A Vital Lesson Hip Hop Can Learn From J. Cole

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Who is kiLL edward? In the days leading up to the release of J. Cole’s fifth album, this was the question on every fan’s lips. While it didn’t take long for KOD to reveal that this new guest star was in fact J. Cole himself, albeit with slowed down vocals, the initial furor that surrounded the inclusion of kiLL edward on the record speaks volumes about how the industry perceives the “Born Sinner” as an artist.

After J. Cole went platinum with his album 2014 Forest Hills Drive and again in 2016 with 4 Your Eyez Only, the internet was quick to celebrate the fact that he did so with no features on either release, something which soon spawned a meme that occasionally threatened to overshadow the music itself. It’s no wonder then that Cole is quick to address his aversion to features shortly into the new album’s title track, “KOD”.

When asked why he doesn’t include features on his new record, Cole fires back with the line, “How ’bout I don’t? / How ’bout you just get the fuck off my dick?” The hip-hop community was quick to try and figure out which rival rappers could number among those who “ain’t worthy” to be on his “shit,” but why is it that the industry has become so obsessed with going platinum without features in the first place? And what can the overwhelming success of KOD thus far teach us about the nature of collaborations in hip-hop?

No Role Modelz

From the success of recent collaborative albums recorded by the likes of Drake and Big Sean to the growing number of features that have taken over the charts, rap has become more sociable than ever before. Where it was once difficult to match the schedules of stars eager to collaborate, the advent of file-sharing technology and streaming services has simplified the process to the point where it’s almost impossible now to hear an album or mixtape that doesn’t feature at least three guests minimum.

Not only do features help boost the profile of any given star while also drawing in listeners keen to hear more from their favorite rappers, but these guest verses also move records – and therefore, make bank. J. Cole warns listeners about the dangers of money on “ATM”, reminding us that you “Can’t take it when you die,” yet that’s a lesson few other rappers take to heart. Now that hip-hop is enjoying unprecedented success on the charts, accounting for 25% of all music consumption in America, rappers are keen to capitalize on this by recording as much as possible, and that includes features too. Future has lent his vocals to dozens of other artists in the past year alone, and stars like Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz have a going rate of $100k for just 16 bars or so, along with the occasional hook.

Now that rappers are earning the average price of a house for recording just one verse, it’s easy to see why features aren’t disappearing from the industry any time soon. Music is a business, after all. Yet in spite of this, J. Cole has bucked the trend once again with the release of KOD, smashing worldwide records in a way that few of his peers can match right now. Already, Cole’s latest release has been streamed more times in the first 24 hours of its release than any other album on both Spotify and Apple Music, and he did it all with just his own alter ego for company. Clearly then, Jermaine Lamarr Cole doesn’t need a guest feature for the money or exposure – and boy does he know it, poking fun at the very idea of this with the inclusion of kiLL edward on KOD.

Kill Our Demons

J. Cole revealed on Twitter that the title of KOD stands for Kids on Drugs, King Overdosed, and Kill Our Demons, leaving everything else up to the interpretation of the listener. While the album’s condemnation of drug culture has already been talked about at length elsewhere, the “demons” mentioned in that third and final meaning could easily allude to the industry’s excessive reliance on guest features.

Producer Elite of Dreamville once revealed to Complex that J. Cole has had a lot of fun with the memes surrounding his work, suggesting that he could be open to collaborating more on future albums if this happens organically. However, it’s since become clear with the release of KOD that going platinum with features couldn’t be further from Cole’s mind right now, and it’s easy to see why.

After all, it’s clear that the “Wet Dreamz” star has become successful precisely because he eschews the tropes typical of hip-hop, foregoing lengthy albums stuffed with guests in favor of lean, 45 minute long records that keep the focus entirely on Cole and his artistry. Even the interludes embody this approach, taking what’s normally considered to be ‘dead air’ and instead imbues them here on KOD with the album’s most emotionally devastating content. We dare you to check out the interlude “Once an Addict” or the outro “Window Pain” without being moved by Cole’s pained lyricism, something which hits particularly hard given his personal approach to the material.

Nobody’s Perfect

J. Cole is only the second rapper to go platinum entirely on his own merits since he himself released the album 4 Your Eyez Only, yet there are some small signs that the industry has begun to take notice of this approach beyond admittedly hilarious memes. Future might be renowned for collaborating with almost everyone enjoying chart success in the present, but his eponymous fifth studio collection became his fourth number one album last year without the help of any guest features (aside from a few verses on the deluxe release).

One of the other big success stories of 2017 was Cardi B, whose single “Bodak Yellow” became the longest-running chart topper by a female rapper ever in the history of Billboard. What’s even more impressive is that she achieved this completely alone, something which defies the usual narrative of female rappers who first find success with the help of a male co-sign to back them up. Say what you want about their ongoing rivalry, but even Cardi B’s peer Nicki Minaj only rose to prominence at first thanks to countless guest verses on other people’s tracks.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with features. In the right hands, the chemistry shared between two or more of rap’s biggest players can transcend the talents of each star individually to create something truly unforgettable, but the industry needs to start placing more emphasis on the artistry of solo performances too. French Montana might claim that “people who put albums out by themselves are weirdos,” but the truth is that J. Cole’s pure approach to music is a powerful antidote to the often exhausting excess of hip-hop. Sure, features can work brilliantly as effective marketing tools, but so can talent.

Whether you love J. Cole’s singular perspective on KOD or feel that the message he’s trying to convey is somewhat outdated, more emphasis still needs to be placed back on the artists themselves if hip-hop is going to continue gaining recognition as a legitimate art-form à la Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN.. Hopefully, the success of KOD can help remind the industry to draw some attention away from who’s appearing on whose album and instead focus more on the talent itself. Perhaps then, the unknown stars that Cole disses on the record’s title track might be finally worthy to go on his “shit” after all.


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