Drake and J. Cole entered the consciousness of the rap world around the same time in the mid-aughts: The former’s Room for Improvement dropped in 2006 and the latter’s The Come Up came out over a year later. Their debut albums, 2010’s Thank Me Later and 2011’s Cole World: The Sideline Story, also arrived within a year of each other. Both projects helped solidify them as leaders of the new school of rappers. And thanks to the tutelage from their respective legendary mentors Jay-Z and Lil Wayne, they were able to lay the groundwork for becoming two of the biggest rappers in the world: Between them, they have more than 50 billion streams of their dense catalogs in addition to a heap of BET, Billboard, and Grammy awards, along with enough influence to affect an entire generation of rappers and rap fans.

Through the years, Cole and Drake have fostered a close friendship—from Drizzy buying dozens of copies of Born Sinner at Best Buy with Cole to the two making several surprise appearances at each other’s shows through the years. Though their personalities and the subject matter of their music are vastly different, they experienced the same hills and valleys in their careers. They beat the sophomore slump allegations with Born Sinner and Take Care, landed their classic albums within a year of each other with 2014 Forest Hills Drive and Nothing Was the Same, and have continued to climb the ranks of rap side by side until they finally reached the pinnacle of the genre together. 

Now, The Boy and Cole World are reuniting onstage together like they used to do back in the day at Irving Plaza but this time for a crowd of 50,000 at the third annual Dreamville Festival taking place in Raleigh, North Carolina on April 2. Ahead of their co-headlining show, we charted J. Cole and Drake’s careers using their core albums as guiding points to illustrate just how similar the two rap superstars’ careers really are. For the sake of this exercise, we’re excluding collaborative tapes like What a Time To Be Alive, Her Loss, and Revenge of the Dreamers III, as well as tapes that aren’t essential to either rapper’s catalog, like Dark Lane Demo Tapes and Care Package. But you can still see the clear parallels in their career trajectories through the albums mapped below. 

2010-2011: The New School Arrives (‘Cole World: The Sideline Story,’ ‘Thank Me Later’)

drake j cole maybe some new music
Image via Johnny Nunez/Getty

Drake and J. Cole both had the fortune of being guided early in their careers, respectively, by titans of the genre Lil Wayne, who would hop on several of Drake’s early songs and give him a visibility boost, and Jay-Z, who made Cole the first signee to Roc Nation. This allowed them to land major features on their widely distributed debut albums, Thank Me Later and Cole World: The Sideline Story. Thanks to the support of two of the biggest rappers in the world at the time—plus the power of Roc Nation and Cash Money Records—both debut albums cemented Cole and Drake in the rap landscape. While their sounds were different, with Sideline Story utilizing more piano keys and instruments in its production and Thank Me Later sounding more influenced by Wayne’s Hot Boys–era Southern beats, at this point in their careers the subject matter on the two projects wasn’t too different. Both rappers talked about the status in the game they’re vying for and the lengths they were willing to go to reach them. The hunger that Drake and Cole had were the same, and their penchant for myth-making (and self-fulfilling) lines like “my reign gon’ last bout three, four eras” from “Sideline Story” shined through.

2011-2013: Sophomore, No Slump (‘Born Sinner,’ ‘Take Care’)

The proverbial “sophomore slump”—when an act has a successful rookie debut album but can’t capitalize on its momentum and their follow-up album flops—is the bane of every young artist’s existence. But Cole and Drake were both able to sidestep the slump with ease and used their second studio albums to send a clear message about their aspirations to become the greatest rapper alive. “I’mma drop the album same day as Kanye/Just to show the boy the man now like Wanye,” Cole raps on “Forbidden Fruit” off Born Sinner. It’s just like how Drake asserts his dominance on “Lord Knows,” spitting, “A lot of niggas came up off of a style that I made up/But if all I hear is me, then who should I be afraid of?” Both Born Sinner and Take Care occupy a unique space in each artist’s discography. Take Care proved that Drake could create moments without the help of his mentor Lil Wayne and solidified the melodic sound he had been nurturing since his mixtape days, and Born Sinner found Cole revealing another aspect of his origin story while still making it relatable to his growing audience. Both rappers took the reins on their careers with their sophomore albums and proved that they could be stars on their own merit.

2013-2014: Landing the Classic (‘2014 Forest Hills Drive,’ ‘Nothing Was the Same’)

The most pivotal moment in both J. Cole and Drake’s careers happened roughly at the same time. In 2013, Drake released Nothing Was the Same, what many would call his best work to date, and in 2014, Cole dropped 2014 Forest Hills Drives, which notoriously went double (now triple) platinum without any features. These albums made Cole and Drake household names and solidified their places as the new kings of rap alongside fellow rap giant Kendrick Lamar, who had released good kid, m.A.A.d city in 2012. More notably, though, both 2014 Forest Hills Drive and Nothing Was the Same proved that Cole and Drake had the ability to keep creating magic on project after project, making it clear that they were legends in the making.

2014-2016 “My Junior and Senior Will Only Get Meaner” (‘4 Your Eyez Only,’ ‘If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late,’ ‘Views’)

Drake closed Take Care with the lines, “My sophomore, I was all for it, they all saw it/My juniors and senior will only get meaner.” After both landing their classic albums, Cole and Drake reached a new level and fully established themselves as the biggest artists in the world. This was also around the time they started to make more creative choices with their concept albums now that they had a larger platform and more experience and freedom. 4 Your Eyez Only is one of Cole’s most conceptual—and polarizing—albums that he’s released to this day. The North Carolina artist raps from the perspective of an old friend who died from street violence, framing the album as a love letter to his daughter. Views and, more importantly, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late are similarly two of Drake’s most creative albums to that point. (Fans endlessly speculated whether the latter title signified his farewell to Cash Money after finishing his album obligations, a sign of him nearing retirement, or something else entirely.) And instead of resting on their laurels after landing arguable classics, both artists not only found their grooves at this point in their careers but also dug deeper into them.

2017-2018: Heavy Is the Head (‘KOD,’ ‘More Life,’ ‘Scorpion’)

After reaching the pinnacle of rap, Cole and Drake began to feel the weight and responsibility of their crowns. On More Life, Drake used his massive platform to put on artists from regions as geographically far from—but spiritually close to—Toronto as the Caribbean and the United Kingdom while sampling their various sounds for a project that he said he considered more of a “playlist” than an album proper. Conversely, Cole felt like he had a responsibility as a role model with his newfound position and made KOD, a cautionary tale about drug use and the perils of seeking temporary highs both in life and music. This also led him to have an open dialogue with Lil Pump, a symbol for young rap fans raised on SoundCloud. But those younger fans viewed Cole’s attempt to educate them as his condescendingly preaching to them instead. At the same time that Drake was getting criticized as a culture vulture for co-opting other people’s waves, he got into his very public feud with Pusha T just before he dropped Scorpion, which spoiled the album’s release (among other things) and damaged Drake’s image for the first time in a real way.

2021-Present: “Supposed To Be Relaxing, This Passion Makes That Impossible” (‘The Off-Season,’ ‘Certified Lover Boy,’ ‘Honestly, Nevermind’)

After being in the game for over a decade, most artists start coasting to the finish line but that’s not the case for Drake and Cole. “Supposed to be relaxing, this passion makes that impossible,” Cole raps on “Heaven’s EP,” a track that ironically borrows the beat from Drake’s song “Pipe Down.” It’s a sentiment both rappers have embodied these last few years. After they each took a three-year hiatus from releasing any solo albums (though Cole went on a ridiculous feature run in 2019 and Drake dropped some loosies as well), both of them returned in 2021 for the busiest periods of their respective careers. Drake released three albums over the course of two years with Certified Lover Boy; Honestly, Nevermind; and Her Loss. And Cole went back in time to revitalize his hunger for rap on his 2021 album The Off-Season. Both Drake and J. Cole made it clear that they’re still not done yet, and though rumors still swirl that Cole may be nearing retirement, his output of features over the last few years would say otherwise. Whether it’s conscious or not, it still feels like Drake and Cole are keeping pace with each other. They started this race together, and they continue to run side by side, even a decade later.