J. Cole’s Cole World: The Sideline Story Turns 5

Andrew Martone
14 Min Read

Andrew- Working J. Cole & Cole World: The Sideline Story

One of the most exciting things about being part of a record label in college, was watching new artists actually break. We represented a major market as college students, and a big part of our job was to participate in spreading awareness when a new artist was breaking. Our greatest achievement during my tenure was easily that of J. Cole’s Cole World: The Sideline Story.

We were already working Cole when I joined Sony in spring of 2010. “Who Dat” had just dropped, and we hit the ground running, promoting the song and driving traffic to purchase/listen to the song. Within 2 months, the video was out and his debut album was scheduled for an October 26 release.


Then, mid-summer, there was a leak. A few songs were out there and getting ready to hit the internet, so in anticipation, Cole decided to drop “Blow Up” before the leakers could. We got on a big call with Cole, and he spoke to all the college reps. We’re a few years younger than Cole, and being a recent college grad himself, he conveyed his appreciation for our roles and how his own college experience had opened his eyes to the way music spread (he name checked Kanye’s “Through The Wire”, Lil’ Wayne’s Dedication mixtapes and The Carter III).

We heard “Blow Up” and we blew up. It was incredible. The song hit, and continued to build a buzz for Cole. At some point, the October 26 release date was scrapped, and no new date was given… yet.

October rolled around, and we found ourselves in New York for annual Sony meetings full of mind-blowing surprises. One such surprise was J. Cole himself. We assembled after a long day of meetings in the penthouse suite of the hotel we were using as our hangout and were told that Cole was coming through to give us a little listening party. He arrived, we all freaked out internally and sat around him as he played tracks for us. Some of those tracks ended up on the Friday Night Lights mixtape, and some ended up on the album.

Most notably I remember him playing “Can’t Get Enough” without any feature on the hook, he was singing it himself. He told us that he really wanted to get Cee-Lo to sing the hook, and as we all know, Trey Songz ended up taking that spot. I got to talk to Cole afterwards and I went as far as to tell him to put Mary J. Blige on the hook. He seemed into the idea, but hey, I can’t win em all.

J. Cole & Andrew- 2010

Shortly after, a box showed up at my door full of 200 copies of Friday Night Lights. We all remember that mixtape dropping because it was nothing short of incredible. It also contained Cole’s show-stealing appearance on Kanye West’s “Looking For Trouble”. The anticipation for Cole was high.

For the next 6 months, Cole was off our radar. We didn’t talk about him, there was nothing to promote, and he was quietly making a few tour stops on the BET Music Matters tour. Finally, at the end of June 2011, it was time to get back to work. Cole World: The Sideline Story was scheduled for a September 27 release, and we were ecstatic.

The next few months were high activity. We were driving traffic to numerous links: first the “Workout” single purchase and videos, then there were some Cole World viral videos, and of course eventually the album pre-order. It was at this time that I got to see Cole perform, opening for Rihanna during the Loud tour. His set was short, but he was stadium status and the crowd was definitely feeling him.

“Can’t Get Enough” soon followed, as did the video. It was (and still is) the perfect summer song. We continued to promote Cole and the album hard both physically and digitally as September 27 approached. Finally the day came. Despite receiving a quantity of promo copies, I made a point to go out and buy a copy to support the album. As I thumbed through the liner notes, I found myself ecstatically re-reading one line of the liner notes: “All the college reps” It may not have been my name, but damn if it wasn’t incredible to have been recognized by the artist for putting our work in.

As if all of that wasn’t good enough, the following week, I was glued to HitsDailyDouble watching the album sales come in. Blink 182 also released an album the same week, so it was pretty much understood that Cole would not hit #1 on the Billboard 200, until something changed. There was a groundswell of support for Cole and low and behold, Cole World: The Sideline Story debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200. Watching an album that I worked so hard hit number one, was an indescribable feeling.

Vincent- Revisiting Cole World: The Sideline Story

So, what makes Cole World: The Sideline Story so special? Was it deserving of the praise and #1 debut? Absolutely. As a fellow St. John’s University alum, you may call me bias but I promise you it’s not that. It is a solid album, an exemplary debut album, a breath of fresh air for the genre.

The Sideline Story was a fitting title for the album; aside from the connection to his mixtapes (The Come Up, The Warm Up and Friday Night Lights), the title essentially articulates the scope of it’s content. In fact, one line from one of the title tracks, “Sideline Story,” does a good job of summing it up: “I wish somebody made guidelines, on how to get up off the sideline.” Cole seemingly made the wish come true with his debut set. It is indeed a guideline of how he left the sideline and entered the mainstream court, so to speak.

Like many of the greats before him, Cole too uses his debut as a means of introduction; the album informs of his pre-fame struggle and the life experiences that brought him to this point in life. It begins with “Dollar and a Dream III,” the final installment in a series of songs that began on his first mixtape, it is an inspiring anthem of rags to riches that encapsulates Cole’s particular rhetoric of coming up with nothing but his talent. While it might be a common tale within hip-hop, Cole is unique in that he pursued a college education prior to finding fame. “Dollar and a Dream II” details this more specifically, while part 3 is more generally ambitious.

Of course, the album has some more standard, commercial fair such as hit single “Can’t Get Enough,” featuring a barely-there Trey Songz, “In The Morning” with Drake, the perfection of “Nobody’s Perfect” and Nas-disappointing lead single “Work Out.” The four tracks are the album’s only moments surrounding topics of the romantic persuasion. The rest are tackle other issues.


“Sideline Story,” as mentioned details his come up, while “Mr. Nice Watch” (featuring President Carter) talks about the financial rewards of it, viewed through an apprehensive lens. One standout, thought-provoking line of the song is when he states, “They say time is money, but really it’s not/If we ever go broke, girl, then time is all we’ve got.” Really, when you ponder on it some, it’s quite true in fact.

“Cole World” brings Cole from being merely on the sideline to having “a hundred fifty bitches in the club staring at” him, reveling in how fame has changed his world. More significant in topic is “Lost Ones,” a song that Cole actually saved for four years until he was ready to release his debut album. Its music video was actually shot in 2008, when he was fresh out of college, and he saved it for release via his debut set – in 2011. The song deals with the topic of teenage pregnancy and abortion, written from the perspective of the two protagonists, the man and the woman, involved in the situation. It’s change in point of view is a bit reminiscent of Lupe Fiasco’s “He Say, She Say,” but if possible even more emotionally charged. It’s a standout on the album and within his entire discography.

“Rise and Shine” shows Cole reveling in his rise, cleverly including a quote from Jay-Z in which he says he’s going to find the next big hip-hop artist who wants Jay’s spot; that he’ll find him and sign him. Cole was the first rapper signed to Jay’s new imprint, Roc Nation, and his protege in some ways. “God’s Gift” continues that line of thought and braggadocio while he asserts the notion that he is indeed that very gift Jay spoke of.

The album gets more serious once again with “Breakdown,” a song about his broken relationship with his absentee father, his mother’s drug addiction and society, and the effects of incarceration. While the song is certainly sad, it attempts to be inspiring through the message of the chorus. “Breakdown” set the tone for Cole to release more similarly thought-provoking, socially conscious and profound content within his lyrics on future releases. (Interesting side note, the original version of “Breakdown” used a brief interpolation of the Mariah Carey song of the same name, but the sample wasn’t cleared in time to be used)

Cole World: The Sideline Story was technically the album that put J. Cole on the map; though really it all began with his 2009 mixtape, The Warm Up, which was ultimately the reason Jay-Z signed him. Regardless, Sideline Story has a certain finesse and cohesiveness that was not as present on his mixtape work. Cole World presented an artist that was poised and ready to be taken seriously as hip-hop’s next big thing. Not only is he a genius rhymer, but he is also a producer; he helmed the majority of the album himself – a fact that often goes overlooked. However, there is something uniquely personal and authentic about a hip-hop artist who can play the keys he laments over. Not only can you feel the emotion in Cole’s voice and words, but you can feel it in the soul he exudes into his self-production. Few hip-hop artists can claim to participate in such a dynamic, but for that reason and many more, J. Cole became one of hip-hop’s most highly regarded artists, one of the new kings of hip-hop. Not too bad for someone who was on the self-assigned sideline. He certainly morphed hip-hop into a Cole World.

Stream J. Cole’s Cole World: The Sideline Story below:

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