It’s been five years since J. Cole released his debut album, Cole World: The Sideline Story. The project was met with a lukewarm reception, but holds some gems nonetheless, one of which is “Dollar and Dream III.” The idea behind the third installment came at the perfect time in his career. He’s progressed so much at this point since the first two installments. In the five years since, J. Cole has become one of hip-hop’s biggest most-known artists. At times, I wonder what a fourth installment would sound like. This series allowed you to get deep inside Cole’s thoughts and fears, as well as his confidence.
One of the lines that reflects upon Cole’s career in “Dollar and A Dream III” caught my attention. “I take a step back and notice things ain’t what they seem,” he raps. “That’s when a n**** refocus.” And that’s what he looks to do as he steps off the road for the first time in over two years. At Meadows in NYC, J. Cole announced to the crowd that he was not performing for a “very long time.” The die-hard fans scream out “no,” and Cole quickly moves on to wrap up his last set. Why now? There’s so many different reasons for leaving the touring game behind until further notice, but which one is Cole’s?
The most obvious decision is simply being tired. Touring is such a draining situation for any artist. Many artists love it, as do the fans, but we often don’t see how it affects them. You’re constantly on the move where sleep becomes tough, and hitting the stage for an hour plus nightly doesn’t help. Cole has stayed everywhere except home since before 2014 Forest Hills Drive dropped. Him taking time off would make sense, because he is also married. At 31, J. Cole has done more in his career than most do in a lifetime. It could mean it’s time to build a family and become a dad. Plus, it’s good to make people, your fans, miss you.
When you take a look at how artists used to function, they’d take several years in between albums. It was never so fast-paced, and J. Cole seemingly adopted this style as he ascended to stardom. In this age of social media, rappers are rarely out of the public’s eye. J. Cole doesn’t tweet. He’s not doing interviews every other week. His life is mainly lived out through whatever he puts in songs. The only way he’s seen otherwise is touring, but if that’s taken away it gives his fans an opportunity to miss his presence. It’s the element of surprise not knowing when he’ll turn up again. Surprise has played a large factor in his moves, too.
In the short clip of Cole’s performance hiatus announcement, a fan yells “new album.” Even if J. Cole went home to sleep in his own bed, wakes up and watches Luke Cage on Netflix all day, then cook dinner with his wife, he’s still going to think about music. It’s in his blood, now. Passion doesn’t just die. A new album is definitely on his mind. This past April, producer Cardo confirmed that J. Cole is creating to a few of his beats. It doesn’t necessarily equal an album per say, but what else would he be doing?
As with every artist who takes their time and shows that they can be diverse, J. Cole’s fourth album is a wild card. Nobody knows what’s inspiring him. There’s plenty of questions like where does he go next? Pressure doesn’t seem to get to Cole no matter how high up he gets, which is probably for the best. It only clouds your creative process when you worry about how the public will receive your music. He’s not a Kid Cudi type going radically left, Cole has a lane that’s wide enough to explore without leaving the road. Perhaps, this road won’t be lonely.
The rumors of a J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar album have fizzled out for a while. The last time we had hope was Black Friday when the pair remixed each others’ songs, then Cole made a promise of something coming in February. Many lead to believe it was the album we’ve all been waiting for since its first teasing. However, time went on and the only explanation came from his manager Ibrahim Hamad.
“I will say that when even when he said that, you know like, we kinda knew that was a stretch,” he said back in August. “Cole is Cole and he knows what he’s doing. He has his ways of getting things done and I think that at the end of it all, it’ll be way worth it. Whatever he had planned in February, whatever it is, it’ll be way more worth it if people just like…know that he, he’s kinda like a mad scientist with his thing. He’s like a little mad scientist.”
Whatever was supposed to drop still remains a mystery, but it seems unlikely it would be a Cole-Lamar album. Dave Free, TDE’s President, summed it up perfectly to Billboard: “A joint album does sound great, but people need to understand, these are two geniuses. These are two creative guys. It takes a long time for one of them to get in a space to create a song, so to get two of them in a space to do that, it takes a lot of time and energy. It all has to be a singular project, but it just can’t happen overnight.” Here’s where stepping off the road helps.
If J. Cole is parking the tour bus in the garage for a while, it opens up the chance for him and Kendrick Lamar to sit down and really create something special. As Free made clear, these two don’t just whip up new music at the drop of a dime. There’s a process that usually ends up in albums that can survive the short attention spans of our generation. I couldn’t imagine how tough it will be for the two to do an entire album together. A song or two is simple, especially when it’s for someone’s project and there’s an idea in mind. Not to say that there would be conflict, but the sheer creativity swirling around in their minds would be vast. Compromises are needed if this will become a reality, and that’s not meant as a bad thing.
With a vague announcement, the only people who truly know where J. Cole is headed are the ones close to him. It could be a some combination of family, being tired, and music. Time will be our only guide. He’ll pop back up when we least expect it, but also when we want it the most. The only thing that’s certain for J. Cole is that he’s giving his fans the chance to miss him.