What’s Next for J. Cole?

After his divisive response to Kendrick Lamar, how will J. Cole move forward? Here are the challenges and opportunities that he faces.

Astrida Valigorsky / WireImage

J. Cole’s apology to Kendrick Lamar has already sent shockwaves across the rap world, and there’s a lot of speculation about what it’ll mean for his career. Some are saying that the apology was “career suicide,” while others praised Cole for taking the high road and retracting a record that he didn't personally believe in. 

Like most things you read on Twitter, the truth is somewhere between both extremes. Two things can be true; Cole apologizing for what was already a mild diss track in “7 Minute Drill” was unnecessary and bad for the sport of rap. But it’s not wrong to speak your truth, and this choice will not end J. Cole’s career. This is an important inflection point for him, though, and there are several paths he could take to move past this moment. Here are some dos and don’ts for J. Cole as he plots his next moves to get past this contentious moment.

DO: Use his pen

Cole is at his best when he addresses his real-life turmoil through music. When he found out that he had disappointed his idol Nas by dropping the radio-friendly “Work Out,” Cole released the introspective “Let Nas Down” where he explained his feelings of remorse about the situation. When he felt conflicted with how his peer Wale and his old idol Kanye West were maneuvering, he released “False Prophets,” where he dedicated a thoughtful verse to each of them. Now is the time for Cole to use his pen to respond to the critics about this latest moment (if he sees fit) and dig into his own internal conflicts about the situation. He’ll need to address this at some point, and the next response will be a lot more effective if he leans on his strengths as a songwriter, rather than trying to explain himself onstage or in an interview. 

DON’T: Rush 'The Fall Off'

J. Cole has been teasing The Fall Off for nearly half a decade now, and the worst thing that could happen to a project he’s worked on for so long is to have its momentum deflated by a moment like this. Cole likened the album to Reasonable Doubt on “Crocodile Tearz,” and he’s insinuated that it might be his last album, so if The Fall Off really is his swan song, he would be better off by letting some of the heat from this moment cool off before dropping it. Both fans and haters alike are disappointed with his choice to yield to Kendrick Lamar, and while his core base hasn’t diminished, if the album comes too closely in the shadow of the apology, people might not give it the chance it deserves (especially if it’s full of braggadocious, competitive bars). 

DO: Rethink some of the GOAT talk (for now)

Cole's apology to Kendrick was extra frustrating for a lot of fans because he’s been talking greasy about being the best rapper alive for the past few years, and his aversion to the smoke at Dreamville Fest feels like a contradiction to those bars. After backing out in the heat of battle, his braggadocious bars didn’t quite hit the same for many, and lines about being “the best rapper alive” have become harder to believe. The internet has a short memory, and this will blow over eventually, but well-written songs that remind people of his lyrical abilities will be received better than GOAT raps in the near future.

DON’T: Forget who he is

Despite all of the noise, J. Cole is still one of the best rappers alive. This moment does not negate the ridiculous run he’s been on for the last two years, out-rapping Drake on “First Person Shooter,” helping Lil Durk win his first Grammy with “All My Life,” and putting the rap game on notice by bodying every artist he hopped on a feature with. He’s still that guy, despite what the internet has to say right now, and that’s a feeling that Cole can’t afford to lose. His raps hinge upon that idea. Some of his best verses of late, like “Johnny P’s Caddy,” “The Secret Recipe,” and “First Person Shooter,” are so effective because of how confident Cole sounds on them. He might have to dial down the GOAT bars for the time being, but he shouldn’t lose sight of who he is (or the time and energy he’s put in to elevate his pen) even if the internet is dunking on him at the moment.

DO: Shut out the noise

J. Cole’s defining quality is that he raps from his heart. Some of his most critically acclaimed projects (Friday Night Lights and 2014 Forest Hills Drive, to name a couple) are so successful because they center around genuine, personal stories that are relatable to the masses, and he’s able to present himself as a “man of the people, not above but equal.” This situation with Cole and Kendrick went when he decided to drop “7 Minute Drill” in the first place, because it was clearly a song that didn’t come from a genuine place. As he explained on stage at Dreamville Fest, he released the track because “the world [wanted] blood,” but he felt “conflicted” about making a response. Cole wouldn’t be Cole if he didn't follow his gut intuition, and that shouldn’t change now. As difficult as it might be, he’ll be better off if he shuts out all the noise and leans into his instincts, rather than attempting to please others.

DON’T: Make any more unnecessary apologies

Cole didn’t need to apologize to Kendrick in front of 50,000 of his loyal fans at Dreamville Fest. It’s understandable that his spirit was bothered by dropping a diss track that he didn’t believe in, but he could have just called Kendrick and had a private conversation to squash any tension there might have been. The apology didn’t solve any real problems and in many cases, it backfired on him. This is hip-hop, and “7 Minute Drill” didn’t cross any ethical lines. There was really nothing to apologize for. If Cole wanted to address anything, he could have used that moment at Dreamville Fest to acknowledge instead the transphobic punchline on “Pi,” which still warrants a more thoughtful response. If you listen to his music, it’s evident that J. Cole means well, but he still has some work to do when it comes to taking accountability for his slip-ups. And the wrong apology at the wrong time is only going to make things worse.

Latest in Music