The formula for the late night TV performance has almost always been in a stasis: An artist shows up and they perform the singles they’ve been promoting to drum up interest in their new album in front of a wide audience. But promotion was the last thing on J. Cole’s mind when he took the stage on The Late Show With David Letterman back in 2014. Yes, his album 2014 Forest Hills Drive was released without warning just days before, yes, Letterman produced a unique chance to finally, properly promote the album he dropped as a surprise and yes, the album had several platinum hits lingering on its tracklist. But the song he chose to perform wasn’t even on Forest Hills Drive, and the decision couldn’t have been more perfect.
Instead of keeping with the status quo, Cole chose to offer a stirring rendition of his Mike Brown-tribute song “Be Free,” and delivered an emotional and timely moment that in some ways has lived on longer than any other in his career. It was a stunning performance from a superstar who hadn’t yet shown the propensity for such impactful and iconic displays. Even Letterman was rendered speechless, simply offering “oh my god” several times and refusing to let go of Cole’s hand as the rapper stood in a daze, seemingly enjoying the release of such a cathartic moment.
It was the earliest indication that Cole would be a lifelong star, who would never quite leave the public sphere unless he chose to do so. Even with songs like “Lights Please” and “Crooked Smile” under his belt, the performance was a sign that Cole’s impact could increase exponentially, and he could be a voice for an entire culture. Cole quietly flew to Ferguson just days after Brown was slain by a police officer, and clearly the incident had impacted him deeply. He was months away from his 30th birthday, a milestone that often causes people to reconsider all things in their lives, and while he was always a thoughtful artist, it seemed to make him even more reflective and introspective on record.
Later in the year he joined the march in New York after the death of Eric Garner, again at the hands of a police officer, and after the Letterman performance he told Angie Martinez he watched the video of Garner’s death again before he took the stage on Letterman to put himself back in the mind-frame he was in when he wrote the new verse for the song. While the Letterman performance was clearly a turning point for J. Cole the rapper, the deaths of Brown and Garner were turning points for Jermaine Cole the man, and sometimes the growth of both components don’t mix.
Over the past year, as stars are wont to do after a massive release, Cole has spent his time touring the world, and though he’s been traversing the globe and performing for his fans, he’s also left a void with his fly by night approach to album releases. For most, 4 Your Eyez Only was a bland disappointment, and despite the album producing his biggest song ever, he never chose to extend the life of the introspective LP with videos or any real commitment to stretching out the material.
Instead, he watched from the sidelines — and his stage — as the other two sides of the modern young rap trinity, that’d be Drake and Kendrick Lamar, owned the year commercially. Even the artists he’s so publicly looked up to, like Jay-Z and Eminem took their turns releasing music and owning the moment, as Cole fell even further and further into the background. He spoke poignantly about race relations and continued being an activist, but last year he didn’t really continue being an active musician, even as he kept fostering the careers of his Dreamville Records artists like Cozz, J.I.D. and Lute.
Some would argue his calling is bigger than music, and rightfully so, as his Letterman performance clearly suggests. Cole has interests beyond the recording booth and the stage and truly seems to be looking towards creating change in this country and on this planet. He’s been extremely vocal about his support of Colin Kaepernick and the duo have collaborated on charitable endeavors in the past year. It’s valiant and part of what makes Cole such a unique and special figure.
But at the end of the day, music is the platform where his voice rings loudest, at least for now. It’s there where Cole can make his grandest statements, and it’s there that he connects with his fans in a way not even Kendrick can match. Cole’s music impacts his fan’s lives, it resonates beyond the lyrics or the delicate and subdued production he frequently is rapping on. He doesn’t rap with the complexity of Kendrick, nor the commercial appeal of Drake, but he sits right between the two, using pieces of each realm that allow him to leave a lasting impression in each sphere of the Venn diagram.
In the post-Beyonce surprise album world, Cole has released music without warning or any indication that he’s been busy recording an entire album. He’s earned the freedom artistically to do so, and while “platinum with no features” has become a meme of sorts, it’s also true so he’s earned the commercial freedom to release music whenever and however he wants as well.
So, we really have no clue when Jermaine may release new music, or if he has any intentions to do so anytime soon. But after a huge 2017 in rap where all of his competition released music and made a massive impact on pop culture in the process, his lack of releases was a notable absence. Now, with all of his competition fresh off releases, and only Kanye West waiting in the wings as an intriguing wild card, there’s really no time like the present for Cole to step back onto the scene, reassert his dominance, and throw his weight around to remind everybody within the genre just where he stands in rap’s hierarchy.
The life of Simba, the main character from the classic Disney film The Lion King is a concept J. Cole leaned on earlier in his career. He opened his official debut mixtape The Come Up with a track named after the lion cub, proclaiming, just as Simba had in the movie “I can’t wait to be the King.” It was a symbol of his festering ambition to be a big-time rapper with a record deal and a lyrical proficiency that could not be denied. Cole hasn’t visited that motif in song for nearly seven years, but it serves as an interesting barometer of his career nonetheless, because The Lion King ended just as Simba finally became king. Maybe Cole never saw the forest beyond the trees, and never had a plan for what he would do once he reached the superstar status he’s already attained. But now, he is right there, a superstar with an opportunity to truly assert his dominance and stake his claim for the crown if he really wants it.
That crown demands a constant flow of material and it seems Cole hasn’t always known how to traverse those muddy waters. His last two albums arrived two years apart and were about as different as two albums from the same artist could be. The last album left even some of his staunchest supporters feeling displeased and looking for a restoration of his previous greatness. Cole was supposed to be Simba by now, the fully realized version with the flowing mane, a deafening roar and the kingdom at his feet. The landscape has set up perfectly for Cole to truly fulfill that destiny, and make his mark on the culture as a whole with the album we’ve all known he’s had in him since he first made that Lion King-inspired proclamation back in 2007. Cole couldn’t wait to be the king, and now he has his chance to seize the opportunity and become just that, and it’s time for Young Simba to finally do it.