Considering the proverb, “Speak softly and a carry a big stick,” and J. Cole largely seemed to adhere to the former point. The likeable underdog in a generation of largely flashy mannequin counterparts, Cole seemed so destined to underperform that many refused to recognize success when they saw it. When he spits, “’Cole ain’t hot?’ Where’d ya read that shit?” Cole’s not just rhyming, a stubborn online resistance did more to delay Cole World than waiting on a Jay-Z verse ever did. The MC’s imagined failures were so prominent that they began to seem real – ‘Hov doesn’t care about Cole, the debut will flop,’ – the griping went on and on.
And the negativity had an inevitable effect. Cole had brought hype and genuine respect to Roc Nation, but now the proud son’s debut didn’t seem to be creating the waves it was intended to. While Hov certainly must care about his employee to some extent, he hardly played a true mentor, largely skipping out on the process, finally dropping in for a verse on “Mr. Nice Watch,” all swag and fluff. Compared to the dramatic, star-ensuring verse he offered Drake last year, Hov’s true apprentice seems left with a pittance. No one seemed to be giving the poor kid the props he seemed guaranteed when The Warm Up dropped. You could call it a lack of ability to create hype, blame the kid.
Yet, he just hit the chart with a bullet, 218,000 units out the door. True, those aren’t Young Money numbers, but, then, it’s also true that Jay-Z is no Birdman, he doesn’t buy half his people’s records. The point is – Cole did those numbers in the face of the lack of shine he’s been given. Imagine the units he’d have pushed if Jay had genuinely backed him from the start, thrown him at the airwaves with a debut buzz track with Hov bars: nothing less than the treatment the ever-delaying Jay Electronica received.
Nonetheless, the lack of love hits Cole World. Had the album been treated by his superiors like Thank Me Later, it would have been an event, instead the record nearly plays like Cole figured out he was getting zero from headquarters and locked himself in the studio until it all sounded as perfect as it could. There’s a reason for that: Cole produces practically the entire album, and he’s clearly vigorously stepped up his ability. Here’s where the limitations hit: Cole had produced a solid album, all on his lonesome, and he had nary a thing to market it with. To get the album out, a generous amount of recycling occurs. Last year’s “In the Morning” reappears to take advantage of that “ft. Drake” sales boost, worse, Drizzy bested Cole then, it doesn’t sound any better on his own album. Even “Lights Please” returns, despite being the track that got him on the Roc in the first place. “Lost Ones” is also hardly new, but its brilliance easily justifies its presence.
It’s understandable – Cole simply needed those tracks to get the album out the gate. And he makes a relative riot out of the whole one man show thing. Missy Elliott nails a sing-song hook on “Nobody’s Perfect,” which – like much of Cole’s production here – captures a both smooth and bombastic sound that hasn’t been presented so effectively in mainstream rap for some time. “Some nigga asked me why Jay never shout me out, like I’m supposed to give a fuck,” Cole declares early on. It’s true; Cole is a man to himself. He was faced with ignorance, and cranked out a hit album in its face. It’s a rather small affair for an MC debuting at #1 on the charts in 2011, not every guy with a mic and a potentially falsified criminal history gets a deal from Puff anymore. It’s easy to forget: selling is everything, and most guys these days just don’t sell. Let’s get it clear: put Cole’s 218,000 up against B.o.B’s debut week, 84,000. Without a “Nothin on You,” “Airplanes,” or Eminem verse. One hopes someone at Roc Nation gleans the importance of those figures, or that Simba gets more love from his Mufasa, but this time out, we got an album entirely thrown on the shoulders of the cub, and like a growing king, J. Cole actually pulled it off, but scope, cohesiveness, and focus couldn’t help but become somewhat lost in the disarray.