Five years ago today, on Sept. 27, 2011, J. Cole unleashed his debut album Cole World: The Sideline Story. Now he’s one of the genre’s biggest names, but back then, he was a rising star with mixtape success and plenty of potential.
Looking back, Sideline Story was an important milestone for Cole’s commercial success. The album catapulted to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and “Work Out” remains his biggest hit to date, peeking at No. 13 on the Hot 100. “Can’t Get Enough” featuring Trey Songz and the Missy Elliott-assisted “Nobody’s Perfect” were touchstones too, peeking at No. 52 and 61 respectively, all setting building blocks for his continued success.
When Sideline hit No. 1, a grateful Cole acknowledged the achievement. “So many people to stunt on, fighting the urge to be spiteful,” he wrote. “This moment is too important for that. Just want to say THANK YOU. Thanks to yall, we shook the game up.”
Plus, he took the time to explain how this wasn’t an overnight success tale. “No chart topping single, just 2 years of hard work, great music and real ass fans,” he added. “#1 album. Thanks to every fan that held me down, every friend, every blog, magazine, tv, radio station, dj’s and pd’s, I feel like we ALL won.”
But critical praise wasn’t in The Sideline Story’s favor. Instead, it mostly garnered mixed reviews. Pitchfork said “Cole comes up short” at times, HipHopDX praised its promise, but noted its “flaws,” and Consequence of Sound gave it a C-. Although Rolling Stone called Cole a “technically superb rapper,” they also said his “melodrama feels rote.”
Criticism aside, The Sideline Story was an important moment for Cole because it symbolized his place in the rap game. “I just felt confused,” he told Complex at the time. “Like, ‘Man, what the fuck do I gotta do to get this album out?'” Frustration had him feeling like he was on the bench. Hence, the title.
But once he got to play, Cole made the most of his opportunity, gathering some of his best material and crafting new work for the LP. Then, he sequenced it alongside a certain rap legend. “With this album,” he added. “Me, Jay Z, and [manager] Mark Pitts sat and sequenced the album. I realized, ‘Yo, you’ve got your whole life to put out these songs. Make sure this album is the best, it flows the best.’
“That’s one thing about this album,” he continued. “I’ve been playing it and I literally listen to this front to back. That was the one thing I realized, the difference between it being a good album or a classic is the sequencing. We sat down for two hours and went over the sequencing and got a perfect sequence for the album.”
J. Cole’s grown tremendously since 2011 in many ways. More recently, he famously went double platinum with no features on his third album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, which is often touted as his best to date. But would it have been possible without Cole World’s first step?
Sideline Story provided a commercial push to Cole’s early mixtape buzz and a foundation for his success on the charts. Thus, it’s hard to see Young Jermaine’s career flourishing the way it has without this debut. Five years later, he’s brought more fans into Cole’s world and he’s certainly no longer on the sidelines.
Revisit J. Cole’s Cole World: The Sideline Story below.