On J.Cole’s latest single, “Middle Child,” he raps: “I studied the greats / I’m the greatest right now.” While the first bar is well-established, the second is more controversial, outlining the crux of a hip-hop argument that seems to need revisiting twice a week. So let’s get our hands dirty: Is J. Cole a great?
Well, in a word, yes. BUT — there’s an asterisk. Cole is a great… tragically displaced ten years forward in time. Had he been born in 1975 instead of ‘85, J. Cole would be a great and there’d be no argument.
In 2006, Nas dropped Hip Hop is Dead. Six months later, Soulja Boy’s “Crank That” was spreading like measles in an anti-vaxxer community and Nas’ words were already vindicating themselves.
“Crank That” is now a seminal influence on modern trap. Many of today’s rap superstars share more with Soulja than Nas, Easy E, or Biggie. Hip-hop has definitively split: Half has colorful hairdos and trap beats, and the other half are standing on porches, shaking fists at the kids to get off their lawns.
And so J. Cole’s career was born.
Cole is the natural product of hip-hop’s growing pains. Stubborn nostalgists lamenting rap’s direction wanted a new voice for “real hip-hop,” and they got Cole: Authentic, influenced by the OGs, artistically uncompromising, and armed with a message.
Today’s music is more collaborative than ever before. Cole’s rebellious musical solitude brings platinum-with-no-features memes and criticism, with some arguing that producing like a hermit leads his art to stagnate. Cole’s work isn’t unique or esoteric enough to warrant such stubborn asceticism, and he often falls into routines absent any external influence.
But at the turn of the century, none of this holds. The rap landscape at the time was independent enough for Cole’s solitary nature to not leave anything lacking. In fact, his self-produced beats might have earned him further attention, as the producer/rapper hybrid was largely nonexistent.
What about corniness? It’s near impossible to pick a standout, but “I let you feel like you the shit but you can’t out-fart me” is… yikes. Corniness, however, corn-ifies with time and repetition, so Cole has an extra ten years of scrutiny to contend with that his influences never did. Let’s not forget that Nas himself has perpetrated some truly miserable bars: Remember “Honey ain’t a politician, she’s a pole-a-tician”? We really just let him say that.
For such a staunch moralist, it’s disappointing to hear Cole slide into misogyny. “No Role Modelz” is the worst example, because its misogyny is uniquely direct. On “Big Pimpin,” Jay rhymed, “I thug ‘em / F*ck ‘em / Love ‘em / Leave ‘em / Cause I don’t f*ckin’ need ‘em.” Unchill? Yes. Misogynist? Yes. But the bar’s primary function is a flex. The point is the speaker’s power; the misogyny is an unfortunate by-product.
Cole’s music, by contrast, is mostly egoless, so the hook to “No Role Modelz” isn’t about him, it’s about women. Not a woman, just… women. Jay’s line can be distilled into “You can’t do this like me,” but Cole’s becomes “You should do this like me.” Is this your Woke Rapper?
All questionable role modelz aside, this misogynistic streak would slide right under the nonexistent radar of 2004 — ten years minus the song’s release.
Most current criticisms of Cole’s style are period-specific. His preachy qualities would be insightful without ten extra years of rappers exhausting every platitude in the Hallmark card aisle. Occasional filler bars would fall onto far less jaded, critical ears as solid punchlines. Predictability becomes ruthless consistency. The last twenty years of rap and its exploding popularity have left audiences listening with more scrutiny than they once were. J. Cole, a product of that era’s influence, unfairly finds himself on the receiving end of that scrutiny.
In the late 2000s, Kanye, Wayne and T-Pain were absent from centerstage, and hip-hop found itself on uncertain ground. J. Cole was the answer to this identity crisis, the safe option when it was most needed. However, change tends to be obvious only when it crosses tipping points. Too often, we realize we want to turn back only once that option is lost.
The question of greatness isn’t always a matter of who — sometimes when is just as important. J. Cole came to save the game, but the game can no longer agree on what needs saving.
Twenty years from 1999, maybe she don’t wanna be saved.