There’s no debate who the big four of hip hop has been for the past five years: Eminem (Shady/Aftermath), Kanye West (GOOD Music), Lil Wayne (Young Money), and Jay-Z (Roc Nation). These four have built pseudo-empires within the rap game, establishing themselves as mentors for up and coming talents. Think about working with any of those: Eminem may be the best lyricist in the game, but he’s also the most anal retentive and intimidating. Marshall Mathers does not exude warmness. Kanye is the best overall artist: producer, lyricist, and rapper. Ye’s mentorship offers the most room for growth and he is firm supporter (see Big Sean), but Kanye would be the hardest to surpass. You would never be meant to eclipse him, the highest goal being his equal.

 Anybody would be happy with either, but now imagine rapping for Young Money, under the privileged tutelage of Weezy F (Baby). He would probably invite you to smoke pot with him multiple times a day, invite you to club visits, and shower you with beats. Out of any of the Big Four, he would be the easiest to surpass, as Drake is already doing so.

The worst mentor has to be Jay-Z, right? He is the “thug” of the mainstream artists, the bullish businessman. His entire image is predicated on being the best, so much so, that his mentor could never be his equal without jeopardizing Jay-Z’s image. Enter J. Cole, the kid on the sidelines, the one destined to roc the nation.  

Hip hop is an underground music, and the popular music world only lets them out once in awhile to the rest of the real world. When they do, it’s a set style of song: a braggadocio song that illustrates how much better the artist is than others or a misogyny fueled song with mentions of pot, money, and bitches. There are exceptions to this rule, but generally it’s one of the two. It’s why anyone associated with Young Money is popular, those two archetypes are what the rap collective is known for. It’s the easiest means to mainstream fame.

J. Cole eschews mainstream tropes. He finds girls more than simple playthings. He’s not from New York, Chicago, Detroit, the West Coast, or even Atlanta; he’s a kid from North Carolina. He enjoys sex most when girls are on top. He has no serious street cred: he was never a corner boy, never gang-affiliated. He attended St. John’s: a prestigious, Catholic university in the northeast. His symbol has both horns and a halo on it. He’s not like any rapper in the game.

With an influx of Soulja Boys, Weed Khalifas, and Wocka Flocka Flame Outs, he’s uniquely refreshing. His voice has found him a devote underground following, but now he wants to be on par with the Big Four. Not yet, young fella.

J. Cole just released his first album, Cole World: The Sideline Story. The two singles of the album so far are “Work Out” and “Can’t get Enough” featuring Trey Songz. “Work Out” is distinctly Cole, the honesty with a one night stand, basketball metaphors, call backs to other artists; it’s all Cole World. Then there’s “Can’t Get Enough.”There are singles that are representative of an artist’s best work, and there’s singles that try to pander to a radio audience, that’s what “Can’t Get Enough” is.

It’s the main fault of the album, trying to be something to too many audiences, instead of capitalizing on Cole’s strengths. Listen to “Mr. Nice Watch” featuring Jay-Z, you can hear the influences on each part of the song: the Kanye West-esque production, the Eminem-like word play (“Young, black and gifted, I rap like it’s Christmas Eve), the Jay-Z branded grunts after lines in the second verse. Not to say Cole isn’t capable of these qualities, they just don’t feel like his own. There’s a difference between alluding to another artist and doing the exact same thing that made them successful.  

The most powerful tools J. Cole has are his raw, aggressive emotion, his brutal honesty, and clever wordplay. The masterful song “Lost Ones” shows off all of Jermaine’s talents. An issue considered taboo in hip hop culture, Cole presents both sides to an unplanned, “barely over twenty” pregnancy, switching perspective between verses. Both man and woman are given equal voices, showing there isn’t one right or wrong answer to abortion.

But that’s another problem with the album: J. Cole at his best is a manic, depressive Eeyore. Look at his album cover, or his last mix tape cover. Half of Google Image’s first page for J. Cole has him with his patented sad face. We could replace the dogs in the infamous Sarah McLaughlin animal cruelty commercial with J. Cole’s album covers and the commercial would produce the same effect. He’s not a happy dude.

It’s why his move to mainstream has felt so manufactured, a place where reality and sadness are virtually nonexistent. The only two exceptions to this rule are Drake and Eminem. In both cases, the songs in question (“Marvin’s Room” and “Love the Way You Lie”) were an inner battle with their respective emotions, nothing like a couple’s fight over unplanned pregnancy, or J. Cole detailing the people who tried to stop his rise, and basically giving a middle finger to them like in the title track “Sideline Story.”

J. Cole can have happy singles, he can have uplifting tracks, but he shouldn’t move away from what has created his success so far. Nor should he remove his edginess to pander to a commercial audience, like he does in the entire second half of the album after “Lost Ones.” “Nobody’s Perfect” ft. Missy Elliot is one of the worst tracks of the year, full of shitty metaphors and pathetic namedrops, all hoped to be saved by a Missy Elliot appearance. When was the last time she was relevant in rap again?

Plus, the metaphors don’t even make sense. “Cole heating up like that leftover lasagna.” YO DOG, LET’S BUMP THAT BACK. HE SAID HE HEATING UP LIKE MA FUCKING LASAGNA, KID’S SO HOT. If something is leftover that means it’s already been cooked, once hot before, but Cole is trying to say he’s on the rise now. His line would make sense (but wouldn’t be any less of a shitstain), if he were Eminem, who took a hiatus, then returned to rap. Whenever I heat up leftovers, they are never consistently hot anyways, they are hot on the top, then lukewarm on the bottom. Are you saying your rise to fame is a sham then Cole? That it’s a surface level stardom with some singles, but below you’re not really that good? Because that would completely contradict everything you stand for. It doesn’t make sense.

The man who freestyles “it’s a hard core world if they think you soft porn*” on a radio station interview promoting his album, can’t be the same one who spits, “my mind working like play dough.”

*It’s hard to tell if he says “it’s a hard core world” or “it’s a hard cold world” when he freestyles over Kanye's “Crack Music.” My point remains the same either way.

How does Cole expect respect for bragging about going to parties with Hova in one song (“Nobody’s Perfect”) then saying he doesn’t give a fuck about what Jay-Z does in another (“Sideline Story”)? Add “symptoms of bipolar disorder” to J. Cole’s therapy sheet.

The rest of the album is forgettable, songs that you would nod your head to a couple times, but after that, you would never replay them (“Work Out” is the exception). It’s a good album, but the singles aren’t great enough to attract new listeners, the album will only make J. Cole fans like him more. The numbers support this, he sold roughly 240,000 albums his first week. Sounds good until compared to his peers: Nicki Minaj did 375,000 in her first week, Drake 460,000. He’s more comparable to Wiz Khalifa, who did roughly 200,000 in his first week. That’s not good. Maybe, J. Cole is destined to be an underground star, but his flow and talent is meant for the main stage, not the main stream.