On April 16th 2018, rapper J. Cole took to Twitter to announce new album KOD dropping Friday April 20th. With the announcement, came the usual social media banter that surrounds the artist. How does Cole compare to Drake? To Kendrick Lamar? If he raps on their level why hasn’t he had the success that they have had? Whose run is bigger Kendrick, Drake or Cole’s? The truth is that J. Cole, doesn’t have a run; he’s had moments where he’s gotten a lot of attention and performed well commercially. A “run” implies consistent commercial success and/or attention and ultimately, J. Cole doesn’t have the necessary music or desire for fame to obtain this.
Music listeners are obsessed with the idea of the superstar. So much so that a lack of “star power” is often conflated with a lack of accomplishment for artists like J. Cole. Acknowledging that he doesn’t have the same type of success as some of his peers isn’t saying he is not successful. (However, that these two things are so commonly conflated does further prove the point that creating and maintaining the kind of legitimate runs Drake and Kendrick have is a talent in and of itself.) Cole sold out Madison Square Garden during his Forest Hills Drive Tour. He’s gone platinum twice (with no features). All of his albums have gone number 1 on the Billboard 200 Chart within a week of release and his biggest album, 2014’s “2014 Forest Hills Drive” has amassed nearly 2 million in hard sales.
Furthermore, Cole doesn’t seem to want or have any use for the version of success Drake and Kendrick have obtained. In a 2014 interview with Hot97’s Angie Martinez, Cole explained that he chooses not to indulge in expensive purchases, “I sold my car. I had a Range at one point, but I sold it. I ride a bike now through Manhattan. I don’t have a car. No more car.” The type of person that willingly chooses to ride a bike as opposed to owning a car (despite being a millionaire) has no need for excessive wealth, which is the primary purpose for pursuing fame in the way Drake and Kendrick have. Cole has also said before that he prefers to “do the art first and build the business around that.” While undeniably admirable, the price you pay for being a musical “purist” in this sense, is your lack of commercial success. This is true for nearly all creative professions.
In addition to not wanting or needing one, J. Cole is unable to have a commercial run because his music is simply boring. This point has been brought up ad nauseum by hip hop fans with an ear for good music but it really cannot be stated enough. His music is boring. Bo. Ring. It’s uneventful and mundane. His music is especially boring relative to the other music that is dominating the scene at the moment, namely trap music. Despite popular (read: uneducated) opinion, many of these “mumble rappers” have equally compelling things to say about systemic racism as J. Cole (plus you can throw ass to their music so it’s a win all around). In “Nothing New” from “Issa Album”, 21 Savage sums up every point Cole makes about systemic racism on “Neighbors” from “4 Your Eyez Only”. Fat Trel’s “Rest In Peace” gives a first person account of the lifestyle J. Cole is giving a secondary description of, in “‘O3 Adolescence”. This isn’t to say that any of these men are revolutionary or worth listening to because they bother to address social issues in their work. Simply discussing racism in your music does not a credible social activist make. In fact, it’s worth mentioning that while all of them are able to make surface level observations about race relations, their takes on gender are astoundingly regressive. Cole in particular, switches back and forth between lukewarm takes on race and cringeworthy,”benevolent” sexism. It’s a juxtaposition that makes his particular brand of misogyny less comfortable to digest than rappers who choose to forego the ‘Nice Guy’ image.
None of this is to say Cole’s music is bad or unlistenable because that is not true. It just means he doesn’t make the sort of music that qualifies for the kinds of runs Drake or Kendrick have been experiencing for years now. If streaming stats are to be relied upon, art is truly a form of escape for many listeners. This is why rap music about shooting opps and sleeping with beautiful women is so popular, because most music fans will never get the chance to do any of that on the scale rappers talk about (neither do most of the rappers but that isn’t so relevant here). However, many of us will go to college and end up saddled with student loan debt. Roughly half the world’s population has experienced an erection at the sight of someone they find attractive. Everybody but straight, able-bodied, white men can say something valid about oppression.
As legendary producer and current Love & Hip Hop Atlanta cast member Stevie J. once said, “Motherfuckers aren’t in the ‘90s anymore. Everybody don’t live in the struggle, people want to dance and have fun.” In terms of wordplay and metaphors, J. Cole’s music is more than good enough to have qualified for a very long lasting run in the 90s. In 2018? Music listeners need more. Theatrical delivery, stellar production and most importantly the promotion of their music is what separates superstar artists like Drake and Kendrick from the rest of the pack. While it’s doubtful Cole will deviate from what he’s done for the entirety of his career on KOD, it will be interesting to see how he is pushed by his contemporaries this time around. KOD will be available on all major streaming platforms this Friday, April 20.