Earlier this week, J. Cole celebrated his 29th birthday in the usual way: a concert at Madison Square Garden. A ceremony, during which one of his idols gifted him his original Roc A Fella chain. And by beginning his own vanity label, Dreamville Records, through Beats By Dre-fattened megalith Interscope (the same label that hosts TDE and his competitive peer Kendrick Lamar).
OK, so maybe this wasn't the usual birthday experience. Cole world, though, feels like a more substantial universe of late, particularly since Cole blew past expectations, outselling Kanye West (he has still sold more copies of Born Sinner than Kanye has Yeezus) with an album that not only provided two of the year's strongest radio singles, but cultivated a consistent sound that pleased longtime fans. Yet Cole remains an underdog; Kanye's album inspired hundreds of thinkpieces and reams of analysis upon its release, while Cole's project received cursory waves; bad boys, it seems, aren't the only ones who move in silence.
Jay's on-stage presentation at Cole's performance of his original Roc chain is likely to shut down naysayers who've joked about Jay's support of his Roc Nation signee being half-hearted (hip-hop message board Boxden had a thread offering money for a picture of the two together. Now it has three about Cole's recent chaining.) But Cole does still have peaks yet to climb; one substantial one is his contemporary, Kendrick Lamar, who shot past Cole (and on the strength of one of his beats!) to acclaim, fame, and fortune.
Of course, comparing any contemporary rapper to Kendrick Lamar is an unfair bar to set; he's one of only four new rappers to sell more than a million copies in the past five years. And until Cole hits that plateau, he's still hip-hop's little engine that could, an MC whose ear has captured the attention of a substantial subset of the hip hop world, a traditionalist who evades being pegged as a retro act by dint of his highly personal, earnest story. But Jay's most recent cosign was still a major symbolic moment for a rapper in a career full of them. In hip-hop's subliminal Cold War (Cole War?), it was also a warning of more to come. Being the low-key sideline story makes it difficult to trumpet your achievements. But considering it happened just as Cole became the boss of his own label—a feat Kendrick, a mere employee of the TDE empire, has yet to attain—it's becoming apparent that 2014 is set up to be a big one for Jermaine.
To be fair, the proof is still in the pudding. His label is a vanity project until proven otherwise.
Not that Cole's critics are liable to fold. If anything, in their eyes, this week's events only reinforce the idea that Cole is a hip-hop fan first and foremost, a rapper so taken with the idea of being among the greats that he couldn't compete on their level: to them, the Jay cosign is further evidence for the prosecution. Even heading his own label could be perceived as checking off an obligation for the aspiring legend: all of the best rappers, the thinking goes, were entrepreneurs too. And to be fair, the proof is still in the pudding. His label is a vanity project until proven otherwise.
But critics who harp too heavily on this are liable to end up not just disappointed, but frustrated. Contrary to the typical line that he's a boring rapper, his continued success has only further trolled those who think he fails to live up to the lofty standards set by earlier generations. He'd be wise to follow in Drake's footsteps, in this sense. The more like himself Cole is—the more he plays the humble, underdog MC, like the beauty contestant who's "just happy to be here"—the more untouchable he is.
Although Cole often pays deference to the East Coast MCs whose detached, controlled, narrative styles embraced the poetic and conceptual possibilities of hip-hop, ironically, his own rhetorical style is radically different. He can spit, but the purpose of his verses isn't densely written stanzas or hyper-technical fireworks. Unlike Lupe Fiasco—a monster technician himself, who misunderstood his own appeal and fell down a rabbit hole of agit-prop and smarter-than-thou complexity—Cole has stuck to his subjective, first-person guns, with highly personal stories and a complete lack of presumptuousness. He's managed the high wire act of being both self-effacing and confident in his role.
His fans may be increasingly frustrated by the lack of respect he's received in the industry. But the moment he receives the acclaim he's working for will be the moment his arc has peaked. Cole has built his career the hard way, an aesthetic conservative who has nonetheless had a deeper understanding of what his audience was seeking than the vast majority of his peers, one who recognized that relatability and identification could prove a powerful engine in an era when the music business—like so many others—requires a long, sustained grind, rather than a quick fix. Unlike much of his competition, whose stories become distant once they reach rarefied air, Cole's made a theater out of remaining true to himself.