On Cole Under Pressure in 2013
What a difference a year makes. A little over a year ago, we ran a piece comparing two then-emerging stars in the rap game, J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar. At the time, I’d been concerned than the overpromotion of the former’s Cole World: The Sideline Story would result in the greatness that was Kendrick Lamar’s first big release, Section.80, being overlooked. This was to take nothing away from Cole’s talented debut effort. Rather, I worried if the artist formerly known as K. Dot was “too conscious” to be fully embraced by the masses.
Two years later, the tables have completely turned. Kendrick Lamar is finally getting the credit and notice that he’s deserved ever since his O.D. (Overly Dedicated) days. His major label debut album, good kid, m.A.A.d. city, has been showered with praise from blogs – including this one – print publications, barbershops, and many an old fan and new listener. And not only did good kid do great numbers (and still growing), but Kendrick capitalized on the momentum by launching a concert tour, one that had Kendrick performing twice in the city of Houston. Kendrick Lamar – and by extension, his Top Dawg Entertainment brand and its affiliated artists – clearly has the juice now. J. Cole, on the other hand, seems to have all but faded into the background, his once brightly shining star barely twinkling at this point.
What happened to the North Carolina kid who, having gotten the sign he’d so desperately craved – on the label of his real-life idol, at that – put his home city of Fayetteville on his back and on the rap radar? The kid who embodied intensity on his earliest mixtapes, The Warm-Up and Friday Night Lights, and yet who was able to balance that with a storytelling ability (“Daddy’s Little Girls,” “Lost Ones”) that transcended his youth? It is tempting to put much of the blame upon Roc Nation and label head Jay-Z, who haven’t done the greatest job of keeping the label’s first sign consistently in the public eye. In fact, over the course of 2012 alone, it seemed that Roc Nation’s primary concern was marketing R&B singer Rita Ora and her Love & War album. In the process, Cole was left behind, save for his own appearance on Ora’s “Love & War” single.
One could argue that Cole did more in 2012 to help others than he did for himself. Cole further honed his production abilities. He added bars to the smash singles of R&B songbirds Melanie Fiona and Elle Varner. His spot on DJ Khaled’s Kiss The Ring, by way of a collabo track with Big K.R.I.T. and Kendrick Lamar, was superb. The masses were even ignited by the prospect of Cole and Lamar collaborating on a double album; and while nothing else has surfaced since the rumors began, Kendrick had Cole on the boards for his stellar “Dump’n (The Jig is Up),” dropped a few weeks ahead of good kid’s release.
The truth is that Cole himself has lost something over the course of the last year and a half. It was hard to notice in the first part of 2012, because Cole dropped off two early releases in “Visionz of Home” and “Grew Up Fast,” that sounded like throwbacks to the Cole of old – the one who, while his flow was far from rapid-fire, still rapped with passion. And “Nobody’s Perfect,” featuring Missy Elliott, and its accompanying video were getting all the rotation. Then Cole got distracted, wasting his time in a mini-beef of sorts with Diggy Simmons that was comical at best. When J. Cole dropped off “The Cure” in the summer of 2012, the track had its moments but wasn’t a complete package. And “Miss America,” the first single for Cole’s upcoming sophomore release, Born Sinner, was more miss than hit.
So much has changed for Jermaine Cole since he was whisked away from his own “Kansas” in Fayetteville and presented before the wonderful wizard of Jay-Z. He’s not in Kansas anymore. And he’ll need all the intelligence, heart, and courage that he had once upon a few mixtapes ago. Born Sinner has to be the kind of sophomore release on the level of Life After Death or, more appropriate for the times, Return of 4eva or The Cool, not so much in terms of impact as in execution. Born Sinner can either save Cole or solidify him as a one-hit wonder, and recent news of the album’s delay doesn’t help matters. And true, while Cole can always fall back on just producing tracks, I don’t believe irrelevancy as an emcee is the next step in the now-Grown Simba’s circle of life (no pun intended). He just has to find his hunger again. J. Cole once said that “Cole under pressure [makes] diamonds.” There are those who have already written off Cole as a flash in the pan; but for the rest of us … well, the pressure is on. Is Cole ready to hop off the sidelines and get in the game? Here’s hoping.