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J. Cole’s Fragile Revolution

The Dreamville founder just finished a features run that spanned everything from 21 Savage’s “a lot” to Gang Starr’s return. Did it change how we feel about him?

AP Images/Ringer illustration

In the beginning, there were 20 or so seconds of “Planez,” an unfinished Jeremih song that sounded as if it really wanted to go to space. Going off some grainy studio footage of a mixing board, we internet denizens believed, beyond any reasonable doubt, that Chance the Rapper would be the one to take it there—the two performed the song together at some live shows during the Social Experiment peak, and we saw/heard that it was good. The betrayal of an eventual J. Cole verse on the official single, in which Cole couldn’t tell his dick from his foot, cannot be overstated. “Planez” was airy and beautiful and blameless and perfect, in a sex-on-a-waterbed-in-zero-G sort of way. Then J. Cole, the monster, thoughtlessly killed it. And not in the fun way.

I bring up “Planez” again (sorry) because it seems like—well, not ancient history, but history, you know? The prevailing attitude toward J. Cole—toward just the words “J. Cole feature”—seems to have shifted from knowing dread to something like genuine excitement. And this is taking both of the J. Cole factions into account.

In addition to the hip-hop traditionalists that viewed him as a worthy step forward for the genre, Cole has also amassed a broad base of devoted fans that see themselves reflected in a superstar without pretense. They feel inspired by his acts of charity, they feel understood by his everyman insights, they feel seen by his blue-collar aesthetic, they have opinions about how well people with face tattoos can be expected to rap. Cole has remained a divisive figure because for each traditionalist or devotee or house party zealot, there’s usually someone else, like me, who would counter that while J. Cole is a consummate rap technician, he’s still bland, and boring. Over the past 18 months, though, it seems that Cole’s career has caught a second wind, on the back of some revelations about the game, and the strange position he holds in it. Where once I felt boredom, I now feel respect and possibly … sadness? That his feature run is officially over?

Our collective frame of reference, and rap itself, is too broad at this point for a Best Rapper Alive debate to be anything but arbitrary and tiresome, but there’s still that handful of rappers that pops up in every one, and that one rapper who always finishes in the top two. On balance, that one rapper would be someone like Kendrick Lamar, probably. But seeing as how Lamar has been relatively quiet since Black Panther, and J. Cole has spent the past year snatching songs out from under his costars, J. Cole, Best Rapper Alive was at least a possibility that had to be explored, however briefly, outside of his fan base.

If you can get over J. Cole’s needing to believe in Tekashi 69 as a tragic, embattled figure, his verse on 21 Savage’s “a lot” is a moment of breathless sorcery; a moment that wooshes past before you can think for too long about how dumb-smart “some niggas make millions, other niggas make memes” is. Cole was similarly nimble and affecting on Jay Rock’s “OSOM,” pulling in the themes of addiction—and the urgency—from last year’s KOD.

Fuck it, I’m turnin’ my phone off
Fantasies of grabbin’ the heat and burnin’ my nose off
Blaow! Niggas might not know but I’m slightly throwed off
And I might need Zoloft, but for now, these Xannies’ll do
Hear the sound, a manic depressive
That ain’t been prescripted, what can he do?

But while the features have been good, J. Cole becoming a subject of internet appreciation has to do with things other than actual rapping. He’s inserted himself into different scenes organically, fashioning himself into a Southeast Godfather-like figure. As in, it’d be tough to know what Revenge of the Dreamers III was for, if not raising the profile of up-and-coming Southern hip-hop acts, in the commercial sense, like J.I.D or Young Nudy or DaBaby. Atlanta duo EARTHGANG was bubbling for years, and now, with Mirrorland finally released on Dreamville, are drawing comparisons to OutKast. Sometime after he brought Young Thug on tour, Cole managed to convince him to write, arrange, and record an actual, full, honest-to-God debut album. With an intro and pop smashes to go along with the street smashes, it has everything—including a conventional single, which of course has a really good J. Cole feature.

Last year, Cole told XXL that this run was about stepping outside of his comfort zone, about having no regrets when he eventually stops rapping, not necessarily about proving anything to anyone else. “I want to know that I left no stone unturned,” he said. “I fucking did everything I wanted to do. Even shit I didn’t want to do but ended up being glad that I did it in the end.”

I’d like to know at some point which shit he did want to do and which shit he didn’t, but his recent verse, next to the ghost of Guru on Gang Starr’s “Family and Loyalty,” where Cole raps about blessing us with “clear-cut messages,” feels kind of like a return to his comfort zone. But he’s also not that Cole from a year ago. “Niggas be talkin’ slick,” he raps, “but only try me over modems.”