J. Cole was supposed to be the chosen one—Drake’s top competition for the #1 spot. Does the Canadian rapper’s brewing battle with Kendrick Lamar leave Cole as third banana?
No one was more burned by Kendrick Lamar’s “Control” verse than his own rap buddy J. Cole. Sure some folks were heated and let you know it (Papoose, Meek Mill), yet aside from Drake—the perennial leader of his generation—no one else mentioned on the track occupies the same lane, possesses equal lyrical gifts and shares the same level of success with K Dot as Jermaine Cole. No one else was called by his birth name. And as any NASCAR buff will tell it, you can’t dart from third place to frontrunner without zipping past the second in line. “My partner J. Cole is always keeping it to the point where you have to show and prove,” Kendrick said of his closest competition during his VIBE cover story interview in March. “My partner Drake kills it.” Drizzy’s St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of a mixtape, So Far Gone, dropped on Cupid’s Day 2009 and completely mastered Kanye’s 808s & Heartbreak aesthetic, perfecting a new sound to which today’s rap pack flocked like pigeons to leftover scraps. During that same season, Jay Z announced J. Cole as the flagship artist to anchor his Roc Nation imprint. He was a protégé more Kanye West than Memphis Bleek—a sharp wordsmith who juggled conflicted righteousness and everyman sinning. Together, the two represented a future dichotomy of MCs vying for the throne. Fans instantly began egging on a lyrical spat between Hov and Weezy’s offsprings. A battle of the light-skinned lyricists! [insert Elliott Wilson laugh] “From a fan’s point of view, who are you going to get excited about [to] battle?” Cole told me back in 2010. “I feel like that’s why people push the J.Cole/Drake thing so much, ’cause I think we’re probably the first two artists that fans are super excited about. The two that they would like to see go at it. I don’t blame ‘em. But it’s just a sign of the times.” Fast forward three years and those previewed 15 seconds of spit from Kendrick Lamar’s BET cypher verse are a Vegas-sized, beaming neon sign pointing to Drake’s new date with destiny—only now Cole is the third wheel. Make no mistake, J. Cole has seen an incredible 2013. He’s got one of the year’s most pristine and best-selling rap albums with Born Sinner. He shared a VIBE cover with Nas, the same rap deity who dedicated a rhyme in his honor with “Made Nas Proud.” Cole’s “Crooked Smile” video, which portrays the murder of seven-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, is a poignant and important visual amid a year when our justice system has made it clear that the stock price on black lives is nosediving. Yet even after toppling Yeezus in album sales, it seems his pursuit of kingly status is slipping. So what is Cole to do as we tiptoe closer to a rap Royal Rumble? His response to “Control” has been apathetic (“That’s a part of the game… it’s fine,” he told Vice) but perhaps its time for Cole to insert himself in the (friendly) battle for rap crown with a nudge of his own to compadre Kendrick. As this curiously monikered RapGenius user pointed out, it could result in a battle that’s not only more lyrically satisfying, but also swipe the attention of blood-thirsty fans away from Drake, who seems to be too busy singing ’80s ripoffs to worry about returning frienemy fire. Or, he and Drake could tag-team with some slick talk for Compton’s good kid gone bad (they still owe us a revamp of their “Jodeci Freestyle.” Cole slayed Drizzy here, for those keeping track). Of course there’s still the fabled K Dot and Cole joint project that’s been gestating for a couple of years now. Regardless of how Kendrick and Drake’s rivalry plays out, the Fayetteville rhymer will have his chance to go bar for bar with his Black Hippy collaborator to prove who is nicest on mic devices. J. Cole hasn’t had many direct challenges during these rap Kumbaya days, but a back-and-forth lyrical exercise isn’t something Cole would—or should—shy away from (ask Diggy). “I’m a competitive person in general, so I’m a fan of people throwing jabs and shots,” Cole said in 2010. “That motivates me.” Whether Cole tags himself into the most exciting battle of recent years or watches from behind the ropes, the remaining months of this year and next will certainly be a power trip for supremacy. —John Kennedy