J. Cole never left, but he did win over the masses.
J. Cole, although a very private person, is fully aware of his public perception, especially among the younger generation. While the “Fuck J. Cole” movement has died down entirely, Cole’s embrace of the current state of hip-hop -- including the Lil Pump’s and 6ix9ine’s -- seems to have played a role in his creative space this year. The K.O.D rapper’s been having fun in 2018.
For the first time since Friday Night Lights, I can genuinely say I’ve enjoyed every single thing J. Cole has done this year. By no means would I consider myself a J. Cole Stan but there’s an argument to be made about how J. Cole proved every single one of his doubters wrong, including myself, this year. Not only with K.O.D -- which is a top contender for rap AOTY -- but also his guest features.
Although Cole has been a constant in conversations online, he didn’t necessarily oversaturate or overextend himself this year. In total, he's delivered nine guest verses. Each time, he politely outshined his collaborator. Last week, Moneybagg Yo’s Reset dropped with an unexpected feature from Cole. Over an eerie trap beat by Drumgod and Javar Rockamore, a “trap J. Cole” emerged and entered Moneybagg’s world, as he put it. That’s exactly what Cole has done with many of his features this year: stepped out of his own comfort zone, proving he can play ball in anyone’s court. Did we think otherwise?
Another prime example of this, is his recent collaboration with J.I.D, “Off Deez.” Cole, again, didn’t go his usual route with the song. Instead, he went into J.I.D’s lane while bucking shots at his critics, including other rappers. “N***as gon’ honor my name, boy, I’m a God in this game/ Y’all n***as homonyms, sounding the same/ Not in my lane, so I can’t complain,” he raps. For anyone who considered J. Cole “boring,” he spat it right back in their face, energetically, at that.
Even before he released his debut album, Cole received praise from many of the OGs in the game, including Royce Da 5’9”. The two finally united on wax earlier this year on “Boblo Boat.” Cole’s pen game can’t be denied, but Royce is also a monster in his own right. The collaboration, in comparison, to “Off Deez” or “Say Na,” was more in Cole's lane proper, but the North Carolina native still proved that he could go toe-to-toe with the Detroit legend. The same could be said about his collaboration with Rapsody on “Sojourner.” Clearly, Cole has made a concerted effort this year to work alongside artists who he felt could challenge him creatively, or else, that he simply appreciates. Every artist from Dreamville, with the exception of Ari Lennox, collaborated with Cole this year. While it’s always a good look on paper to have Cole’s name on a tracklist, the efforts displayed throughout his verses seemed equally beneficial to Cole himself. Even his collaboration with Wale, on “My Boy,” was one of the hottest verses he spat this year.
Cole quietly killed everything he touched this year. His run may have not been as prolific as someone like Travis Scott, Young Thug, or even Lil Baby, but Cole was the most consistent. For someone who’s as big as J. Cole, if there’s one thing to take away from his efforts, it’s that he’s not complacent with his position in the rap game. He didn’t need each track to peak in the Billboard Hot 100’s top 10 for them to be impactful.
In a year that was filled with an abundance of music from legends of the game, Cole held down his own and exceeded peoples' expectations, or else, countered them entirely. He gave rap fans what they needed while simultaneously proving that he isn’t comfortable, nor does he want to be. With every verse he’s dished out this year, he sounded as hungry as he’s ever been. In true Cole style, he did it with the utmost respect.