Caught in the middle of two generations, J.Cole is doing his utmost to create a future where the two can prosper.
“Could I be a star? Does fame in this game have to change who you are? Or could I be the same one who came from a far-away life, just to make it in these Broadway lights?”
- J. Cole "A Star is Born"
Just shy of a decade ago, J. Cole ingratiated himself to mainstream audiences with his verse on Jay-Z’s “A Star Is Born.” With two well-received mixtapes to his name, the North Carolina rapper’s inclusion on The Blueprint 3 was jarring on paper but exhilarating in execution. Over the course of 16 bars, Cole stated his case both to the hip-hop elder statesman and the hip-hop masses, acquainted with him through this feature. From 2009 to 2019, Cole has marked out of one of the most prolific careers of the millennium while retaining the same spirit that he exposed to the world all those years ago. As a platinum-selling artist, philanthropist and label impresario with Dreamville Records, the apprehension and second-guessing that informed his appearance on “A Star Is Born” is now a remnant of the past and has been replaced with an icy cool demeanour of self-assuredness.
In his final outing of 2018, Cole beautifully illustrated the contrast between the first baseman that agonized over every word of his spot on Hov’s record to the veteran that breezed through a feature on 21 Savage’s I Am > I Was:
“Okay, no problem, I’ll show up on everyone album, you know what the outcome will be. I'm batting a thousand, It’s got to the point that these rappers don't even like rappin' with me. F**k it 'cause my n***a 21 Savage just hit me and told me he saved me a spot on a new record he got. He call it "a lot," I open my book and I jot.”
Over ten years into game, this poised and composed outlook is one that Cole has earned through hard work, persistence and the intention to leave a positive imprint on every artist he interacts with. At the outset of 2019, this decade-long career and the metamorphosis that hip-hop has gone through has been on his mind, if “Middle Child” is anything to go by. Flanked by the similarly durable T-Minus on production, Cole’s first single of the year was an honest account of his stature in the rap game that sees him playing “little bro and big bro all at once.” Recorded before the fabled Revenge Of The Dreamers 3 sessions, it vocalizes his unique position to pay homage to his predecessors while remaining empathetic towards the plight of the upcoming rappers, dazzled by the fame and the money. Tinged with distinctly modern production tropes and a sprinkling of auto-tune, even the sonics of the track broach this role as mediator between the new school and the old; a divide that has become vastly more pronounced than it was when Cole was on the come up. In those days, hip-hop’s present and future coexisted on mutually-assured ground, and were united by the pre-designated tenets of what the genre could and should incorporate.
Now the chasm between these two factions is wider than ever, leaving Cole torn between the preservation of an illustrious past and a prosperous future that commands pop culture with an iron fist.
To his credit, this position of “Middle Child” isn’t a statement based on vanity or pretension but one that he’s upheld through actions. When KOD dropped in 2018, “1985 (Intro To The Fall-Off) garnered more headlines than any other. Perceived as a straight-up diss track towards Lil Pump, Cole took the 17-year-old’s smear campaign as a chance to approach the lectern and bestow some wisdom on the youth. For all that it concluded with a grim prognosis for Pump’s career, his bars were essentially a detailed map of the hip-hop minefield and how to sidestep those fatal blows that can stop an artist’s relevancy dead in its tracks.
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A little over a month after KOD’s unveiling, Cole took this outreach a step further by inviting his would-be adversary to North Carolina for a summit. Over the course of an hour, the Dreamville founder spoke to the divisive MC about life and the journeys that brought them to this moment, imparting pearls of wisdom throughout the conversation. In one of its most revelatory moments, Cole owned up to his own naivety and explained that it took some time for him to garner an understanding of the new wave:
“I seen one of the (XXL) Freshman freestyles and I was like.. sad. I was like damn, this shit really over. I know now that I was wrong, all I was doing was being afraid that the shit I fell in love with was no longer relevant or respected. In time, I realized that’s not true. This is just taking another course.”
Whether or not the chat fell on deaf ears remains to be seen, but the fact that a veteran took the time to converse with an impressionable kid as opposed to discarding him attests to the “Middle Child” philosophy that he’s outlined. In a similar vein, YBN Cordae’s retort to “1985” was responded to with a level-headed and pragmatic tact that few others would’ve adopted. Rather than take umbrage with the audacity of his fellow Carolinian for wading into the issue on "Old N****s," Cole gave props by offering the lyrically-gifted MC a spot on the Dreamville Festival bill before it was prohibited by Hurricane Florence.
From 2014 Forest Hills Drive onwards, J. Cole’s records have been a sacred space for him to present his vision for hip-hop at its most undiluted form. Devoid of guest spots or co-signs, he may feel the need to seal off the entryways to his own albums but his innate spirit of collaboration is another crucial aspect of his role as "Middle Child." While Joey Bada$$ believed he’d scored Cole’s last guest verse on 2017’s “Legendary,” the following year was one of the 34-year-old’s most adventurous when it came to features. Popping up in surprising places that ranged from Moneybagg Yo’s “Say Na” and his aforementioned spot on 21’s record, to new offerings from Rapsody and Anderson .Paak, at times it felt as though he was serving as an ambassador for lyricism in its purest form, while others felt like an olive branch-- a means of highlighting that the two rap worlds weren’t so incompatible after all. In a 12-month period of exhilarating verses, none seemed as important as his offering to Dreamville prodigy J.I.D on "Off Deez." Positioned on one of Dicaprio 2’s more commercially friendly offerings, Cole may deem himself as the greatest right now, but sees the future as safe in his young comrade’s hands by declaring “cannot f**k with me just yet though J.I.D the closest thing to me.”
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For anyone that still felt “Middle Child” to be a throwaway title rather than an overarching philosophy, you’d need only look at the crew he amassed for the Revenge Of The Dreamers 3 sessions to encounter a genuine attempt at bridging the gap between generations. Comprised of superstar producers and rappers alike, what could’ve been a vehicle solely for his Dreamville stable, including, Cozz, Bas, Lute and Earthgang, became a celebration of hip-hop excellence. Representing hip-hop’s status quo and previous generation, Cole summoned Rick Ross, Akon, Wale, DJ Khaled, T.I, Big K.R.I.T and Big Pooh among others whilst the new school was represented by artists like Ski Mask The Slump God, Young Nudy, Kenny Beats, Masego, Guapdad 4000, Smino and Tay Keith to name a few.
By putting this disparate array of egos and temperaments together, Cole has taken a step towards fostering an understanding of what both sides can bring to the table and highlighting how the two can coalesce in the process. While we're still waiting to hear if it’s a case of "too many cooks" or an unparalleled collaborative effort (we're leaning towards the latter), there’s no denying that it was made with the best of intentions and could spawn hook-ups that would’ve never have materialized without Jermaine. Whatever comes our way from Cole this year, no one could ever say that he’s gotten complacent or self-centered. Where many platinum-selling artists would be content to leave hip-hop’s future out to dry, he has made the role of “Middle Child” his cross to bear and is using this duality to forge the tomorrow that he wants to see. Respectful of the past yet focused on the future, there’s no man better fit for the task.