Before we left the year 2016, J. Cole released 4 Your Eyez Only. Full disclosure: I have it and have listened to it.
But we aren’t here to talk about the project’s content.
Instead, I started to notice a couple of weeks after the album’s release that the internet was all abuzz about how Young Simba had another album that had gone (internet) platinum “with no features.” Covered by BET, The FADER, The Daily Beast, Complex and many others — I saw many commentators praising the effort for repeating this awesome feat [of being successful with no features]. I even read about his manager defending the decision in an attempt to ward off criticism.
As I digested all of this information, I began to think to myself: is a project so popular with no features really something to celebrate as it relates to the health and future of hip-hop culture?
Now, to be fair, this is not an attack on Cole (he’s a grown man who’s free to do what he feels in his own creative space) as much as it is a treatise that explores the power and influence of the “cosign.” For the sake of argument, I will define the cosign as “one well-known artist endorsing another lesser known artist, often from their own team, in an effort to use their platform to introduce the new artist to a larger, captive audience.” In a sense, it says, “Yo, I think they are dope. You guys should check them out.”
The cosign can occur in a couple of ways: either the more prominent artist mentions the rising star in an article or interview OR the artist features the new artist on their own project.
I often have had discussions about the theory of cosigning with Terrace Martin, although we haven’t had reason to discuss it in recent years. I remember when Martin was working with an early (yet post K. Dot) Kendrick Lamar. It was around the time of the release of Overly Dedicated in 2010 and uber popular radio deejay Big Boy was still at Power 106. Dr. Dre was a guest on the morning show and said something to the effect of “I’m really looking forward to connecting with that Kendrick Lamar.” Terrace called me like, “N—a, did you just hear that? Watch what happens.” Lamar connected with Dre, went on to release Section.80 and then good kid, m.A.A.d. city. And the rest, as they say, was history.
In the past, a predominately black movie would come out with a soundtrack produced by a known name or an indie label. On these soundtracks one could find new music from unknown artists—insert Usher, “Just Call Me a Mack” here. We would take these suggestions of new music with intent, determining if we would become fans or let them pass. Taking heed to the opinions of talent we were already fans of became custom.
Of course, there are many artists who have made waves on their own strength. I don’t want to discuss them. I would rather discuss the artists that we might be missing out on because there are no referrals from the stars at the top. By Cole releasing his last two projects with no features, are you really telling me that he didn’t think there was one cat in his camp that he could’ve shared a hot 16 from? He didn’t feel there was anyone on his team that could have added value to his body of work? Could he possibly not want to share his time and potentially be outshined by his cohorts?
And then… what does that do for the culture?