Balance. Everything needs balance. If two opposite forces are getting pulled in a certain direction because one is stronger than the other, balance is disrupted. I spent most of my week down The Matrix rabbit hole. The conclusion of the trilogy came when the two polar forces, Neo and Agent Smith, finally faced off. This is hip-hop, in a sense. Since this genre’s inception, there have always been two. Either you’re with them or us. Often, one side getting the public stamp of approval over another has changed the trajectory of the genre. I’ve always believed the game has room for another and frankly, will always need another. A midpoint. Someone who doesn’t allow things to get pulled too far in either direction. A rap game Ralph Nader. An MCU Thor of the rap game, who has to be pulled from the Civil War because his presence alone would make internal conflict implausible. Analogies aside, I believe this rapper is J. Cole. Not only does J. Cole provide the balance of the rap game, he’s a reluctant legend for doing so.
For the sake of this argument, I will set up the phases of hip-hop into four eras. This is going to be a huge oversimplification but just bear with me. There’s Era 1, which I will use Rakim and Big Daddy Kane to identify. Not ignoring Kool G Rap and others, just keep this as simple as possible. Era 2 is Tupac and Biggie. Era 3 is Jay-z and Nas. It was hard to say which era occurred first considering Illmatic and Reasonable Doubt both happened during Era 2 but the East Coast and West Coast beef overshadowed any King of NY arguments at the time. Era 3 will be Blueprint vs. Illmatic in this case. There could be an additional era here, which is the era of the 2000s after the Jay-Z and Nas beef but I’ll leave this era undefined, although I tend to think of this as the “Weezy era”. Finally, there’s the current era which is obviously Kendrick Lamar and Drake. Since hip-hop is younger than your favorite aunt, its progression has been unpredictable. There weren’t any indicators to see where the trends were heading because there was no template for this. One era spilled into another and the events of the previous one influenced future ones. The primitive lyricism of hip-hop’s origins made MCs begin to play around with rhyme schemes and cadences to set themselves apart. Flash led to personality, which probably made rappers want to adopt a persona. That persona led rappers to say “my persona is better than yours” which led to swag rap. So on and so forth.
One of the greatest variables was the “Weezy” era. The anomaly. Although 50 Cent had a stronghold on the game, this was peak mixtape Weezy. More important, is everything else that was going on in The South. TI. Luda. Snap music. If I were to theorize, this absence of a mainstream “conscious” rapper lead to Lupe Fiasco, who, unfortunately, arrived a few years too soon.
[Note: I really hate the term “conscious rap” but I’m only using it here for lack of better terms. In my opinion, TI rapping about the trap is no less conscious than Wu-Tang’s “All So Simple”.]
I brush on Lupe’s influence because during that era he and rappers of his ilk directly influenced the frontrunners of today. Kendrick Lamar lists Lupe as a reference. Drake lists Phonte as a major influence. Although they have gone in two different directions with their artistry, they were both born from vacancies in the previous era. They also add an interesting wrinkle in the best rapper alive conversation. To many, Kendrick represents all that’s right in hip hop. He values lyricism and artistry, so many older hip-hop heads love him because they think he’s what hip-hop should be. Drake represents the machine that hip-hop can be. Rap has had many stars, but to me, he’s rap’s first bonafide pop star. Every decision he makes is the right one. He’s incredibly business savvy. Everything he does put up tremendous numbers. He represents rap’s wildest dreams.
Although Drake and Kendrick are here to stay, their existence at the same time is creating a great divide among hip-hop fans. People should be grateful that two megastars exist at the same time but of course, things never work that way. With both respective fan bases, the “us versus them” attitude is adopted. But what about the fan who doesn’t fit in with either side? This is where J. Cole comes in. In the ages of Biggie vs Pac or Jay-Z vs Nas, there was never a third party to maintain balance. J. Cole does the yeoman’s work of rap, which isn’t meant to be pejorative. I know, I know, the running jokes of J. Cole’s career has been his penchant for making “sleepy” music but his everyday man raps add to his mystique. He has no interest in being a megastar, yet, he is one. For all intents and purposes, there’s nothing incredibly exciting about him but that adds to the intrigue. J. Cole is the rapper for the average person, which has value.
Important to note, none of this means J. Cole is a great artist. In most instances, his music is what it is. I don’t think he has developed much as a producer and he’s a good to above average rapper but not a great rapper. His albums aggravate me because I feel like he should be so much better. But maybe, just maybe, he is who he is at this point and for some people, that’s good enough. I’ve softened my stance on eye-rolling every time I would see “You have to be of a certain intelligence to enjoy J. Cole” because, for the people who think Kendrick Lamar is too far out there, J. Cole has enough conscious subject matter for them. For the hip-hop fan who thinks Drake is way too pop, J. Cole might be there outlet. He speaks to a demographic that often gets ignored, the hip-hop fan who likes both sides. He has just as much staying power as rap’s big two. In rap’s Highlander battle, he presents a third option.
Calling him a third option seems a bit unfair given the numbers, although I hate using album sales in rap debates. But you simply can’t go five platinum albums in a row without having your name written into history. Even his newest album, KOD, broke Spotify’s release day streaming record, which is yet another impressive accolade.
So, in rap’s tug of war, J. Cole is holding the rope firmly in the center to ensure it doesn’t snap. If Drake and Kendrick Lamar are both legendary rappers then so is J. Cole. For every bit of success they’ve had, he’s been right beside them. Overshadowed, yet present. He’s not interested in being the pop star of the genius artist he just simply wants to be. Finding this not-so-unique lane of legacy will make J. Cole one of this generation most important rapper. In due time, he will be recognized as hip-hop’s most reluctant legend.