The Constant Variable

Drake’s seven-year run atop hip-hop has overshadowed the consistent relevance of one peer who has been along for the whole ride — J. Cole

When listening to J. Cole, it’s hard not to wonder if, had he come along twenty years prior, he would’ve resonated on an entirely different level. That’s not to say he doesn’t have a profound following in the Hip-Hop world today; far from it, actually, considering that his last album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, went Platinum with no features. Rather, J. Cole’s overlooked longevity is being wasted in an era that will be remembered for Drake holding the mainstream corner, with Kendrick representing political engagement and the streets.

Looking back at previous eras, it’s apparent that we reserve the role of Best Rapper Alive for an era’s two closest peers. The criteria that we use include longevity, popularity, and mainstream success. What’s interesting is that within each era you can find a rapper who, despite deserving equal praise, gets tossed to the side in favor of the era’s undisputed GOATS.

The mid ’90s belonged to ‘BIG & ‘Pac, with Nas being largely ignored, despite releasing arguably the best Hip-Hop album of all-time — Illmatic — as well as a run of relevance that surpassed his counterparts.

The late ’90s and early ’00s were dominated by Jay & Em, while we disregard DMX, even though his first three albums, released in a 18-month span, went 4X, 3X, & 5X Platinum, respectively.

Lil’ Wayne & Kanye share the mid to late ’00s throne, even with T.I. enjoying the same level of popularity and respect during that period.

Finally, this decade, we’ve seen Drake & Kendrick control all commercial, underground, street, club, and radio success against J. Cole’s equal longevity and influence on the genre.

With that said, although the success of Drake and Kendrick may warrant their standing a tier above J. Cole, what we actually find is that several other far inferior rappers get mentioned before J. Cole when considering our era’s talent landscape.

Due to their larger social media standing, radio airplay, and commercial appeal, rappers such as Meek Mill, Big Sean, A$AP Rocky, Future, and Wiz Khalifa arguably hold a more profound place in the casual Hip-Hop fan’s mind, as the era begins to recede and we start crystallizing our impressions of who we ought to remember the most.

And so J. Cole becomes a victim of circumstance. It’s not so much that his sound and lyrics would’ve resonated more profoundly in the early ’90s; rather, it’s his persona that would’ve been more fully appreciated. Consider: this was an era in which we only heard rappers through their music, as opposed to the day-to-day access we enjoy today through social media.

This decade, we’ve demanded new music every month. And while Wiz Khalifa, Future, and Young Thug oversaturate the market, Drake has become the lone exception, somehow being able to walk the line between too little and too much. This ability — to drop Soundcloud loosies whenever the well has run dry — is what has caused Drake to remain relevant over the past seven years. So it’s unfortunate that J. Cole’s apparent disregard for this method is what turns out to be what makes him less significant.

Then again, maybe I’m just analyzing his position among Hip-Hop’s elite, according to categories preferred by casual fans. It’s hard to admit, though entirely possible, that J. Cole is a man out of time.

In hindsight, it’s unfathomable that J. Cole’s rise happened around the same time as Drake’s come up. Released six months after Drake’s So Far Gone, J. Cole’s The Warm Up solidified his place alongside his peer, as both became the hottest up-and-comers. It was easy to see why Jay Z made him the first artist signed to Roc Nation.

His follow-up, 2010’s Friday Night Lights, became the second most searched and trending topic on Google and Twitter, respectively, following its release. It went on to win Best Mixtape of the Year at the BET Hip Hop Awards in 2011.

At the time, his back-to-back releases held their own against Drake’s So Far Gone and Thank Me Later. Both rappers appeared to take part in an inevitable decades-long rivalry, a la Jay-Z and Nas.

J. Cole was seemingly the perfect yin to Drake’s yang, the Nas to Drake’s Jay-Z. Where Drake would lead the way by way of pop and mainstream appeal, a la Jay-Z, J. Cole would be the voice of the people, a natural lyricist, a la Nas.

After an underwhelming debut album, J. Cole took an unorthodox approach, going silent for two full years, as the Hip-hop landscape changed immensely. His place alongside Drake, as their generation’s de-facto stars, was challenged by the quick rise of Kendrick and A$AP Rocky.

The lane that J. Cole paved, by way of his lyricism and minimalism, was popularized by Kendrick. With Kendrick’s back-to-back releases during Cole’s time off — Section.80 & Good Kid MAAD City — the genre didn’t have a place for J. Cole anymore. By the time he regained his creative footing, by tossing aside an attempt at mainstream appeal, in favor of the underground sound that made him famous, with his second album, Born Sinner, the world had moved on. It wasn’t enough to be J. Cole anymore.

In the last seven years, Drake and Cole’s discographies couldn’t be more different. While each rapper’s total projects during that span — in terms of mixtapes and albums — doesn’t reveal much of a gap, as Drake has released seven projects to J. Cole’s five, it’s the latter’s absence in the past three years which has created a gulf. J. Cole has released one project — 2014 Forest Hills Drive — during the same period in which Drake has put out four.

Comparing the two may be unfair, considering that their methods of distribution so different. J. Cole places a premium on quality, whereas Drake appears to prioritize quantity.

Then again, Drake has mastered the ability to represent both. It’s not as if he is oversaturating the market with mediocre material; just the opposite, as he has somehow been able to put out enough good material to warrant endless discussion.

The flipside of that coin is J. Cole’s approach to his output. Unfortunately, despite embodying the refreshing strategy of his predecessors in giving us occasional verses, in between his minimal releases, this approach only goes so far nowadays.

Unless a project warrants classic status, a la Kendrick’s debut, or is carried by a platinum single, a la Big Sean’s most recent album, by way of riding the “IDFWU” wave, we demand unreasonable amounts of music, in order to feed our appetites.

The problem isn’t so much that J. Cole has been unable to resonate past a certain period, but that hasn’t had a certified classic or hot single.

On this front, J. Cole’s projects have gotten increasingly better. There is no presumption that a rapper must drop his classic as his debut. Nas did it that way, sure. Yet despite having been in the public eye for seven years now, there’s no rule that says J. Cole’s classic album expiration date is here. It could be that Cole’s best days are ahead of him.

And that’s what’s so intriguing. In a genre known for having its artists drop their best material during the earlier phase of their career trajectories, J. Cole could be getting better with time.

Back in 2009, right as he was blowing up, J. Cole appeared alongside Jay-Z on “A Star Is Born.” The song chronicled everybody who has been a star in the rap game while Jay’s been in it. The point being, that while everybody has had his time to shine and fade, Jay-Z has been the only constant throughout.

Ironically, in retrospect, the song signifies J. Cole’s career. Over seven years, despite fading in and out of Hip-hop, seemingly always on the outside looking in at the certified GOATs of the era — Drake and Kendrick — it’s inarguable that he has remained relevant.

And so, maybe it doesn’t matter if twenty years from now J. Cole isn’t remembered by the casual public as being as significant as his peers.

What matters is that when Drake, already the genre’s Godfather of the 2010s, releases his version of “A Star is Born” in ten years, he’ll look back, when chronicling all of the rappers who have come and gone during his time, and find the lone constant — J. Cole.

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