In a world where seemingly everyone claims to live life on their own terms, J. Cole actually does. It’s not just his devotion to traditionalist hip-hop in a world of trendy, trap-based rap or his laissez visual aesthetic that make me feel that way, it’s also his unpredictable nature. There’s the hour-long, generational gap-bridging conversation he held with Lil Pump in which they seemed to genuinely bond. There’s the seemingly random video where he spoke to controversial hip-hop gatekeeper Adam22 in his bike shop about religion and the now-deceased XXXTentacion’s talent. There’s also his 2014 offer to visit a random fan in Dallas and play her his then-unreleased Forest Hills Drive album.
True to his nomadic nature, Cole happened to run into up-and-coming Brooklyn rapper Saloman Faye while idly walking alone through New York’s West Village, and they kindled an artistic kinship that resulted in one of Cole’s few 2017 appearances on Faye’s “Live And Learn.” In May, Cole announced a pop-up impromptu concert in New York where his fans could preview his then-upcoming KOD album for free — which he abruptly announced was coming in three days. It’s moments like those, along with affirmatory anthems like “Crooked Smile” and “Love Yourz” that have won the platinum-selling artist his devout fan base.
Uproxx hip-hop editor Aaron Williams noted that after criticizing what he deemed KOD’s shortsighted analysis of the youth’s drug culture, he was swarmed on Twitter with critiques from Cole’s fans telling him how wrong he was. Cole has earned a sizable following which Complex recently described as as “the fanbase every artist needs” due to their devotion and avid defense of his every maneuver.
Those fans have helped him consistently sell out national and international tours and recently earn his 4th Billboard number one album with KOD. Billboard reports that the physical sales numbers for KOD dwarf that of many big-ticket 2018 albums. The project also broke a Spotify streams record (since shattered by Drake), which is a testament to his fans’ commitment — and the possibility of succeeding without the need to stir publicity, even with a surprise release.
His fans’ fervent adulation also stems from charitable gestures like a vow to turn his former childhood home into a shelter for victims of domestic violence. This February, he donated $10,000 to a Baltimore organization while matching Colin Kaepernick’s charity pledge to donate $1,000,000 to charities serving oppressed communities across the United States. It’s those good deeds, compounded with contemplative, vulnerable albums and cogent analysis of social ills like cultural appropriation on “Firing Squad” and police brutality on “Be Free,” that have garnered him the distinction that UK Media outlet Capital Xtra bestowed as “the realest rapper out there.” If abusive artists, cultural appropriators, and politically corrosive figures like Kanye West are who hip-hop fans are exhausted with, Cole’s presence represents their antithesis.
Perhaps his status as a cultural unicorn is why he’s been vocal in the past about moments of disenchantment with the music industry and the nefarious, self-centered figures within it. He told The New York Times in 2017 that while “any reasonable person would be ecstatic,” about his rising stature in hip-hop, “I didn’t have that feeling.” On early hit “Love Yourz,” he noted, “It’s beauty in the struggle, ugliness in the success.”