J. Cole is already one of the greatest rappers to ever do it, but I’m still waiting on a truly great album from him

OPINION: I think J. Cole needs an outside producer to truly get him to the nastiness we get when he is featured on other folks' songs.

Rapper J. Cole performs onstage during day 2 of Rolling Loud Los Angeles at NOS Events Center on December 11, 2021 in San Bernardino, California. (Photo by Scott Dudelson/Getty Images)

As a general rule, I try not to be too critical about great art and artists in my midst. Now, what constitutes great art is subject to debate; two people can see or hear the same thing and walk away with two entirely different feelings about it since, I’d wager, we all look for different things to satisfy whatever artistic need we have. But again, I like to at the very least acknowledge when art or an artist is great and then have fun debating the finer points of that greatness—which can include failures. That’s what art, especially great art, does—it gets the people going. 

J. Cole is great at rapping. Full stop. I think that is indisputable. The extent of his greatness as an artist is where I think the fun begins. I’ve always been one of those people who showed up to the J. Cole is the 2nd Coming of Nas time-share meeting a week late. By the time I got to J. Cole, he was already being touted as a GOAT-level MC, which is nice and all, except I didn’t quite love much of any of the actual music he was releasing. 

The Fayetteville, N.C., kid could spit, that much was clear. But he wasn’t on stage at Def Poetry Jam; he was releasing albums full of songs he rapped over beats he (mostly) made. And I didn’t love a lot of what I was getting from his albums. I have listened to all six of his studio releases—Cole World: The Sideline Story, Born Sinner, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, 4 Your Eyez Only, KOD and The Off-Season—with intentionality and interest, waiting to hear the music (not just lyrics) that made him hip-hop’s savior. I listened to his mixtapes (I love The Warm Up like everybody else does), and I could hear the flashes of brilliance that put folks in his camp. But if I’m being honest, I’ve been largely bored, nearing entirety disinterested with his released catalog of albums. It just didn’t move me. Put a pin in this.

And then there’s his other stuff. 

As I said already, J. Cole is great at rapping. And you know how I really know this is true? It’s because when he shows up on other people’s projects, he goes clean off, making me wonder why folks don’t delete his verses. An album full of J. Cole features might be a collection of some of the absolute best hip-hop verses and performances ever. I mean that, sincerely. He’s so good on other people’s records that it’s almost disrespectful at this point. I like Wale, but I have no idea why he keeps calling J. Cole to show up on his songs. I think he’s been on four songs with Wale since 2009 (“Beautiful Bliss,” “The Pessimist,” “My Boy,” and “Poke It Out,” all on Wale projects), and each time I’ve wondered if Wale thought about rerecording his verses or if he felt like Jay-Z on “Renegade” where he just knew there was no way he could top Eminem. And again, I like Wale; this is no shot to him at all. 

Rapper J. Cole performs onstage during his “The Off-Season” tour at State Farm Arena on September 27, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images)

Especially because that’s just J. Cole’s MO. J. Cole’s verse on the song “a lot” from 21 Savage’s album i am>i was is so good that it’s been played over 570 MILLION times on Spotify; the next most played song via Spotify is “monster” at 163 million listens. I am willing to bet all of the money I have that the reason “a lot” has over three times as many listens as the next most popular song on a popular album is because J. Cole burned down the booth on his way out of the building. That verse is so good that I think you could use it to show somebody how to rap. He floated on it. He even mentions in the verse that he’s so good other folks don’t want to rap with him. And it’s probably true and false; of course, you want one of those amazing Cole features—look how that translates for “a lot.” But you might also get MURDERED on your own track, and if you’re a rapper who, I don’t know, prides yourself on your ability to rap, that’s a problem. 

Take Benny The Butcher’s song “Johnny P’s Caddy,” a damn near flawless record. The beat, the rhymes, the life are all intact. Except Cole gets on that song, and I mean, I can only laugh. Over an absolutely amazing piece of production, Cole gets into a bag that few rappers could get into. His verse, again, is so good that it gives Nas on “Live at the BBQ” vibes (including a Jesus reference). If this was your first time hearing J. Cole, you might think he was going to be (or already is) the greatest rapper to ever do it. That’s what happens when J. Cole gets on anybody’s song. There’s a video series waiting to happen of rappers reacting to J. Cole’s features on other folks’ songs or rapping over other folks’ instrumentals (see “False Prophets” over Joey Bada$$’s “Waves”). I could list a litany of songs where J. Cole has hopped on a feature and ruined the rapper’s week, and hopefully, somebody will do that one day. 

It begs the question: What’s the difference between Album Cole and Features Cole? To me, it’s the production, plain and simple. Since Cole is a producer, I imagine that while he’s crafting his albums, he locks in on a beat and an idea and goes in, for better or worse. Sometimes it has amazing results (see “No Role Modelz”), but I think what happens more often than not is that the pocket he’s in is where he stays across the board and if it’s not a great pocket, the album suffers as a whole. He also tries things on his albums. I don’t think Cole is the most ambitious of rappers; I’m even leary of calling him an “artist”—for comparison, Kendrick Lamar is more of an artist, as is Kanye. They are ambitious with their projects. Cole makes hip-hop albums plain and simple. And that’s fine. I think, though, when you’re a self-contained entity, you’re held hostage to your own impressions of a song. I’ve produced music before, and when I’ve made beats, I usually have an idea of what I hear over it. But rappers and singers hear something entirely different; the music unlocks something else for them, and they run with it. That collaboration of ideas can unleash amazing art.

This is what I think happens when Cole hops on other people’s beats (as a point of note, I’m aware that The Off-Season included outside producers); he is thinking about what the music says to him and going in and it’s usually absolutely amazing. Cole is clearly inspired by what he’s rapping over (and perhaps competitively bodying whoever else is on the song), and it’s evident in the effortlessness with which he hops in and out of the beats. J. Cole is going to be considered a legendary artist when he hangs up his Pumas, but Feature Cole is the one I will miss most. But while he’s here, I am always HOPING he’ll work with another producer exclusively: 9th Wonder, Just Blaze, Kanye, the TDE roster of producers, whoever. I think J. Cole has a truly transcendent album inside of him that I think an outsider producer could unlock if they went into the lab with a purpose. I think of 9th Wonder’s projects with Murs and how good they are and what Cole could do with that kind of focus. 

Look, I’m a writer and not a rapper. J. Cole is more famous than I will probably ever be and an artist whose music I will listen to because J. Cole commands that I listen to it. He’s the kind of artist we talk about, which means when he releases a project, the conversations about J. Cole’s GOAT-ness are rehashed every few years. Cole might already be the artist he’s already wanted to be, and despite my criticisms, he owes the game nothing. I just know that what I hear when Cole hops on your favorite rapper’s record is a person who could make albums that could have a Kanye-level impact on the culture. Selfishly, I want that. 

And I really want that over a Just Blaze or Madlib beat. 

Panama Jackson theGrio.com

Panama Jackson is a columnist at theGrio. He writes very Black things and drinks very brown liquors, and is pretty fly for a light guy. His biggest accomplishment to date coincides with his Blackest accomplishment to date in that he received a phone call from Oprah Winfrey after she read one of his pieces (biggest) but he didn’t answer the phone because the caller ID said “Unknown” (Blackest).

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