Will Playing It Safe Ultimately Hurt J. Cole's Legacy In Hip-Hop?
J. Cole’s no longer on the sidelines, but can he draw us closer to him?
There’s one clear moment when the paths of contemporary rap’s three leading male artists — J. Cole, Drake, and Kendrick Lamar — converged and categorically changed the trajectory of their careers: when Kendrick Lamar ceremoniously challenged his peers on Big Sean’s “Control.” It was a moment for the fans to draw clear lines and define modern rap tribes. These three rappers were thrust into what felt like a modern-day Shakespearean tragedy, with this triumvirate of artists whose voices would go on to dominate mainstream rap landscape.
By the time “Control” was released, in August 2013, Born Sinner had vindicated Cole. Kendrick’s major label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city, was already considered an early classic. And Drake had been warming up all summer for a September release of Nothing Was The Same. Born Sinner proved to be a winning formula for J. Cole, whose debut album received mixed criticism, despite going platinum and producing two of Cole’s biggest hits,“Work Out” and “Can’t Get Enough.” Drake released his debut album, Thank Me Later, in 2010, and, despite the Lil Wayne cosign and relationship, he still had a lot of convincing to do. Kendrick’s name was starting to make some noise on hip-hop blogs after releasing Section.80, but, even then, good kid, m.A.A.d city wouldn’t be released for another 12 months. Cole World: The Sideline Story (September 2011) came at an awkward time when mainstream rap was still figuring out its identity beyond Kanye West, Lil Wayne, and T-Pain who had all but disappeared.
The “Control” verse solidified that each member of this trifecta was formidable and a star in his own right. On the track Kendrick raps:
I’m usually homeboys with the same niggas I’m rhymin’ with,
But this is hip-hop, and them niggas should know what time it is.
And that goes for Jermaine Cole, Big K.R.I.T., Wale, Pusha T, Meek Mills, A$AP Rocky, Drake, Big Sean, Jay Electron’, Tyler, Mac Miller.
I got love for you all, but I’m tryna murder you niggas / Tryna make sure your core fans never heard of you niggas.
Lamar’s incendiary challenge to his fellow rappers sparked competition and a slew of response tracks.
Where Drake has appeared invincible and Kendrick amazing, J. Cole has polarised. A significant number of rap fans have simply tuned in just to hate. For most of his career, J. Cole’s music has been considered boring, with the idea also becoming a popular meme on rap Twitter over the past few years. Boring is a perception, and it doesn’t necessarily mean his music isn’t of a high standard. But the pressure to be exciting and enchanting due to the demands of the fast consuming, digital culture we live in is something Cole seems to have shrugged off. And now, each member is less focused on a rivalry that has more or less quietened.
From “0/100” to “Nice For What,” Drake has the ability to tap into fans’ demands, as he often shapeshifts sonically and thematically. His ubiquity has allowed him to remain interesting for long enough. And as of summer 2015, Drake has been nothing short of invincible. Kendrick, on the other hand, is one of the most engaging writers in hip-hop, and to remain at the level he’s climbed to is an amazing feat. He’s inspired thought by drawing from the lineage of jazz, G-funk, traditional lyricism, and theatricalism to examine Blackness in America. And last month, we witnessed his cultural influence on art when he won the Pulitzer Prize for Music.
J. Cole showed promise and potential with The Warm Up and Friday Night Lights, which came out ten months prior to his debut. The kind that allowed fans to feel vindicated by Jay-Z’s vision when he signed J. Cole to Roc Nation in 2009. That same promise and potential packaged to us in his early mixtapes was finally manifested in 2014 Forest Hills Drive when he “Let Nas Down” with his first album.
J. Cole suffered from the pressures of early career hype: since Jay Z had seen something in him, the rest of us had to. He was a safe option to buy into at a time when mainstream rap needed it most —he was the rapper with a more traditional rap approach borne from the Illmatics and Reasonable Doubts. The performance of Cole World: Sideline Story prompted J. Cole to strip everything down, focusing on catering to his fan base rather than chasing commercial success. Writer Michael Madden said his debut album, “Is a safe album; rarely shooting for the stars, it consequently lacks extreme highs. It’s a few outstanding moments short of the masterpiece many fans were expecting, but it clarifies that Cole has officially arrived as a major player in rap – at last.” There’s no denying that he still is, and will continue to be, for some time to come. It’s still a popular J. Cole opinion, but it’s a formula that’s allowed him to go platinum with Forest Hills Drive and 4 Your Eyez Only (while simultaneously becoming a meme in the process) and it’ll likely happen with KOD.
A question that’s been gnawing at me following the release of KOD, J. Cole’s fifth studio album isn’t whether he’s remained safe — that much is clear. Instead, it’s about considering whether his strategy will even be a topic of discussion as he continues down the path he’s laid out for himself. Safety can be comfortable, and J.Cole’s fanbase has proven itself to be loyal over the years, but it’s a strategy that may not work forever as he continues to evolve as an artist.
On KOD, he interrogated the rap landscape, turning his focus toward the increasing presence of mumble rappers whose lyrics and themes focus on prescription drugs, anxiety and depression. On April 20, J. Cole tweeted that ‘KOD’ had three meaning — Kids on Drugs, King Overdosed and Kill Our Demons. There aren’t enough Kendricks and Drakes to compete with all the Lil-Somethings dominating the charts and streaming playlists, which is why J. Cole is still a necessary presence. He’s someone that still understands the value of upholding hip-hop traditions, particularly with his production style and ear for samples. And to continuously perform at this level, in this climate while still being considered boring, is that early promise, fulfilled. It seems as though he’s in a transitional period where he’s looking beyond the trifecta of kings that he’s been a part of.
Jesse Bernard is a London and Brooklyn-based writer whose work has appeared on The Guardian, Dazed, FACT, Noisey, Crack Magazine, BRICK Magazine and more. His work can be found at @marvinscorridor.