J. Cole And When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong

J. Cole And When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong

Typically speaking, college kids aren’t seasoned marketers or astute culture journalists. They don’t use Chartmetric to assess the career trajectory of their favorite rapper, and when they describe what does or doesn’t work for their faves, they aren’t trying to win a Pulitzer Prize. And unlike me, they’ll probably never have the ability to do so anyway (JK, JK). But what they do have is the benefit of unfiltered instinct, and if you hang around them for long enough, you can get the sort of raw, plainspoken insight that’s seldom gleaned from a boardroom or an editorial meeting.

Drunkenly stumbling to a J. Cole concert nine years ago, I got a retroactive, unintentionally astute Jermaine elevator pitch from my boy’s college friend, two years my junior. We’d just exited the Uber after listening to Cole rap about losing his virginity (“Wet Dreamz”) when the 21-year-old bro let loose the sort of genius product description that even the most accomplished e-commerce wizard couldn’t generate. “That’s why I fuck with Cole. He says shit, and it’s like, lame,” he explained, “but he’s thug with it.” Lame. But thug with it.

Indeed, unashamed lameness is an inextricable part of Cole’s everyman appeal. So when he renounced “7 Minute Drill” — his underrated response to Kendrick Lamar’s Cole and Drake diss on Future & Metro Boomin’s “Like That,” tacked onto the end of Cole’s surprise mixtape Might Delete Later — I was disappointed, but maybe not all the way surprised. OK, I was flabbergasted. Yet in some ways, the disavowal just continued his tradition of inventive uncoolness. In an alternate universe, it might even scan as clever brand management. In this one, it was just Cole being Cole. Choose any self-help platitude here and it will apply. He spoke his truth. He prioritized his mental health. He protected his peace. For our purposes, let’s just say he, like always, kept it real. So real that it shifted from his typically charming brand of vulnerability to something that honestly felt pathetic, even if it shouldn’t.

Any way you look at it, the 39-year-old’s always been a little embarrassing. Unlike Future, who, despite looking very dorky in his yearbook pictures, is hard to ever imagine without his signature shades and impenetrable mystique, Cole’s given us a front-row seat to his days as a boy with a lot of dreams but not a whole lot of money, and zero qualms about being debilitatingly normal. He juxtaposes rap-star shit talk with bare-naked sensitivity and the unromantic sensibilities of someone who doesn’t want to go to jail tonight. He’ll brag about stealing your girlfriend, but he’ll vividly recap being the poor schmuck who had to watch the love of his life be with another man. He’ll remind you that he’s from the Ville where they carry .45’s like change for a 20, but he’ll boast about his ability to escape a group of brawlers to avoid getting jumped.

Running from hopeless, life-threatening odds is a perfectly reasonable thing to do, but Cole says it with all the defiant conviction of Tupac screaming, “Thug Life,” and emptying the clip. He’s thug with it. Cole’s always had a little “More Responsible, But Lower Stakes Makaveli” in him. Tupac rapped about being poor and resorting to crime; J. Cole raps about being poor and busting a nut too fast. But that’s the point; his fearlessness emboldens us to embrace our very human, situational uncoolness, too.

In front of thousands of fans at the 2024 Dreamville Fest in Raleigh, N.C., Cole had the chance to be a macho man. In theory, his “7 Minute Drill” performance could have played out like a tamer version of JAY-Z’s 2001 Summer Jam appearance, where HOV posted an image of Prodigy in a ballerina outfit on the Summer Jam screen before previewing “Takeover.” Maybe it could’ve been an energetic, but less vicious version of the time ‘Pac performed “Hit Em Up” at the House Of Blues. Maybe he could’ve posted some Kung-Fu Kenny memes, 6ix God vs Meek Mill style. Shit, maybe he could’ve just rapped the damn song. After likely spending weeks weighing the pros and cons of adhering to rap battle scripture — a nebulous, but rigid set of guidelines that tells you that, if you’re a true spitter, you need to respond to the person that violated you, and do so unapologetically — Cole listened to the meme devil on his shoulder as if being told he had the chance to do the wackest shit ever: Apologize. Earnestly.

Standing before the crowd, Cole explained why the diss track didn’t sit well in his stomach.”So, I’m so proud of [Might Delete Later] except for one part. There’s one part of that shit that make me feel like, ‘Man, that’s the lamest shit I ever did in my fucking life,’ right? And I know this is not what a lot of people wanna hear. I can hear my niggas up there being like, ‘Nah, don’t do that.’ But I gotta keep it a hunnid wit y’all.”

Up to that point, the whole “keep it a hunnid” part was endearing. Humiliating vulnerability was J. Cole’s bat signal. But years of declaring himself unfuckwittable made most of us want to see what would happen if he actually was fucked with. He’s rapped about competitors not wanting the smoke, but all the sudden, he stopped smoking. He won’t even vape. Days removed from the show, his wholesome, self-aware apology feels like an example of both uncomfortable-yet-admirable honesty and false advertisement. It’s a shame, because Might Delete Later is a fun warmup project that should’ve reminded everyone of a skill-level that grows ever sharper.

Checking in at 12 songs, Cole’s latest is a succinct exercise in flow agility and punchlines that would make Fabolous and Lloyd Banks pick up their Blackberries to prove they’ve still got it. Imagine his 2021 L.A. Leakers freestyle lasting 45 minutes. For “We Ready 24,” he outraps Cam’ron with the tightly coiled rhyme schemes and an anti-fly guy flex for the ages: “Designer or not, I just pulled your bitch with no line-up and Crocs.” On “HYB,” he matches Central Cee on a subdued drill beat. He’s getting some flack for an admittedly corny alphabet line, but phonetically, it all sounds cool anyways, and the schemes here are pristine. Similarly, “Pi” is a masterclass of liquid rhyming and cheeky wordplay, but it’s marred by a ghastly and all-around offensive trans metaphor and NBA scouting skills that would make Michael Jordan look like Jerry West (there’s no saving Cam Reddish, bro). “Where bricks get karate chopped to maximize the dojo, comprende/ I wonder, will my friends make it past the pearly gates, so we could kick it/ But based on what their sins say, probably not.” Bars like these could’ve been as overstuffed as a URL battle climax, but Cole renders them with rare efficiency that doesn’t overwhelm the rich soul beat.

“Crocodile Tears” might be his strongest performance on the whole project. There, he says he’s hungrier than newcomers, and he legitimately sounds like it. His rhymes are more precise than ever, and bars like, “whole clique getting slid on, you a mouse pad” is simply ill. But in the wake of his Kendrick debacle, it rings as an empty threat. And therein lies a weighty existential question for his immediate rap future. After serving up fighting words for all these years, Cole canceled his biggest match. While the quips on the song are impressive, “7 Minute Drill” sounds like someone who doesn’t even want to slap box. Cole says he’s got two classic albums ready to go, and if The Fall Off has indeed already been recorded, it stands to reason that it shares the repetitive, “I’m better than you at rapping” DNA of The Offseason and Might Delete Later. Cole hasn’t made gleaming, melodious singles like “Power Trip” or “Apparently” in over a decade now. We’re likely getting these hyper-aggressive freestyle sessions. There will be more verbal fisticuffs. But after LikeThatGate, can fans suspend their disbelief?

It should go without saying that Cole’s mental and spiritual well-being are more important than the desires of fickle fans or snarky critical analyses like my own. His career is far from over. Sure, some people will say he went out sad, but if he did, then at least it was in front of legions of fans at his own music festival in his own state. The stakes felt higher, but Cole’s essentially doing what he’s always done — keep it a blue note. But, in the wake of such an uncompetitive outcome, why do lies sound pleasant but the truth hurtful?


Future & Metro Boomin - "Like That" (Feat. Kendrick Lamar)

Much has already been written about “Like That,” but basically, it’s an apex Future Hendrix hook with an apex Metro Boomin instrumental and an incendiary, potentially game-shifting verse from the one and only Kendrick Lamar. It’s the rare case of a song living up to the hype it deserves, except in this case, it’s even more explosive because no one saw it coming. Quietly, Kung-Fu Kenny and Hendrix are three-for-three for collabs. The “Mask Off” remix was fire, and ditto for “King’s Dead” with Jay Rock. Coincidentally, “Like That” earned both of them their third Billboard Hot 100 single. Like that, indeed.

Doja Cat - "URRRGE!!!!!!!!!!" (Feat. A$AP Rocky)

Although it will get lost in the sea of rap civil wars, Doja Cat’s Scarlet 2: Claude is another excellent addition to her pristine catalog. For “Urge,” she pulled A$AP Rocky away from Rihanna for a strong guest verse; throw him on a Houston or Memphis rap sample, he’ll always shine. On her end of things, Doja laces the trippy beat with a hook that’s as mischievous as it is infectious, and her verse brims with wordplay that’s as sly and kaleidoscopic as she is.

Chief Keef & Mike WiLL Made-It - "Ridiculousness"

Chief Keef and Mike WiLL Made-It did something very serious with Dirty Nachos, and “Ridiculousness” is a succinct embodiment of their chemistry. The beat here screams Gucci Mane all day, but Sosa makes it his own with twitchy quips that are equal parts vicious and hilarious: “No computer, we’ll fix a nigga shit/ There go his block, John Wick that nigga’s shit.”

Roc Marciano - "Gold Crossbow"

If there’s someone in the 2010s or 2020s doing cinematic street rap better than Roc Marciano, I can’t find him. He reaffirms his eye for aesthetic and all-around penmanship on Marciology. Everyone here’s incredible, but “Gold Crossbow” caught my ear with its quiet, precise viciousness. No one’s as concisely imaginative as Roc. Here, he ends a fashion brag with the word “gallstone” before somehow rhyming it with “bullet holes in your daughter room.”

GloRilla - "Wanna Be" (Feat. Megan Thee Stallion)

For her latest project, Ehhthang Ehhthang, GloRilla teamed up with Megan Thee Stallion to form a duo we didn’t know we needed. “Wanna Be” sees Glo and Megan interpolate J. Cole’s “No Role Modelz” before cutting into lame boy-toys. Both talk their Hot Girl shit for a track that emanates big playgirl energy.

BossMan Dlow - "Finesse" (Feat. GloRilla)

On this GloRilla-assisted hustler theme song, BossMan Dlow brags that he can teach finesse — then he proves it. Sliding over a subdued, yet stylish plugg beat, BossMan gets off shit talk with ease, making street logistics sound like just another day at the office: “All these designer clothes, I look like a damn booster/ Hunnid in a sixty, fuck a state trooper/ Phone chirpin’ in the mornin’, bae, we roosters/ Them niggas ain’t ballin’, bae, we hoopers.” Slick, yet emphatic, it’s a level of cool you can’t teach.

Sexyy Red - "Get It Sexyy"

Everything about “Get It Sexyy” is anthemic, from the Tay Keith-produced beat to the playful hook that feels like a flare signal for Sexyy Red to get ratchet. It’s a silly track that feels very much of the 2000s, which only makes Soulja Boy’s starring turn in the accompanying video that much cooler. It’s early, but the track’s already going viral, and its infectiousness, as well as its symbolic symmetry with Sexyy, mean it should keep going up.

Concrete Boys - "Point Me To It"

Lil Yachty’s developing a nice little team at his Concrete Boys imprint. Exhibit A? Their eponymous debut project, an album laced with breezy raps and kaleidoscopic production. With icy cool verses from Lil Boat and Camo and a guitar-infused club beat, “Point Me To It” is a clear standout. Be sure to check out the rest of that tape, too.

Maxo Kream - "Talkin In Screw" (Feat. That Mexican OT)

Maxo Kream and That Mexican OT are fast becoming one of the most electric situational duos in Texas. The woozy beat evokes the delirium that comes with a dirty doublecup, and sprightly flows embed it all with a jarring contrast that only enhances the effect. It’s a Houston cut through and through. DJ Screw would be proud.

Cardi B - "Enough (Miami)"

Cardi B is at her venomous best on “Enough (Miami),” a track that sees her take aim at opps everywhere. Here, she stitches dismissive quips at opps before serving up a hook that hits a little harder each time you listen. It’s been over a half-decade since she dropped a project, but if her new LP has more tracks like this one, it’s hard to be mad she’s taken her time.


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