J. Cole really tried it. A week and a half ago, J. Cole was at the NBA Slam-Dunk Contest to serve as a human prop — like Dwight Howard’s Superman cape, or Blake Griffin’s Kia, or Donovan Mitchell’s Kevin Hart. The runner-up in this year’s Dunk Contest was Knicks guard Dennis Smith, Jr. Smith comes from Fayetteville, North Carolina, which is also Cole’s hometown. And Smith basically used one of his dunks as a Cole tribute. Smith wore Cole’s high school basketball jersey, and he pulled Cole out of his courtside seat, sitting him in a folding chair under the basket. Then Smith leapt over Cole, catching Cole’s pass in mid-air and slamming it home hard. It was a hell of a dunk, and it wouldn’t have worked if Cole had flinched, or if he’d had less-than-perfect timing. That dunk got a perfect score from the judges.
But that wasn’t enough. As Smith was still celebrating, Cole, in a tie-dyed hoodie and some expensive-looking track pants, grabbed the ball and took off toward the basket. And he tried to dunk it. He really tried. Cole fell just short, clanging it off the side of the rim. Cole is 6’2″ and 34 years old — one inch shorter than Dennis Smith, Jr., and 13 years older. He attempted this dunk without any preparation, any stretching. And he only just missed that dunk. At the NBA Slam Dunk Contest. If Cole had made that dunk, he would be a legend forever. He might be a legend forever anyway, just for trying.
It takes an otherworldly level of confidence to try what Cole tried. And Cole hasn’t always seemed that confident. Cole’s entire job requires confidence, of course. And he’s been one of rap’s biggest stars for years now. But he’s our most insular rap star. He’s the one who doesn’t invite guests onto his albums, who handles a lot of the production himself, and who seems to structure each record as some kind of internal journey. He’s less interested in participating in rap’s grander narratives, more concerned with telling his own story and finding his own equilibrium. He’s the only rapper ever to include a track about folding laundry on a platinum album. I’ve always thought of 2013’s “Let Nas Down” — a song about idolization of Cole’s rap elders, even to the point of self-flagellation — to be the quintessential J. Cole song. But that’s changing.
Last year, Cole ended his album KOD with “1985 (Intro To The Fall Off),” a song where Cole plays the elder, talking to an unnamed younger foe who’d shown insufficient respect. (The presumable target is Lil Pump, who literally had a song called “Fuck J. Cole.”) “1985” isn’t a dis song. It’s worse. It’s an advice song, less angry and more condescending: “I must say, by your songs I’m unimpressed, hey / But I love to see a black man get paid / And plus, you having fun, and I respect that / But have you ever thought about your impact?”
It didn’t turn out to be a thing. When Cole performed “1985” at Rolling Loud, Pump danced at the side of the stage. And shortly thereafter, Pump and Cole buried all hatchets in an hour-long video conversation, spending a surprising amount of the time saying nice things to each other. It’s awkward, but it’s not as awkward as what you’d imagine. Still, “1985” had ripple effects that went beyond whatever issues that Cole and Pump might’ve had with each other. Consider the way the Maryland rapper YBN Cordae, one of the most thoughtful rappers of his extremely young generation, shot back at Cole on his song “Old N*ggas”: “Staying out of prison, and we saying, ‘Fuck the system’ and / Rapping is our outlet to go and get our dividends / Rather than out robbing niggas, selling Ritalin / Old niggas bitter, y’all should love it when a nigga win.”
Cole paid attention. And for the past few months, he’s been going through a fascinating evolution. Cole has been on a guest-appearance bender lately, and he’s been clearly and visibly trying to figure out his place in the world. He’s owning his position as one of the biggest stars in rap, and he’s also rapping alongside the younger rappers — 21 Savage, Offset — who he seemed to be judging on his earlier records. On those recent records, he seems to be grappling with his own place in rap history, and with that of his generation. And he’s also trying to reckon with a rap landscape that seems to be caught in an erratic and dangerous state of flux.
On 21 Savage’s “A Lot,” Cole pretty much lays out his new approach: “I been playing a bet from a lack of promotions / I never was one for the bragging and boasting / I guess I was hoping the music would speak for itself, but the people want everything else / Okay, no problem, I’ll show up on everyone album.” But he’s not just showing up on albums. He’s also addressing what he’s seeing from his younger peers. On Tekashi 6ix9ine: “Pray for Tekashi, they want him to rot / I picture him inside a cell on a cot / Reflecting on how he made it to the top / Wondering if it was worth it or not.” On Kodak Black: “Had a long talk with the young nigga Kodak / Reminded me of young niggas from ‘Ville / Straight out the projects, no faking, just honest / I wish that he had more guidance, for real.”
Now: It would be nice if J. Cole’s whole elder-statesman epiphany didn’t involve showing so much love to convicted or accused sex offenders. But in those lines, you can see Cole’s alarm and his dawning sense of great power/great responsibility. A year ago, he was talking down to his younger peers. Today, he’s trying to relate to them while also showing them a better way. It’s a smarter approach, and it’s also likely to be more effective.
That bit about Kodak Black comes from “Middle Child,” Cole’s new solo single. Cole produced that song with the trap producer T-Minus, and it finds him surfing trap hi-hats after making fun of those same drums on “1985.” It also finds him considering his own between-eras status: “I’m dead in the middle of two generations / I’m little bro and big bro all at once.” On “Middle Child,” Cole looks around and sees a perilous world: “The real ones is dying, the fake ones is lit.” and he also proclaims his own supremacy: “To the OGs, I’m thanking you now / Was watching you when you was paving the ground / I copied your cadence, I mirrored your style / I studied the greats, I’m the greatest right now.” It’s already the biggest hit of his career. It’s also one of his best songs.
Cole has talked about being a great rapper before. But I can’t remember hearing him believe it the way he does right now. More to the point, I believe it. Cole is publicly reconsidering his place in the firmament, and while he’s doing that, he’s also making a huge leap in confidence. There’s a swagger in his voice now that wasn’t there a year or two ago. Recently, Cole invited a whole lot of people to the sessions for his new project Revenge Of The Dreamers III. It’s starting to feel like this project, or like whatever Cole might be doing next, has the potential to be great. I’m always interested in what J. Cole might do next. But now, for the first time, I’m excited, too.
1. Zack Fox & Kenny Beats – “Square Up”
Rap songs about fighting are some of God’s greatest gifts.
2. Icewear Vezzo – “Balance” (Feat. Big Sean)
Detroit street-rap is going through a rebirth right now. Big Sean hasn’t had anything to do with it, but it turns out that when he jumps on one of those tracks, he sounds right at home.
3. Giggs – “Baby”
Giggs is out here rapping about the monkeys from Madagascar throwing shit and calling someone a “snide little bumsucker” over a gigantic bassline, and I am just delighted.
4. Westside Gunn – “Bubba Chuck”
Westside Gunn sort of like Nas and sort of like Edward G. Robinson, but he does not rap like the Edward G. Robinson impression that Nas used on “Who Killed It,” thank fuck. (“Who Killed It” is probably still the single funniest song in Nas’ entire career.)
5. Hoodrich Pablo Juan – “Screaming Slatt” (Feat. Young Thug)
These two just sound so slinky together.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
Mark Ronson should have won an Oscar for all those teen sex comedies Ooh Weee was in, that shit is iconic
— Ernest Wilkins (@ErnestWilkins) February 25, 2019