If you haven’t heard the story of J. Cole either in his songs or from his legion of undefeated stans, here is the gist: Cole met with Jay Z twice, first time Cole didn’t get the audience he was looking for but the second time was the charm. The rumor is that Jay initially intended for Roc Nation to be a pop record label but Cole was so good, Jay signed him even though he was a rapper. Over 8yrs later and saying J. Cole is a rap superstar is not mincing words.
I started following Cole at a relatively early stage in his career. Impressive features on Jay’s ‘A Star is Born’ off The Blueprint 3, Wale’s ‘Beautiful Bliss’ off Attention Deficit and high praise on rap blogs for his 2009 cult classic mixtape – The Warm Up got my attention. The Warm Up showed off Cole’s raw talent as both a rapper and a producer, the tape has remained in rotation till this day. Cole’s 2010 mixtape, Friday Night Lights was equally impressive – if not even better and it drove J. Cole’s stock price up the roof. Shredding a track that had Kanye and Pusha T to pieces (‘Looking for Trouble’) was proof J. Cole was destined to join the big leagues.
Fast forward to 2013, J. Cole’s sophomore album Born Sinner had a track titled ‘Let Nas down’. The track which samples Fela’s ‘Gentleman’ narrates Cole’s bitterness at being told Nas hated his debut commercial single ‘Work Out’. At an interview, Cole narrated how he played the track for Nas at an airport upon its completion, months before the public had access to it. Shortly after the release of ‘Let Nas Down’, Nas released a response to the track, like a mentor propping up his student. This scenario is the closest Nas and J. Cole has come in musical terms.
The unproclaimed-but-undisputed big three of this current generation of Hip-Hop artists are Drake, Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole. These three have being likened by their respective fanbase to one hip-hop legend respectively, Drake to Jay Z, Kendrick to Tupac and J. Cole to Nas. These comparisons may seem disconcerted to anyone with keen observance of these artists’ music, there’s some degree of truth to the first two comparisons. While I see Jay’s braggadocio in Drake and Tupac’s eccentricity in Kendrick, it’s the Cole-Nas comparison that is jarring to me.
The discussion for which rapper that can be likened to Nas is a topic for another day (*cough* Lupe or Vince Staples *cough*), but one thing I’m certain of is that J. Cole isn’t a part of that conversation. This isn’t a hate article against J. Cole (presses play on ‘Heartache’), it is just presenting facts as to why the only things common to both artists is the title of rapper and the fact that they both have zero Grammys.
Fact No. 1: Different come-up stories
Nas got his deal by hijacking Main Source’s ‘Live at the Barbeque’ with his debut verse back in 1991. I listened to this holy shit verse for the first time in 2010 and I remember feeling like I was being upper-cutted by each line, what made it crazier was the fact that Nas was just 18yrs old when he did this verse. This doesn’t take away from J. Cole’s hustle, but you get my point (If you don’t, I like arguing on twitter).
Fact No. 2: Gulf in difference of debut albums
Nas’ debut album at age 20 was Illmatic, FUCKING ILLMATIC!!! J. Cole’s debut album was Cole World: Sideline Story at age 26 and with the chance to practice with two (brilliant) mixtapes. Cole world isn’t a horrible album by current rap standards but if it were to be described as a candle light, Illmatic would definitely be a bonfire created by a big city (e.g. New York). It’s a well-known fact that Cole has a knack for corny lines, Cole World contains some of the worst lines of his career, here’s proof. “I let you feel like you the shit, but you can’t out fart me” takes the crown though.
Fact No. 3: Overall technical skill
Cole on his best day can rap good, Nas on his good day defines rap. DJ Khaled’s Major Key album had features from Nas and Cole. Both features are the normal from both rappers, if you are convinced that Cole’s verse on ‘Jermaine’s Interlude’ is as good as any of the verses Nas put out on ‘Nas Album Done’, you need to reevaluate your musical choices.
Fact No. 4: Imagination and storytelling
Storytelling is a basic skill for any serious rapper, there’s almost always a story in every J. Cole song. Some are relatable and will tug at the strings of your heart (‘Lost Ones’) while some are straight up cringeworthy (narrating losing your virginity like a bedtime story gets disgusting after a few listens). Nas meanwhile creates worlds for his stories; he’s rapped as a gun (‘I Gave You Power’), rapped from the standpoint as an unborn child (’Fetus’), he’s narrated a story in backwards order (‘Rewind’), even gone as far as creating a female alter ego – Scarlett – to buttress a point (‘Sekou Story’).
Cole is a good rapper (presses play on 4 Your Eyez Only), one of the most revered and successful rappers of his generation and also a personal favorite. His impact on the current rap soundscape is undeniable and irrepressible, but that Nas comparison musically doesn’t fly.
*Featured image from Tumblr.
Words by Peter Adedotun Dennis, aka D. Escobar, aka @ayo_dennis.