As if being the first rapper signed to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation imprint didn’t invite expectations enough, J. Cole received his label rollout on a Blueprint 3 track presumptuously titled “A Star Is Born.” That’s a lot of pressure to heap on an artist who, for all his mix-tape notoriety, lacks some of the key trappings of a modern rap star. Unlike the outsized personalities who dominate the radio, Cole is a cordial presence, with a casual flow that disguises how fastidious his rhymes are. He’s a gifted rapper, but not always a compelling one, and though his largely self-produced first album, Cole World: The Sideline Story, takes plenty of thematic cues from Kanye West’s The College Dropout, Cole shares neither the combative conviction nor the restless candor of Jay-Z’s other rapper-producer protégé.
A few extra shots of Kanye-style drama would help shake up Cole World, since Cole’s cozy, piano-cushioned beats and overly familiar underdog-makes-good tales sometimes bleed together, but he delivers enough highlights to keep the album from dragging too badly. His perceptive storytelling carries “Lost Ones” and “Lights Please,” the former a response to unplanned pregnancy from the voices of both prospective parents, the latter a clever brains-vs.-groin showdown recycled from Cole’s 2009 mix-tape The Warm Up.
With its novel Afro-Caribbean rhythm and a rascally assist from Trey Songz, “Can’t Get Enough” is Cole’s most spirited pop moment—far more convincing than the forced frivolity of “Work Out,” the failed single included here as a bonus track. Jay-Z’s obligatory guest verse is well used on the spastic outlier “Mr. Nice Watch”—the second dubstep beat the label head has rapped over this year, following Watch The Throne’s “Who Gon Stop Me”—while Missy Elliott continues her gradual return to music with a sexy, deeply soulful chorus on “Nobody’s Perfect.”
Those inspired moments don’t add up to a classic debut, though, and Cole World certainly doesn’t feel like the work of a surefire star. If anything, the album is a true extension of Cole’s mix-tapes, the product of an adroit lyricist still unsure how to fully capitalize on his talents.