J. Cole’s verse on Drake’s ‘First Person Shooter’ is great, but I expected more

OPINION: The Fayetteville, N.C., super lyricist usually takes no prisoners on his features, but on Drake’s album, it felt like he took it easy.

J. Cole (L) and Drake (R) perform during the Dreamville Festival at Dorothea Dix Park on April 02, 2023 in Raleigh, North Carolina. (Photo by Astrida Valigorsky/WireImage)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

On Friday, Oct. 6, 2023, megastar rapper Aubrey Drake Graham, better known as Drake, dropped his latest project, “For All The Dogs.” I don’t want to be that guy, but I also can’t deny it at this point — I’m not much of a Drake fan, but I respect what he’s been able to accomplish as a rapper-turned-pop star. Drake has amassed fortune and fame from a tremendous record of hit singles, features and personality. I think it’s safe to say that Drake has always had a tinge of cornball about him, but that cornball has always been charming and made him the kind of artist you enjoyed even if you weren’t entirely sure why. Let me also state very explicitly: I think Drake is a very, very good rapper. When people like my colleague Touré say that Drake isn’t a good rapper, I honestly have no idea what he’s talking about. 

With that said, I also find Drake’s albums to be extremely mid. I haven’t fully enjoyed a Drake record since 2015’s “If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late.” Maybe that says more about me than the listening public but it’s true. While his ear for singles and the ability to situate himself smack in the middle of the cultural zeitgeist is unmatched (Drake has hopped on any number of surefire singles by other artists — a brilliant way to remain relevant), his albums have always left more to be desired. 

While his contemporaries — J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar, and to a lesser extent Wale, Big Sean and Kid Cudi — have all attempted to expand their artistic expression, Drake seems content to just be the biggest artist ever. I’m not judging his ambition (or lack thereof), but it has rendered his albums rather boring and one-note to me. This seems to be part of the current controversy (such that it exists) with him now; Drake doesn’t seem to have grown as an artist, or even a human, and perhaps has even regressed. 

The playful, romantic disdain and toxicity that were a hallmark of his early work that used to feel relatable now just feels mean … and unnecessarily petty. The shots at Rihanna and Esperanza Spalding make you wonder if, deep down, Drake isn’t really a bitter man at this point in his life … for no clear reason. Was he wearing a mask early on or has something changed for him? Who knows, and honestly, I don’t care that much. Drake, while making music for everybody isn’t really making music for me at this point. 

I know this because, of course, I did listen to “For All The Dogs” so I could understand the conversations happening around it. But also because I noticed when I pulled up the track listing that he had a record with one Jermaine Cole, better known as J. Cole, feature artist extraordinaire. I’ve been one of those folks who has also been critical of the J. Cole as GOAT convos, mostly because I don’t feel like his catalog has matched the talk. However, if you were to compile all of his feature performances into a double album and call it a J. Cole album, he might be in the top 5 greatest rappers of all time. J. Cole is THAT good when he’s on other people’s records. And it isn’t to say that his own albums are bad — they aren’t — I just don’t think they’re as good as perhaps fans say they are. That’s just the subjective nature of music, I suppose. 

Back to Cole on this album. Cole is featured on a song called “First Person Shooter.” Now, I have to acknowledge that at this point in my hip-hop listening, I get hyped when I see anything featuring J. Cole. I have no earthly idea why anybody puts him on their records anymore since he has such a history of destroying EVERYBODY on their own records, from 21 Savage to Wale to Benny the Butcher. Even the song he put on Summer Walker’s “Clear 2: Soft Life” EP, “To Summer, From Cole (Audio Hug),” is pure fire in the most amazing of ways. And that’s just a tiny sampling of the fire Cole has left in his wake. I enjoy the J. Cole feature experience so much that I actually feel bad for not loving his albums. Cole is probably the highlight of almost any project he’s on, even if it’s just one verse, and I mean that sincerely. 

So imagine my surprise when I listened to “First Person Shooter” and it featured a just fine J. Cole verse that was nowhere near as fire as I expected, which I realize is my own fault, but hear me out. When I saw Cole on Drake’s album, my immediate thought was this could end up being the verse of the year. Of all of the albums to provide the greatest verse of all time, this was it; everybody is going to listen to this album, and if you’re like me, you’re going straight to this song to see what Cole did on it. J. Cole is that guy now; when he drops a feature on a song, you must immediately listen to him on it. 

His verse, where he refers to him and Drake as the famous Spider-Man meme where the Spider-Mans are both pointing at one another as if looking in a mirror surprised me. I’m sure they’re fine friends, but I wanted the vicious Cole, the Cole that takes no prisoners and goes into the booth leaving the album’s artist with a choice of whether or not to keep the verse because of just how hard he outshined them. That’s not what happened here, and I understand this is a me problem, but it’s a problem that J. Cole created for me. If he wasn’t so consistently destroying every record he was on, I wouldn’t mind a respectful and reverential verse about Drake on Drake’s album; I just expected one of those verses to make it clear that it might be Drake’s album but it was Cole’s world. Hell, I even believe that Drake expected as much. I know Drake believes he’s the greatest, but I cannot be convinced that a small part of him wasn’t like, “Man, I both can’t wait to hear what he’s about to deliver, and I’m nervous about what’s coming.” 

I suppose that’s a good problem; I’ve gotten to the point where I hold Cole’s features in such high regard that I only expect the absolute greatest verse every time out. And again, the verse is fine; it’s creative and his flow is impeccable. Cole is outstanding. I just wanted overwhelming. Shouts to J. Cole for being a rapper whose verses require listening in an era full of vibes. 

Panama Jackson theGrio.com

Panama Jackson is a columnist at theGrio. He writes very Black things, 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).

Make sure you check out the Dear Culture podcast every Thursday on theGrio’s Black Podcast Network, where I’ll be hosting some of the Blackest conversations known to humankind. You might not leave the convo with an afro, but you’ll definitely be looking for your Afro Sheen! Listen to Dear Culture on TheGrio’s app; download it here.