Whenever J. Cole drops an album, the internet turns into a war zone of commentary regarding whether or not the North Carolina rapper should be considered as one of the elite talents in the rap game. This conversation usually lasts a couple months until Cole inevitably vanishes from the public eye and we go back to arguing about whatever the hot topic in hip hop is today. For whatever reason, despite his impact on hip hop, people tend to look past J. Cole in the pound for pound discussion. But what he’s accomplished is undeniable, no matter how you feel about him.
It’s the reason why J. Cole is the rap game’s version of San Antonio Spurs legend, and arguably the greatest power forward of all-time, Tim Duncan.
Duncan, like Cole, is often overlooked when we discuss the greatest NBA players of all-time. He’s usually the name that some brings up and we collectively go “oh yeah!” And then a real conversation has to be had about where he belongs. But go ahead and put together a highlight reel of Tim Duncan plays and chances are that someone will say Big Fundamental is relatively boring.
Like his NBA counterpart, Cole often flies under the radar when it comes to the conversation about greatest rappers of our era because, frankly, there’s nothing flashy about his game. His albums may have a standout song here and there, but it’s an overall collection of music that is worthy of mention. If there was a highlight reel of his rap career, it probably wouldn’t wow you.
Tim Duncan’s accolades are undeniable. We tend to overlook the fact that Duncan is a five-time NBA champion and three-time NBA Finals MVP. But there’s also the fact that he’s been an NBA All-Star 15 times during his 19-year career. As much as we talk about what LeBron James has accomplished at the age of 33, Duncan was pretty damn effective until he retired at the age of 39. But when it comes to ranking the greatest NBA players of all-time, Duncan remains on the outside looking in.
J. Cole suffers the same distinction. If we liken championships to album sales, Cole should certainly be discussed considering that each of his four previous albums have gone platinum, and KOD will certainly be his fifth. Is it a coincidence that they both have five platinum albums/championships? Maybe. But it fits the narrative of this column.
If nothing else, J. Cole has been incredibly consistent, although he can be methodical — or, as his detractors would say, musical NyQuil -- with his approach to his music. There may be a new wrinkle in his game here and there, but people know what to expect from J. Cole. If you love it, you’ll stick with it. If not, chances are that you’ll never be impressed. No matter how many albums he sells or how his fans pump him up to an almost irrational degree. Like Duncan, he often fades into the background when it comes to being compared to his peers. Kobe Bryant and LeBron James almost always overshadow Duncan when it comes to the GOAT conversation. Only the keenest eye stops and says “Wait, Tim Duncan is just as good, if not better.”
The problem is that J. Cole hasn’t had that album with universal critical acclaim. There isn’t a DAMN (To Pimp A Butterfly, as phenomenal as it is, was quite polarizing) nor is there a Nothing Was The Same in his catalog. It’s only been a weekend, but it doesn’t seem like KOD will get that universal acclaim, either. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a good album, because it is.
Remember that time everyone became infatuated with And 1 mixtapes (the equivalent to what has been called mumble rap, perhaps?) Timmy D never altered his game. While everyone was working on fancy crossovers, Duncan was keeping his fundamentals intact. No matter how popular those And 1 mixtapes became, they only lasted a season while Duncan’s career impact will last a lifetime. If there was a song that could have been a message from Duncan to the And 1 players, it would be J. Cole’s “1985.” It’s honest advice but also a nudge to remind the new school that they cannot f*ck with him. It’s a humble brag if there ever was one.
It’s perfectly fine for J. Cole to not be your cup of tea. Not everybody liked watching Tim Duncan make bank shots for 82 games and the playoffs. But it worked and garnered him numerous championships and accolades. There’s a difference between Duncan and Cole, however. The power forward never garnered the amount of hate that J. Cole has had to endure. Depending on whether you blame his obnoxious fans or his equally obnoxious haters, the fact remains that J. Cole is one of the most polarizing artists today. His fans are unwilling to accept that he’s anything less than the G.O.A.T. and that the naysayers are simply not ready and will drown in his pool of thought.
Let’s be completely honest, shall we? J. Cole isn’t that deep. It doesn’t need to be explained to the degree that his fans have deemed necessary. A vast majority of us are ready for what Cole has to say. However, the way the message is delivered tends to turn some people off.
"At its worst, it’s the PBS version of Section.80,” DJ Booth’s Yoh wrote in his 1 Listen Album Review. And that assessment is spot on. Documentaries are informative, but not all are exciting. Some people can sit through a documentary as long as the content is good while others need the documentary to have a certain voice delivering the narrative and an editing style to keep their attention. Neither side is wrong, it’s just a matter of taste. But it gets out of hand when both sides become extreme with their love/hate.
The hate is baffling because it has nothing to do with who J. Cole is as an individual. He’s been in the streets fighting for our cause and taking time out of his schedule to give back to the community. That’s more than most rappers are doing. Yet, he gets shredded with these unnecessarily edgy takes about how wack he is. If that’s the true definition of rap, we should be concerned about our future and what we value. Again, you don’t have to like him. But to dislike him in the manner that people do is pretty low. It’s more of a reaction to his fans than his talent.
It’s just like saying you hate Tim Duncan for being exceptional and extraordinarily consistent at what he did on the court.
What Tim Duncan did wasn’t rocket science, he was just really good at the fundamentals of basketball. J. Cole is really solid in the fundamentals of hip hop. Tim Duncan didn’t have to beat out Kobe Bryant or Allen Iverson for a scoring title just like J. Cole doesn’t have to put together better rhyme schemes than Kendrick Lamar to be recognized for his talent.
Sure, not every punchline from Cole hits with the impact of a 90s era Tyson uppercut. He’s certainly had some duds. But so has your favorite rapper. It’s just that Cole is scrutinized a little more because of that overwhelming, unwavering love that he gets and his fans refusal to even suggest that J. Cole had spewed a corny line or two.
Nevertheless, J. Cole is an exceptional talent who is the sum of his parts. Nothing in particular stands out but it works when put in motion. He may not be the GOAT, but he’s deserving of a seat at the table when the conversation is to be had. Just like Tim Duncan.