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Let’s be honest: J. Cole

The Fayetteville rapper’s output post “2014 Forest Hills Drive” leaves us with a dilemma. J. Cole is an artist with no shortage of technical ability who we know is capable of putting together high-quality projects. And from his feature spots in that time we know he’s far from washed out. But following two consecutive lackluster efforts, Cole is in a position where his next project really needs to come together. So what’s gone wrong? J. Cole’s image of himself has got in the way of his projects’ success.

He’s had no shortage of commercial success. Every one of his albums has peaked at No. 1 on the U.S. charts, and each is platinum certified. But Cole has been unable to replicate the success of his early projects. “Cole World: The Sideline Story” was an energetic and high quality debut. “Born Sinner” built on that success while putting more of Cole’s introspective slide on display. And “2014 Forest Hills Drive” is heralded by some as a classic. Personally, I am uncomfortable with that label; albums like Noname’s “Room 25,” Quelle Chris’ “Being You Is Great, I Wish I Could Be You More Often” and Brockhampton’s “Saturation” trilogy have the same strengths and more personality. But by all means, “2014” is a very good album, and Cole has not come close to it since.

“4 Your Eyez Only” and “KOD” were hurt by what made “2014” so good and the reputation J. Cole earned from it. J. Cole has seemingly internalized his “the deep rapper” image, taking it upon himself to portray how a life of crime becomes inescapable or the dangers of drug abuse. Whether J. Cole is actually deep is neither here nor there, but his last two albums fall flat conceptually. For one, the “2014” approach of reclusive album crafting does not make artistic sense for either album. Often these albums feel monotone as repeated sounds and ideas make individual tracks indistinguishable. Such a process makes sense for a personal album like “2014” but on “4 Your Eyez Only” and especially “KOD,” the lack of outside voices contribute to the shortcomings. Silly tracks like “Folding Clothes” and “Brackets,” boring tracks like “Motiv8,” “The Cut Off” and “Déjà Vu,” or corny ideas like naming tracks “Kevin’s Heart” and “Window Pain” have a small chance of making it past a second set of eyes. In these concept albums too, often Cole’s focus is narrow, and he often has a hard time sticking to whatever concept he has. It’s as if he becomes distracted by the need to be J. Cole the mentor/lecturer. And sometimes that’s going to look like 1985, which was the musical equivalent of that SNL sketch where an elderly Kenan Thompson tries to teach a youth about the streets and immediately gets clowned.

J. Cole, keeper of the old guard, may be tolerable in doses. Just in the last few months, he has appeared on 21 Savage, Offset and JID’s records and delivered quality verses. The feature on 21 Savage’s “a lot” both display his talents but subtlety expose his flawed outlook. On the track, Cole busts out a killer flow and some very sharp bars. But, in addition, he makes a point to bring up his concern for 6ix9ine and then Sixers point guard Markelle Fultz. For someone as supposedly concerned for the children as J. Cole, going out of your way to express your sympathies for a person who fucks them certainly seems odd. And feigning concern for Markelle Fultz was a well-established, cheap means of getting attention long before the track dropped. And when you add all this up, the picture begins to look more like an artist concerned with posture than positivity.

None of this is to say J. Cole is incapable of releasing another high quality album or even a great concept album. But it seems like the road to that is through more collaboration and fresh perspectives as well as letting go of his veteran, sit-down-with-the-youngbloods self-image which has gotten in the way of his messaging. This week it was announced that a Dreamville album is coming in April, and on it, I think we will hear a more engaging J. Cole.

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