J. Cole has complicated relationships with his idols. He was dismissed after traveling to Roc The Mic Studio and waiting three hours to give Jay Z a beat CD. Years later, he signed a deal with Jay. When his new boss demanded a single for radio, Cole released the poppy “Work Out”—only to get a call telling him that another idol, Nas, was disappointed with the song. Cole chronicled the experience on his 2013 album Born Sinner, which he pushed up the release date for in order to compete with another rapper he looked up to: Kanye West. He went head-to-head with West’s divisive Yeezus because, in his words, “I worked too hard to come a week later after Kanye West drops an amazing album…. Nah, I’m going to see him on that date.”
While he ultimately didn't outperform Kanye's album, Cole came very, very close: Born Sinner debuted at 297,000 units sold, just 30,000 behind Yeezus. The feat proved that Cole had arrived, and was on the same playing field as the artist he looked up to. But the achievement perhaps didn’t mean as much to Cole as he expected it to. “I only get brief moments to appreciate things,” he told Noisey. “I might get a two minute thought of like, ‘Wow, you really did sell more than Kanye…." [At the time he had moved more units, according to Billboard.] "Then I’m back to focusing on what’s next.”
In his first interview after the release of his last album, 2014’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive, J. Cole spoke about the unstable nature of success. “Some people base their happiness off of material things, money, women, or whatever,” Cole told A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad in an interview with NPR’s Microphone Check. “I was basing my happiness off of success, or what I thought was success,” Cole said. “I gotta base my happiness on what I have. Which is the people I have in my life, the love I have in my life, the—just the moments I have.”
That appears to be the lens through which Cole is taking shots at Kanye West on his latest song, “False Prophets.” Released late Thursday night, sandwiched into a Tidal-exclusive studio documentary about his next album, 4 Your Eyez Only, the lyrics lay out extremely specific criticisms of an old idol. Cole doesn’t name names, but that person sounds a lot like Kanye. Arguments have broken out online, with some suggesting that Cole could be talking about Drake, Lil Wayne (or some combination of the two), Wale (who has since released a response), or even that the lyrics are aimed at Cole himself. But consensus says that Kanye is the primary subject here.
Cole expresses some sympathy on “False Prophets,” but the verse is dominated by resentment and disappointment. He feels betrayed by Kanye for giving in to what he sees as the materialistic side of himself, after letting Cole and a legion of fans fall in love with his righteousness. “There was a time when this nigga was my hero, maybe/That’s the reason why his fall from grace is hard to take,” he raps. Just three years ago, he was competing with Kanye in an attempt to be on the same level as him. Now, disillusioned, he paints Kanye as an irresponsible fraud who he’s equally repulsed by and sympathetic for. “I believed him when he said his shit was purer, and he the type of nigga swear he real but all around him’s fake,” he raps.
Today, it’s a cliche for fans to say they miss “the old Kanye”—something West pointed out himself on The Life of Pablo. A revisit of College Dropout suggests that Kanye foreshadowed his own downfall. Songs like “All Falls Down” and “Jesus Walks” aren’t just indictments of materialism and indulgence, but a recognition of Kanye’s own attachment to them and the fears of being defeated by them. In J. Cole’s mind, Kanye has fallen victim to all of the demons he warned us—and himself—about.
In the same way a self-conscious woman, and Kanye himself, were the figures at the heart of the cautionary tales of “All Falls Down,” J. Cole makes Kanye the central figure in the cautionary tale that is “False Prophets”—someone who has fallen victim to his demons, and is living an unfulfilled life as a result. After being enabled by “the women, the dickriders, you know, the yes men,” Cole raps, Kanye “grows out of control into the person that he truly was all along.”
Kanye would be well within reason to be upset about the shots taken in “False Prophets.” If the two of them don’t have a personal relationship, who is J. Cole to criticize him like this? Especially when Kanye appears to have just had a breakdown that forced him to cancel his Saint Pablo tour prematurely and spend time in the hospital; after a robbery left his family traumatized. Many will label this song a diss track—and at some points, Cole takes some seemingly petty shots. Even if he’s personally disenchanted with Kanye for enlisting songwriters and jacking sounds, he had to have known about those things for years before releasing this; some of the subject matter here feels like it's coming out of nowhere.
However, Cole taps into something specific to fans’ relationship with Kanye. The fact of the matter is that, lately, many long-term supporters feel betrayed by someone they invested energy and identity into. Kanye arguably said it most accurately himself: “If you’re a Kanye West fan, you’re not a fan of me, you’re a fan of yourself.” Recently, that’s been a tough thing for a Kanye fan to agree with. Feeling both let down by, and empathetic for, a celebrity you feel personally connected to is at the heart of “False Prophets,” and it’s a far cry from Drake’s dickish, unsympathetic diss against a hospitalized Kid Cudi on “Two Birds, One Stone.”
The part of “False Prophet's that hasn't received enough attention is Cole’s role in this process; disillusionment inevitably begins with idolization. And J. Cole knows he has fallen for it. “Maybe it’s my fault for idolizing niggas based off the words they be rappin’,” he rhymed. “Damn, that’s what I get for lyin’ to myself.” But without idolizing artists like Kanye West and Nas, what would Cole have been inspired to make? How would those early albums have sounded?
“Somebody should’ve told me it would be like this,” he laments, without digging into how the industry, and life, may have chewed Kanye up and spit him back out. As usual with celebrity criticism, it’s often best to look in the mirror and in one’s surroundings; if not, you may end up as the tragic subject of someone else's song.