In December 2014, J. Cole’s third studio album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, sold 353,538 copies in its first week out. That’s about 47,000 units more than Kendrick Lamar’s first-week sales (324,000 units) of To Pimp a Butterfly, a rap album so critically acclaimed that it quickly topped Metacritic, outranking Stankonia, Illmatic, and Kendrick’s own good kid, m.A.A.d. city. J. Cole may have sold more than Kendrick, but many rap fans are loathe to put Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole together in the same analysis, or even the same sentence—as if J. Cole were Iggy Azalea or Macklemore or something. News coverage of Cole and reviews of his music suggest an inferiority that Cole's huge U.S. fan base would, of course, dispute.
Thematically, Cole’s Forest Hills and Kendrick’s Butterfly are more similar than the dissimilarity of their latest production styles might suggest. Both albums are similarly bold in their concern with civil rights and media representation of black people. If these thematic priorities weren't apparent enough upon first listen to Forest Hills, or following the release of his wounded Ferguson tribute, "Be Free," which he performed on Letterman in December, Cole recently drove the point home with his “G.O.M.D.” music video, in which J. Cole leads a slave revolt that resembles Nas' skit intro to It Was Written. The video is new, but the song is an artifact of an album that came and went with minimal regard or suspicion that J. Cole might have anything to do with the future of hip-hop. Instead, J. Cole has become a middlebrow curiosity, one who some feel is still deserving of an exhausted (and exhausting) joke—J. Cole is NyQuil, zzzzzz, etc.—despite his variety and growth.
Empirically, I suppose Cole’s fan base is younger—or rather, that Cole’s median fan is significantly younger than the median of Kendrick’s or Drake’s, who endear to teenagers and community college students as much as they appeal to senior music editors and possibly even senior citizens, who, demographically, aren't quite the future of hip-hop. Whereas the most vocal Cole fans in my life are my younger (black, male) cousins back home and several women I know who are slightly younger than me, including one of my roommates. These people like Drake and Kendrick too, of course, but Cole's the one they've seen in concert more than once. And that makes sense: Cole is a font of college-boy raps. I suspect that Cole has fallen to the perfect middle of the relatable-exotic spectrum, into a sort of pit; between Drake, who’s relatable to a Millennial fault, and Kendrick, who’s a transcendent literary figure at this point, the heir and avatar of scary ol’ Compton.
This week, when we published an essay suggesting that Kendrick and Drake are polar, essential counterparts to one another, the comments section flooded with dozens of objections that amounted to a nagging refrain: ".............but what about J. Cole?" That particular exclusion aside, I empathize with the general frustration with Kendrick vs. Drake banter, as if these two guys who make incompatible music for audiences that often resent one another are somehow contesting a common throne. Unlike Drake, both Cole and Kendrick have lately eschewed universality in their music; they're insurgents within the mass-market, with unsure proficiency in pop music. "Power Trip" aside, Cole's biggest radio overtures tend to hit notes so false that he's apologized at length for one his biggest hit records, "Work Out." Kendrick isn't apologizing for the Grammy-winning "i," but much of his fan base wishes he would.
Though Cole's fans protest on his behalf, I can't imagine that J. Cole gives a shit about his critical regard and competitive positioning. Even when he’s provoked, Cole’s attempts at ribbing his rivals are good-natured and half-hearted; the gulliest he’s gotten was in his late-pass reply to Kendrick Lamar’s “Control” verse, when Cole hopped on a remix to Justin Timberlake’s “TKO” to issue his play-acted catharsis: “In case this is war, then I load up on all ammunition/If a nigga want problems, my trigger's on auto/I'll make sure that nobody miss him.” That boast leads into a fit of melodramatic sobbing that, while arguably hilarious, rather undermined the suggestion that fans, rivals, and critics ought to take J. Cole more seriously than they do.
Such overwrought moments and a general clunkiness of presence are, I think, what’s roped Cole off from a certain echelon of critical esteem. God love him, but J. Cole says corny shit. Frequently. I can't confirm what's worse: the "can't out-fart me" boast from Sideline Story, or the too-cheeky "faggot" jab on "Villuminati," or his dick-as-foot fetishism on that new Jeremih single. J. Cole has a couple dozen crude demerits on his record, for sure. In fairness, however, I like to think of the "pizza man" line from "G.O.M.D." as growth and atonement for all his preceding nonsense. Insomuch as J. Cole is a perpetual course-correction, "Love Yourz" features the realest shit he ever wrote: "The good news is, nigga, you came a long way!/The bad news is, nigga, you went the wrong way."
I am tired of Drake. I'm excited by J. Cole. My world is topsy-turvy.
Justin Charity is a staff writer for Complex. Follow him @brothernumpsa.