Does J. Cole's "K.O.D." mark the return of hip-hop's benevolent king?
“Here comes lil' ol' Jermaine
With every ounce of strength in his veins
To snatch the crown from whoever y'all think has it
But rather than place it on his head as soon as he grabs it
Poof, boom, paow, it's like magic
With a flash and a BANG the crown disintegrates
And falls to the Earth from which it came”
- J Cole’s “Fire Squad” Outro
The hip-hop pantheon is extensive, but at its core, the game remains a monarchy. The idea of kingship has long permeated the ongoing narrative, inevitably spawning wars of succession; the notion of vying for the crown is not entirely unfamiliar to the average hip-hop listener. Consider Kendrick Lamar’s now-infamous “Control” verse, in which he singled out all possible claimants. It doesn’t matter who you are. There can only be one, and by Kendrick’s own admission, the throne is occupied.
Enter J. Cole. Public opinion has dubbed him one of the trifecta of current GOAT contenders, alongside Drake and the aforementioned Kendrick. Naturally, such lofty pedigree would inherently place him in close proximity to the crown. He would, after all, have a vast army of support backing his claim. Yet the poetic closing words on J Cole’s “Fire Squad” ring out. While he may reach out for the crown, it’s because he seeks to destroy it in the name of unity.
To strengthen the notion, look to “Note To Self,” the closing track of 2014 Forest Hills Drive. Amidst a highly personal monologue of sorts, Cole took a minute to address the existence of hip-hop’s “crown,” and the negative limitations brought on by a monarchy. “I'm sorry I had to come snatch the crown right quick,” he says, addressing Drake, Kendrick, and Wale. “I had to do it to show n****s it ain't no more motherfuckin' crowns man. We gotta be the example, we gotta show these n***s man, it's love at the top.”
Perhaps that’s where his reputation as a benevolent God came from. To many, Cole has become a “surfer-Jesus” archetype, roaming the streets, barefoot, doling out wisdom while power bubbles behind weary eyes. He’s not here for combat, though he is adept at it. Technically speaking, few can do it better than Jermaine. But it goes beyond that; the respect is evident in his interaction with fans, who bask in his presence with adoration. Observe the footage below, which finds an ecstatic mob welcoming his triumphant return with raucous applause.
This week, Cole set the world on fire with the surprise reveal of his upcoming album K.O.D. Not only would it be dropping within seven days of the initial announcement, but it would be accompanied by a string of private, free-to-attend listening sessions for the fans. And lo-and-behold, the subjects arrived in droves. Entire New York City blocks were filled with eager Cole loyalists, who openly spoke of the rapper and his discography with the amount of reverence reserved for a generational talent. And with a catalog boasting Born Sinner, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, and 4 Your Eyez Only, is it fair to say that Cole has earned that status?
In many ways, the surprise concert evoked images of what Beatlemania must have felt like, in which the artist seems to transcend mortality. Watching footage of the concert can feel grating at times, due to the sheer volume of excited shrieks and screams. Yet there’s a mystique surrounding Cole that seems at odds with his sheer ubiquity. You rarely see his name in the headlines; the man has dedicated himself to the music, and arrives precisely on his own terms. Yet the loyalty he’s earned from his fans is insane. It’s like a cult following, but exponentially larger.
Those who proclaim J. Cole to be the GOAT do so proudly, with a sense of honor. He could take a couple years off, and the momentum will remain unaltered. Case in point, the response to his initial K.O.D. announcement, which arrived on the same day Drake revealed his album title and release month. In some ways, it felt as if Cole snatched Drizzy’s thunder, thus solidifying himself as one of the few who can. Suppose he and Drake were to have dropped on the same day - who gets first listen?
Naturally, Cole’s persona has rendered him a lightning rod for criticism, particularly from those who feel put off by the idea of “conscious rap.” To be fair, labelling Cole as a “conscious rapper” can sometimes feel like a misnomer; true, he touches on racial and social injustices, but he’s also been known to be crude and rough around the edges. This is, after all, the man who once channeled Eminem-circa-99, rapping “My verbal AK's slay faggots, and I don't mean no disrespect whenever I say faggot, okay, faggot?” Hardly the poster child for political-correctness that some of his detractors paint him to be.
Somehow, you have up-and-coming, self-professed “trolls” like Lil Pump and Smokepurpp saying “fuck J. Cole” in a misguided attempt at clout chasing; remember this went down long before “Gucci Gang” ever popped off. Likewise for No Jumper’s Adam22, who put Cole on blast repeatedly, even likening his fans to Juggalos; that is, until he actually crossed paths with him, and proceeded to purge all traces of any Cole related negativity. In fact, Adam seemed to have left the encounter feeling truly humbled. That is, in essence, the Cole effect. It’s easy to forget how massive his shadow really is. Perhaps that’s exactly what he wants.
So what can we expect from the impending release of K.O.D, or King Overdose slash Kill Our Demonz slash Kidz On Drugz? Early impressions seem to suggest vocal experimentation, “808s”, and topics ranging from weed, to his mother, to taxes. At the time of writing this, the album cover has recently been unveiled, revealing an eerie, hallucinogenic fever dream. Yet there stands Cole, eyes demonic, adorned in the garments of royalty. One thing is certain. The crown, which Cole so proudly destroyed all those years ago, seems to have been reforged. And guess where it’s sitting.