While the fabled J. Cole/Kendrick Lamar collab album would be incredible to behold, it would not benefit either artist.
Three years ago, J.Cole's "A Dollar and a Dream" Tour touched down in Houston where a special guest, Kendrick Lamar, would make an appearance at the infamous Warehouse Live. The duo would perform their collab joint off Cole's recently released Born Sinner record, “Forbidden Fruit,” and Lamar would go on to perform the Cole-produced “HiiiPower” from his first record Section.80. Before the Compton rapper exited stage left, he made sure the audience understood the significance of the moment. "This is a motherfucking moment right here y'all," he said. "Y'all better remember this shit forever...If nobody's speakin' for y'all, we're speaking for y'all." Cole followed up Lamar, calling the Compton king, "a new legend," a moniker that could probably fit both artists with little to no argument in 2016.
This performance and a similar one in North Carolina earlier that year added credence to the idea that the young stars were on a parallel path towards rap supremacy, spittin' "conscious," socially aware bars that were never lacking honesty or acute creative prowess. This also led audiences to project their desires, a future collaboration between the two, onto the artists themselves. But in 2016, it's clear that Cole and Lamar, at least sonically, are headed in different directions. Both artists have evolved musically and matured as individuals, calling into question first the need for a full-on collaborative rap project to begin with and the supposed success of such a collaboration given their divergent paths.
With the proliferation of collaborative albums from Drake and Future's What a Time to be Alive to 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne's Collegrove, and even 50 Cent's recently announced mixtape with DJ Whoo Kid, rap audiences have recently become inundated with dream team pairings. Sometimes these collaborations work out seamlessly. The kings of the rap game, Jay Z and Kanye West, gave us Watch the Throne and sit atop the collab mountain without much quality competition. West's flawless production and off-kilter rap stylings found balance with Jay's grounded, tactful wordplay. These were hip-hop legends in their creative primes dropping cut after cut of straight-up stadium music. Though no one has been able to match that level of success since -- audiences are convinced that a potential J.Cole and KDot joint venture could come close.
I might be one of the few hip-hop heads who really doesn't think so. Don't get me wrong, Cole and Lamar are both top-notch talents, deserving of the many accolades both critical and commercial showered upon them. But the distance between them, their stylistic differences, and Kendrick's utter preeminence could leave fans disappointed.
Kendrick's work leans heavily on avante-garde jazz compositions with dizzying slant rhymes and allusions to the observed gangsterism, police brutality, alcoholism and drug addiction plaguing Compton's youth. His most recent work untitled unmastered showcased the space between himself and the rest of the competition. And quite frankly, in terms of *just* rapping, he's head and shoulders above pretty much everyone in the game right now. Cole, on the other hand, is heavy-handed, more akin to a rap bluesman -- his metaphors are straightforward and his rap narratives on his college experience, old flings, and oppressive color politics are more easily understood. While jazz may have evolved out of the city blues, the disparate approaches are integral to not just their sonic modalities but their lyrical content as well.
To be sure, hearing the conflagration of their differing sounds might be wonky enough for the masses to vibe with, even on a purely superficial level. Weirdness pays even if executed haphazardly. But in terms of who gets premium return on that investment beyond capital, J. Cole stands to lose out. He fits too comfortably in the mold of traditional rap -- rhymes are laid out bare right in front of you, ain't no extra digging through to find the hidden meanings. And to be sure, KDot can be just as simplistic especially when waxin' romantic on cuts like “Poetic Justice” or “These Walls.” But when the kid is on, he's untouchable, and it's the worst-kept secret this side of 2000. When he is a FEATURE on a track, the good kid is given free reign to spit however many bars he likes, and even, to call forth his preeminence boisterously, without challenge. He feasted on Isaiah Rashad's "Wats Wrong"-- "I told Zay [Isaiah Rashad] I'm the best rapper since twenty-five/Been like that for a while I'm twenty-nine/Any nigga that disagree is a fuckin liar." In an even more audacious claim, KDot machine gunned 87 rhymes in 24 bars on his buddy SchoolBoy Q's "THat Part remix." Just rude. Placed up against J. Cole's decisively traditional break beat style, KDot is Langston Hughes, Cole is Dr. Seuss.
And that's not a knock on Cole. Born Sinner and Forest Hills 2014 are both platinum records for very good reason. Plus Dr. Seuss is a damn legend. But to place genius simplicity with sprawling rap virtuosity is a little brutal. No other example shines quite like the little Black Friday cipher the two brothas had last November. J. Cole, over Kendrick's optimistic anthem, "Alright," spat braggadocious, "Cole World you should stay off this dick/I sold out the Garden I should play for the Knicks/Took a couple minutes then I sold out Staples/A nigga gettin' cream like an old ass Laker." -- That's cool. Cole got the allusion game on lock but it's not necessarily special in any way. I could've heard Meek Mill do this freestyle, it'd probably be a lot louder, but simple enough. Kendrick responded with crushing verbal acrobatic over Cole's fire beat, "A Tale of 2 Citiez." Like many of his flows, Kendrick kicks up the speed as he goes along, but the main feature here is his internal rhyme scheme and just how much he's able to pack in a few lines. "You're racing against the tortoise," he raps, "pace myself it's important/Lace myself with the wisdom my playerism enormous." Listening to Lamar rap is a master class in word economy. Comparatively, it's just un fucking fair.
To argue, here, that I wouldn't be excited for a J. Cole/KDot collab would be tragically disingenuous; these guys are at the top of the charts both in rap and pop circles. But the space between them is reticent of the gap between the top 1% of the country's economic compared to the .1%. The difference is minute when considering the entirety of the industry, but the gulf between them amongst the upper echelon of rap adroits couldn't be more distant. Because of that, I'm hesitant to rush the collab album. It could easily be a hit but just as easily leave audiences wondering how we ever put these two in the same class at all.