It looked like J. Cole was about to go war with rap’s new school two years ago. The Fayetteville, North Carolina artist boasts one of hip-hop’s most extremist fanbases. They prop his aspirational, traditionalist-appeasing catalog up as the beacon of so-called “real hip-hop,” and pit him against all they deem unholy to the rap gods.
That needless comparison engendered friction with artists like Lil Pump and Smokepurrp, who sniped back at hip-hop purists by declaring “f*ck J. Cole” online and in song. Cole retorted with KOD’s “1985,” a song many perceived as a diss to Pump and an entire scene of artists popularly demeaned as “mumble rappers.”
But instead of letting the controversy linger, Cole did the smartest thing for everyone involved: he sat down and talked to Pump. They came to an understanding, and Cole admitted that he at one point felt “afraid” about the new wave of SoundCloud rappers taking over hip-hop. It takes true emotional intelligence for someone to identify that their ire stems from fear, and even more maturity to attempt to reconcile it.
Once Cole embraced 808s, he became prosperous with them. KOD’s “ATM” became his highest-charting hit. 2019’s “Middle Child” soon supplanted that, and is nominated for a 2020 Best Rap Performance Grammy. His soulful “A Lot” collaboration with 21 Savage is Grammy-nominated for Best Rap Song. He also executive produced Young Thug’s So Much Fun album, and their “The London” collaboration (with Travis Scott) is nominated for Best Rap/Sung Performance. Cole went from a solitary creative process to inviting a who’s who to Atlanta for Revenge Of The Dreamers 3 sessions, and the album is up for Best Rap Album. The album’s “Down Bad,” featuring Dreamville-signees Bas, JID and Earthgang is nominated for Best Rap Performance.
Without even releasing a solo album, Cole was nominated for five Grammys this year. It’s well-known that Cole doesn’t actually care about the Grammys, but his bevy of nominations are an impressive feat that can be attributed to embracing change, letting go of ego and building connections outside of his immediate network, things many veteran acts are fearful to do.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a superstar-level musician with the humility to sign artists capable of releasing better albums than them, but Cole has given chances without a second thought at Dreamville — and they’re winning for it. Ari Lennox is an R&B favorite. And the sky is the limit for JID and Earthgang especially, two acts who have been favorably compared to stalwarts like Kendrick Lamar and Outkast, respectively. If either act achieves even half the accolades of those icons, Cole can take as long as he needs to between albums because he’ll be eating good.
“Down Bad,” which also features Dreamville artist Bas and rising rapper Young Nudy, is a chief example of their talents. Each artist takes turns going in over producer Pluss’ fusion of sharp 808s with a searing glissando reminiscent of Public Enemy’s “Rebel Without A Pause.” It’s a bridge-building composition that exemplifies Cole and his crew’s desire to explore a modern sound while infusing it with classic elements.
He offered that best-of-both-worlds perspective to Young Thug while executive producing his So Much Fun album. Thug is one of the most polarizing artists of our time. Some fans love his “post-verbal” vocal histrionics, while others are hopelessly wishing for him to replicate his “Sacrifices” lucidity and rap rap for an entire project. That’s never going to happen, but Cole helped Thugger find his best balance on So Much Fun.
Thug recalls that he got close to Cole while on tour with him in 2018. Cole began giving him advice on music-making, in part telling him “you gotta get back to lyrics.” Thug took that advice to heart on his project. And it sounds like Cole took some cues from Thug on “The London,” delving into some lithe mid-verse crooning that shows him pushing the boundaries of his own creativity. Alongside Travis Scott, the two seemingly took turns exploring a mesh of melody and outright bar-spitting with compelling results.
In just a couple of years, Cole went from a figure of ire for the new generation to a frequent collaborator with their favorites. During 2018’s olive branch of a discussion with Lil Pump, who took to saying “f*ck J. Cole” as a mission statement against hip-hop convention, Cole admitted that “two years ago I saw one of the freshman freestyles, and I was sad. I was like damn, this (rap) sh*t really over.” Cole has so many peers and fans who stay stuck in that headspace, which begets protective diatribes from rap legends like Pete Rock and Eminem against so-called “mumble rappers.”
But to Cole’s credit, he admitted to Pump, “I was wrong. All I was doing was being afraid that the thing I fell in love with was no longer relevant or respected.” On “Middle Child,” a cleverly-titled affirmation in which he reflects on his space between two warring generations, he expanded on his new mindset — while still giving game — in four bars:
“Everything grows, it’s destined to change
I love you lil’ n****s, I’m glad that you came
I hope that you scrape every dollar you can
I hope you know money won’t erase the pain”
“Middle Child” is a beat that Lil Pump could conceivably jump on, with a melodic flow that clearly indicates he studied the rubric of how to make a trap hit in 2019 — maybe even from Pump and the rappers he offered tough love to on KOD’s “1985.”
The Dreamville boss can look no further than his mentor figure Jay-Z for an example of how to grow with the times. Jay-Z tried a flag-planting declaration against new artists with Blueprint 3’s “DOA (Death of Autotune),” but history shows that it was ineffective. Since then (and even before that moment) Jay made it a point to accept new cultural sensibilities. As if to immediately ditch his new-school dismissal, Jay worked with then-newcomers Drake and Kid Cudi elsewhere on Blueprint 3. He also gave Cole a verse on “A Star Is Born,” who embodied the title while rapping “does fame in this game have to change who you are?”
Cole has changed for the best. As a “Middle Child” of the rap game, he could have picked a side in rap’s generational divide. But instead of sowing division, he’s aiming to show us that together, we’re greater than the sum of our parts. His willingness to be a leading proponent of hip-hop’s collective expansion has created one of hip-hop’s most promising labels. He had the kind of “off-year” that most artists couldn’t replicate with an album out. Hip-hop is ever-evolving, and aging artists can either move with the changing tides or drown, flailing about while damning XXL freshmen for their own obstinance. J. Cole and Dreamville are smooth sailing and have several Grammy nominations to show for it.