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(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
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The Great J. Cole Debate

Is he a good rapper? A bad rapper? The worst rapper? Two writers have it out.

One of the best current music debates and also one of the most frustrating is: Is J. Cole a good rapper? To me, it’s an easy question to answer, as there are many, many pieces of evidence that point a very big, very bright red arrow at a very big, very bright neon NO, HE IS NOT sign. There are, however, many, many people who feel otherwise (which is why it’s a good debate), and oftentimes they cite those same pieces of evidence as proof that, in fact, YES, HE IS (which is why it’s a frustrating debate).

Friday marks the release of J. Cole’s new album, 4 Your Eyez Only. As such, it seemed like an OK time to actually have the debate. Arguing on behalf of J. Cole is The Ringer’s Justin Charity. Arguing against J. Cole’s inclusion in the Good Rappers circle is The Ringer’s me. — Shea Serrano

Shea Serrano: So, for this particular exercise, you are going to be arguing that, yes, J. Cole is good, and I am going to be arguing that, no, J. Cole is not good. That’s how this is going to work, right?

Justin Charity: That’s definitely how this is going to work. And it will work pretty well for me, in the grand scheme of things, seeing as how I’m right. And you’re wrong. J. Cole is Good, Actually.

Serrano: It would probably make the most sense, then, to figure out how we’re going to qualify or quantify the term "good." How do you propose that we do that?

Charity: Over the centuries, various thinkers — Plato, J.S. Mill — have proposed alternative considerations of what it means for anything to be good. I say we qualify "good" as "aesthetically appealing" and quantify "good" in terms of the total number of J. Cole songs in which the rapper isn’t moping about hip-hop (e.g., "False Prophets"), dropping post-Cassidy punch lines ("heatin’ up like that left-over lasagna"), or referring to bodily functions ("boy, you can’t out-fart me").

Up front, I concede that J. Cole has a lot of songs that violate the conditions of what it would mean for his music to be good, but he has a lot of other, good songs, too.

Serrano: Hold on, hold on, hold on. Just to be clear here: You, Justin Charity, the person responsible for arguing that J. Cole is a good rapper, are already conceding that J. Cole, who, again, you are arguing is a good rapper, has "a lot of songs" that are not good, which, as I understand it, is typically not a thing you can say about a good rapper? That’s fantastic. That’s pretty great.

The "can’t out-fart me" line you mentioned, can we go back to that for a second? That’s from a song called "Dollar and a Dream III." Here are a few other lines from it:

  • "So much on my mind / I wonder how it fit in my brain." (Woof.)
  • "Stevie with his glasses off / ’cause I still don’t see hope." (First: Woof again. Second: Does J. Cole think that Stevie Wonder is only blind when he’s not wearing his sunglasses?)
  • "They say he wouldn’t leave me / yet I’m fallin’ like autumn." (LOL. Like, he really wrote that. He really was like, "Ooh, I’ma kill ’em with this leaf double entendre that’s also a leaf simile. Nobody’s fucking with my leaf game.")

And those are all from just the first verse, Justin. Here’s the whole out-fart me line: "I let you feel like you the shit / but you can’t out-fart me." (SMH.) This is a common thread for him; referring to himself as the shit, or making some sort of play on referring to himself as the shit. He has, and I am not joking and this is not hyperbole, more than 20 lines like this. So for the rest of this back and forth, I am going to end each of my sections by using one of them. It’s like when you’re on a walkie-talkie and you’re supposed to say "Over" so the other person knows you’re done. It’ll be like that, except with his poop metaphors.

Charity: OK.

Serrano: You know what we should do? We should create some sort of grading rubric. Kool Moe Dee had a book that came out in 2003 where he did something similar. The book was called There’s a God on the Mic, and he had a bunch of different scored categories that he used to figure out who the 50 greatest MCs were. We should do a version of that. Let’s have, say, five scored categories we can use to quantify this conversation, because otherwise it’s just going to be a lot of me saying, "J. Cole is not a good rapper," and you saying, "Actually, he is a good rapper, you just have to ignore all the bad things he does."

So what are the five categories we should use? ("Motherfucker, I’m the shit / I pass gas when I feel." — J. Cole, "Sky Boy")

Charity: First, let me stress that "Actually, he is a good rapper, you just have to ignore all the bad things he does" is the standard of many good rappers, and great rappers. It’s precisely the language I’d use to put a new generation of young, progressive listeners on to Eazy-E.

Now, for a scoring system:

  1. Personality: Who is this "person" (brand)? Do I like or respect this rapper as a "person" (brand)?
  2. Relatability: What does this rapper have to say about my hopes, challenges, and concerns?
  3. Distinction: For better or worse, how much is this rapper’s music a departure from everyone else’s music?
  4. Proficiency: Here’s where someone like Juelz Santana or Lil Yachty, who both rap like they’re squinting hard while reciting the ingredients listed on the spine of a cereal box, would rank low.
  5. Purpose: Is this person rapping for honorable reasons? This is where someone like Kanye West, who mostly raps as if he’s spent the past 20 years resenting that he wasn’t so popular with the jocks and fly girls in high school, would rank at the absolute bottom.

Let’s say each category awards from 0 to 20 points, such that ideal rappers — Ice Cube, the Notorious B.I.G., Missy Elliott, etc. — would each earn between 90 and 100 total points.

Serrano: I don’t know how important relatability is in this particular conversation, but I mostly like these other categories, so I’m not going to argue with you about it. So let’s just go in order.

I. Personality

Serrano: This is an important one. We’re not talking about, "Is J. Cole a nice person?" because he is absolutely that. What we’re talking about here is the convergence of the HUMAN PERSONALITY with the RAP PERSONALITY. We’re talking about the point where the former informs the latter.

The best rappers — Tupac, Kendrick, Nas, Missy, André, Biggie, as just a few examples — take that point and, even when the two sides might seem to be at odds with one another, are able to align them ideologically. Tupac is probably the easiest example. He was this fiery, emotional, very smart, occasionally contradictory person — there was the mayhem, of course, but also he had a profound understanding of, among other things, the workings of inner city communities and all of the ways they were kept separate from more affluent ones. His music was always all of those things, all at the same time, all at once, and it always felt sincere. The pieces always matched up. That’s super important.

If you’re looking for a more current example, then Kendrick is the best one. It’s very clear that the only reason his music exists is because it HAS to exist. There is no pretense. That’s what the best rappers do, and they do it in a way that, even if it isn’t effortless, looks and feels effortless. Good rappers do the same thing, just not as well, or not as cohesively. And the less-than-good rappers, they’re generally not able to do that. And that’s where J. Cole falls.

He doesn’t push those things together fluidly often enough. I think the easiest way to think on it is: Play a rapper’s album. If, while listening to it, it feels like the rapper said to himself, "Hmmm, you know what I should do here? I should do a song about how hard it can be growing up in a bad part of town," or, "I should do a song about how good I am at rapping," or, "I should do a song about the first time I had sex" — if you can see those seams, if you can feel that happening, if you can feel the rapper making the songs just to check a box, then that’s how you know that rapper is not a good rapper. And that’s how each of J. Cole’s albums has felt.

So if we’re grading this on a scale of 0–20, I feel comfortable saying he’s at a firm 4/20 in this category. ("I be shittin’ on niggas / And my dough be farting." — J. Cole, "The One")

Charity: I totally disagree with you about the seams thing. I think every Kendrick Lamar album is almost 100 percent seams, and yet every Kendrick Lamar album is at least pretty good. Doggystyle has seams. The Blueprint has seams. Great stuff has seams!

But I nonetheless agree with you that J. Cole isn’t quite Tupac, personality-wise. If you think of narrative art in terms of protagonists, sidekicks, bystanders, victims, and antagonists, J. Cole is always working in the space between sidekick and bystander. In the grand scheme of popular music, J. Cole is not a great protagonist, and he’s certainly never been a captivating devil’s advocate. J. Cole is a good Samaritan. Which counts for something. 6/20.

II. Relatability

Charity: The initial balance of my various student loans is $106,573, and — as of December 9, 2016 — my outstanding balance is . . . most of that. I’m 29. Due to aforementioned financial distress, I don’t get my hair cut frequently enough. I have many light-skinned cousins. J. Cole is incredibly relatable to me. 20/20.

Serrano: Do you know what the Barnum effect is? I learned, like, maybe five things in college that stuck with me after I graduated. The Barnum effect is one of them. The general definition of it is: "The observation that individuals will give high accuracy ratings to descriptions of their personality that supposedly are tailored specifically for them but are, in fact, vague and general enough to apply to a wide range of people." It’s the reason that things like horoscopes work. You read the horoscope, and it’s like, "Don’t ever cross a Gemini because it’s very hard to earn a Gemini’s trust back once you’ve broken it," and all the people who are Geminis are like, "Yup. That’s exactly right. That’s so me." It feels specific, but it’s mostly applicable to anyone. That is exactly what J. Cole is, and what he does. Take the J. Cole song "January 28th" as an example. He says: "If you ain’t aim too high / Then you aim too low." When you hear it while he’s rapping it, you’re like, "OK." But then you think about it for, like, five seconds, and it’s like, "Wait … what the fuck?" I don’t think he’s actually relatable. I think he’s a familiar version of relatable, which people confuse with the real thing. 5/20. ("You the shit only ’cause I digested you niggas" — J. Cole, "See It to Believe It")

III. Distinction

Serrano: There are, generally speaking, two ways that a rapper can prove himself or herself as being a good/great/transcendent rapper. He or she can either (a) invent some new style of rapping (like what Rakim did in 1987) or (b) take what others have done already, and are doing, and just be way, way better at it than everyone else (like what Biggie and Nas did in 1994).

We can eliminate the first option here because that’s just not who J. Cole is or what he does or even what he wants to do. That means he’s just left with the second option. He has to take what others have done already, and are doing, and just be way, way better at it than everyone else. But he never quite gets there. His writing just isn’t sharp enough or insightful enough.

Now, that’s not to say that he has never had an admirable creative moment or two. But more often than not we end up with him saying something empty like, "Only bad thing about a star is they burn up" (!!!!!!), or corny like, "But, girl, you’re special like I met you in the slow class" (!!!!!!!!!!) or clichéd like, "We ain’t picture perfect / But we worth the picture still" (!!!!!!!!!). So, nope. His music’s not original or inventive enough to be considered new, and it’s not profound enough for him to say that he’s considerably better than anyone else who has done what he’s doing. Distinction: 6/20. ("They light a fire under my ass, nigga, my shit hot / Even if you squatted over volcanoes, nigga, your shit not." — J. Cole, "Water Break")

Charity: If J. Cole were Kanye West, he’d cut in here briefly to chide you for not mentioning a key technical distinction between him and everyone else: J. Cole makes his own beats. On that count, Cole has gotten pretty good at sample-driven pop songs. His earlier beats mostly suck, but a lot of the beats he’s made since "Power Trip" have been great.

Serrano: Can I jump in real quick right here? Yes, J. Cole does make his own beats. Guess what? He has a line about it, too: "They say I’m like the human body / I produce my own shit." — J. Cole, "Royal Flush"

Charity: That said, he’s got great taste in non-rap samples: I’m thinking of "Rich Niggaz," "She Knows," and "Golden Goals." Now, as a rapper, J. Cole isn’t a radical stylist the way that Young Thug is, and, as you’ve noted, he makes most of his new music with old tools and techniques. I think music critics play up this sense of nostalgia and conservatism in J. Cole’s musical POV, and I also think it’s beside the point. J. Cole is the best schoolboy rapper to ever do it, and that’s why young, upwardly mobile adults love him. That’s his distinction, because J. Cole deploys all the modest strengths I’ve outlined in this category in service of a clean break from what everyone else in his graduating class — Drake, Wale, Mac Miller, et al. — is doing, so confidently that he barely works with those guys anymore. I don’t know if you’ve heard, Shea, but J. Cole went double-platinum with no features. Seriously, though, I think the whole "platinum with no features" meme, which doubles as a sincere compliment to the rapper himself and a gentle mockery of his fans, summarizes the sense in which Cole has broken out of the premium guest-verse echo chamber that Drake, Big Sean, A$AP Rocky, and other young rappers like them inhabit. He’s struck out on his own scenic route; no, it’s not a blockbuster stadium tour, nor is he churning out visceral, underground music. It’s simply been cool to follow him these past few years on his little, antisocial sojourn. 12/20.

IV. Proficiency

Charity: Here’s where I really set myself up to fail on another man’s behalf. I’m actually listening to "No Role Modelz" as I write this, and I just hit the "my only regret could never take Aaliyah home" line, felt immediately frustrated by it, rewound the song, and now here I am, back at, "First things first: Rest In Peace, Uncle Phil." I dunno, man. J. Cole has the flows, and he has the song concepts, it’s just that his (let’s call them) literary shortcomings undermine those concepts pretty frequently. The very best J. Cole songs ("Breakdown," "Rich Niggaz," "Power Trip," "Love Yourz") are generally ones where he takes his material seriously enough to retire the flatulence, slut-shaming, and rim shots for just four minutes. For the most part, though, J. Cole just has incredibly bad narrative instincts. 4/20.

By all means, and by all rights, dump your remaining stash of J. Cole poop bars below.

Serrano: This is a category you and I are essentially identical on, which is a little bit strange to me because, more often than not, it’s the category where the most tension arises between those who are not fans of J. Cole and those who are fans of J. Cole.

I’ve had, on occasion, a Twitter account retweeted into my timeline that highlights the best J. Cole lines. It’s literally called Best J. Cole Lines. There are similar accounts for most every big rapper — there’s one with Nas quotes, one with Jay Z quotes, etc. I would assume that each one is run by someone who is a very big fan of that rapper, thus I would assume that the J. Cole one is run by someone who is a very big fan of J. Cole. I would assume that he or she, someone familiar with J. Cole’s music and impressed with J. Cole’s music, just hops on there every so often and tweets out a line or a bar that he or she remembers as being very good.

But somehow, some way, we end up with that person tweeting lines like, "Cole is ya phone at zero percent; going off." Like, that person heard that line in the song "Apparently" and CONSIDERED IT ONE OF HIS BEST LINES. That’s why I figured you and I would be standing on different sides of the fence for this category. I’m glad that we are not. I have the same score here as you: 4/20. ("These niggas thinkin’ they the shit / And they ain’t even farted yet." — J. Cole, "Last Call")

V. Purpose

Serrano: I went to a J. Cole concert last year. He had a stop in Houston as part of his Forest Hills Drive Tour. The whole reason I went was because, similar to what we’re doing now, I wanted to talk to a bunch of J. Cole fans about J. Cole. And you know what? The concert was really fun and really good. The between-songs banter that J. Cole did was charming and neat. But mostly it was cool because the mostly young people there were entirely energetic and frenetic. He would start a song and they would immediately start rapping it with him and at him, and it was wonderful. It was 15,000 or 16,000 or 17,000 kids and they were having a very enjoyable time.

J. Cole as a rapper is like if one of those paint-by-numbers things were a human. He’s like if a pair of Sketchers had come to life. He’s like if one of those braided leather belts became sentient. He’s like the last 30 minutes of a comedy movie where they try to get all serious but mostly just end up saying a bunch of regular-ass stuff. J. Cole does not rap in a good way, or an interesting way, or a challenging way, or a way that exists in any manner other than what it is presented as. If J. Cole wants to make a song about, say, riding a bicycle, he will call it "Bicyclez" and there will be lines in it like, "I always wanted a bike when I was a kid / Never got one / I got one now / Just rode 5 miles on it / Cole!" If J. Cole wants to make a song about the hardships of growing up in the underclass, he will call it "Hardship" and there will be lines in it like, "When you don’t have money / Life is hard / I have money now / Still can’t cover up the scars." That’s what he does. And it’s not good. BUT: I cannot deny that he puts a good feeling in a lot of people’s chests. And I cannot deny that he appears to do so sincerely. J. Cole definitely has purpose, and certainly moves with purpose. And I am absolutely OK with giving him a good score here. Let’s call it 14/20. ("You wanna know how I know I’m the shit? / ’Cause I keep clogging up the toilet." — J. Cole, "Disgusting")

Charity: J. Cole isn’t a great rapper. But — allow me to slip into my persuasive courtroom voice for a moment — that’s not what we’re here to decide today, is it?

J. Cole is a good rapper, a standard that he meets just based on the good-natured camaraderie you’ve described above, if nothing else. I’m not saying it’s the most difficult thing to achieve. Now — and bear with me for a second here — I’m thinking back to this classic RedLetterMedia video I watched last year; it’s a roundtable review of the classic Anna Faris film What’s Your Number? In the review, cohost Mike Stoklasa is disgusted with the movie itself, and with rom-coms categorically, whereas guest reviewer Gillian Bellinger argues that What’s Your Number? is "bad," OK, sure, fine, except, no, actually, wait, the reason you go see a movie like What’s Your Number? in the first place is to transcend the critic’s realm and simply enjoy a basically competent arrangement of attractive characters in relatable circumstances. Rarely is your brain all the way on when you’re watching a rom-com. Similarly, I tend to find my guard lowered whenever I’m listening to J. Cole music, whether briefly in passing or intensively in a car, and I just sorta vaguely enjoy it. Which, at least in my experience, undermines the whole meme-driven notion that J. Cole’s music requires a certain level of smarts and attentiveness to really "appreciate," as opposed to trap music, which is good only for parties. I just come for the samples, the decent pop structures, and the inoffensive sound of dude’s voice. If I want deeper existential insights or profound articulations, I will listen to Gucci Mane instead.

J. Cole is basically a competent rapper who tells good stories in clumsy, grating ways; he’ll make a great uncle some day. He raps for people who say "GPA" a lot and in an exceedingly sincere, occasionally concerned tone of voice. He raps for the collections department: both the people receiving the calls and the customer service reps stuck at the desk making them. He’s not Lupe Fiasco: If anything, he raps for kids who aren’t kids anymore and are tired of thinking about things all the damn time. J. Cole’s imperfections are intolerable to listeners beyond age 28 in the same way that SNL is largely unfunny to viewers once they’re beyond high school; there was never any "there" there beyond basic, but essential, satisfaction of immature tastes. But SNL is still good; J. Cole is still good; they’re just, uh, whatever the opposite of an acquired taste is. Square-pizza cafeteria raps. Square pizza is good! If Kanye West is Neon Genesis Evangelion, then J. Cole is The Magic School Bus. And yet, both of those cartoons are good. It’s really not that deep. And I never expected or needed J. Cole to be profound. I just want to hear a nice, young man rap over that great Cults song that I hadn’t heard of until Born Sinner.

J. Cole shits all over your boy Mac Miller, that’s for damn sure. 16/20.

Serrano: Ha. J. Cole is better than Mac Miller, yes, but Mac Miller isn’t good either.

OK, so let’s tally it up. If we add up all of the scores, I, who have been arguing against J. Cole, have him scoring a 33 out of a possible 100 on our Is This Person A Good Rapper? Scale. You, who have been arguing for J. Cole (and also are the person who came up with the scoring system), have him at a 58. Scoring a 58 percent on anything would not, to me, qualify as "good." So here’s my last question for you, Justin: Are you ready to admit that J. Cole is not a good rapper?

Charity: "I’m on that shit as if I was the flies."

Serrano: Perfect. Nor am I ready to admit that he is. I suppose it was always going to end this way.

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