’m just chopping off doors
Put the front on the back cause I’m back and forth
Put the front on the back of the ‘bach like a boss
So I’m frontin’ on n*ggas when I’m backing off
Call it payback for 2009′s ”A Star Is Born” off Blueprint 3 , where it was Cole who stole the spotlight from Hov with one of the best verses of his young career. A verse that would set the wheels in motion for Jermaine’s mainstream crossover and present day success on Sideline Story.
J. Cole isn’t a lot of things. He may never grace the cover of GQ or Forbes. He may never drop a genre-defining classic like The Blueprint or even another album on the same level as Kingdom Come. He may never eclipse or come close to being Sean Carter.
For now, his own indelible creation, Cole World: The Sideline Story is projected to move 250,000 units its first week, a truly astounding figure for a debut LP. For now, Jermaine Cole is busy being himself, straying from the glitzy norm and producing gritty, raw, true hip-hop. For now, Jermaine Cole is a hip-hop superstar with one of the best albums of the year.
Clap for ’em.