Since J. Cole already has two signature songs entitled “Dollar and a Dream,” on one level it makes sense that the first real song on his debut album is called “Dollar and a Dream III.” On another, it introduces an immediate existential crisis for any mathematically inclined listener: by this point Jermaine must have, at the very least, three dollars and three dreams, a fact contrary to his claim to have only one of each. This may seem like a ridiculously abstract issue easily resolved by just calming down about it, but the discrepancy between the perception Cole wishes to generate and the reality he is embracing causes most of the issues on Cole World, a solid album frustrating for its inability to resolve satisfactorily what it is, or what it should even be.
The question of how many dollars Cole actually has is a recurring issue on Cole World. At times Cole tries to convince the listener that he is bathing in gold like Scrooge McDuck, as he does on “Mr. Nice Watch,” which features Jay-Z. The track makes it readily obvious how unequipped Cole is to pull of this colossal persona effectively, as Jay essentially mops the floor with his protégé. Cole does much better with “Rise and Shine,” a track featuring a colossal military-inspired beat, on which he doesn’t make an illegitimate claim to the throne, but simply inhabits his natural cooler-than-you persona who has been “dreaming about the paper” and may not be an all-time great, but “has the clock set” to get there. This more grounded level of braggadocio is quintessential Cole, and he does it incredibly well. “Can’t Get Enough” is a perfect example: sure, it’s got the inevitable Trey Songz please-put-me-in-the-Top-40 feature, but it’s so catchy and Cole sounds so awesome that it’s impossible not to nod with it.
In terms of what Cole is seeing in his sleep, I’m actually fairly convinced he has three dreams: mix the dollar-rap with intensely personal, introspective rhyming, become a top-flight producer, and develop a Drake-esque capacity to sing his own hooks.
He’s successful at the first. Overall, Cole is a brilliant lyricist, a trait no doubt influenced by his possession of a degree. When he gets heavy, as he does on “Lost Ones,” a searing look at inner-city abortion and “Breakdown,” a heart-wrenching look at Cole’s struggles coming up in a broken home, Cole sounds earnest and believable. It’s a trait he turns to on “Never Told” and “Nobody’s Perfect,” as well, each of which features evocative, heartfelt lyrical work. And as was mentioned, he does carefree bragging well.
There are the occasionally missteps. He has a few regrettable pasta-themed moments like “Cole heating up like leftover lasagna,” on “Nobody’s Perfect,” and the rhyming of “world” with “fire” on “Work Out,” although to be fair this last sounds more like a pairing of “world” and “fuhhhhrr” the way Cole says it. Hopefully in the future Cole will eliminate these misfires by simply consolidating his lyrics. As is, pretty much every song on the album is a minute or two longer than it needs to be, and if Cole would trim the fat a bit the remaining rhymes would be that much more potent.
Cole does tend to lost track of his own voice when another big-name artist gets into the studio with him, and this is probably his greatest musical flaw. On every one of these cuts on the album he sounds like a guest on his own songs. Jay obliterates him, an apparently still-living Missy Elliot steals “Nobody’s Perfect,” and Drake seduces the girl Cole was making a move on in the smooth jam “In The Morning.” Cole needs to be able to keep his head with other artists in the studio, but hopefully experience will bring that with it. Overall, however, Cole has the lyricism. That’s no longer even a question.
Where Cole World falters is in the production and in the hooks. Apparently Cole had a field day when he got to leave his second-hand drum machine and hacked ProTools and move to an actual studio. The results are over-produced beats that tend to obscure the lyrical content, and at times, Cole’s voice entirely. The worst offenses are committed when Cole gives his inner John Williams a hug and starts throwing strings everywhere, most noticeably on “Dollar and a Dream III” and “Lost Ones.” Combine these overindulgent orchestra excesses with Cole’s penchant for dramatic, plinking pianos and you transition from emotional realism and drama to Hallmark-Channel levels of absurdity. And thus does young Cole derail the aforementioned would-be album highlights. He also needs to avoid trying to be Lex Luger, a mistake he makes on “Mr. Nice Watch.” When he wants to be taken seriously the man needs to stick to the pared down sound featured on the great “Sideline Story” and “In the Morning,” and use more of the casual bounce of “Can’t Get Enough” when he wants to talk shit. Cole can produce very well when he’s at the top of his game, but he needs to restrain himself.
He also should avoid singing except in dire emergencies. He just isn’t good at it. Unfortunately for Cole World, Young Simba felt a need to unleash his roaring on almost every cut, creating huge swaths of the album that are totally skippable. Exacerbating the issue is the fact that he not only sings on every track, but that he does so, or turns to his lilting sing-song flow, multiple times per song. He also exhibits an addiction to the sung outro, a ubiquitous feature of Cole World. J. Cole the songbird starts annoying and just gets worse, beginning with his self-torpedoing of “Lights Please,” an otherwise solid track that becomes unlistenable, as far as I’m concerned, because of its insufferable hook.
The bottom line is that Cole can be a fun guy to ride with, or a really interesting person to talk to. But he can also be a melodramatic rap chameleon, picking up styles that aren’t his own and shoehorning himself into other people’s shoes to run marathons, when he just needs to jog a while in his own kicks. At the root of this issue is Cole’s inability to pick a dream or two and focus his prodigious abilities. For a less talented rapper Cole World would be a career highlight. But given Cole’s capacities it is more a showcase of tremendous latent potential than a realization of it. Hopefully next time he’ll be able to tap into it a bit better.