Even though Drake, Kendrick and J. Cole are all peers and all kind of among the same crop of artists — just as you might have lumped together say Biggie, Nas and Tupac back in the 90’s — the truth is that everyone’s career progresses at its own pace, and no group of artists begins running the race to legendary from the same starting point.
I merely say that to say, it is only with time behind us that we can assess who the bigger artist was and why. In this case, not enough time has passed to get a sense of like: okay, Drake is here, Kendrick is here, Cole is here, and the reasons are x, y and z. They’re all mid-career now and were I to speculate, I’d say Drake, among them, has the most obvious chance of hitting the creative wall (like Kanye recently did), and burning himself out in the eyes of the public. But that’s a ways off.
With Cole, the funny thing is I think people don’t realize just how big he actually is. He is not quite as visible in terms of mainstream media, and as far as checking the boxes that suggest you’re a star in this day and age — celebrity friends, large social media presence, being a meme, yada yada yada — I just don’t think he spends a lot of time thinking about that, mostly because fame comes and goes like the weather, and when it all shakes out, the only thing a musician can really leave behind is the music.
So, that said, you literally have to listen to J. Cole records and go to his shows to understand just how culturally-relevant he is. He is really quite major in his own way, speaking to a fan base that is passionate and engaged — it’s something special, actually.
One last thing to consider with Cole is that, some of the reasons why he’s seemingly removed from the larger conversation is because the experience he raps about is one that the people who document the culture can’t really relate to. Writers and media people — a lot of white folks, let’s be honest — look at rappers almost like they’re cartoon characters or super heroes.
And Cole is not really that kind of artist. A lot of what he writes about is the sort of blue collar experience; not necessarily working man blues, but just like, real shit that the average person in their twenties (or maybe even their thirties) is thinking about. In that, he’s not necessarily a super hero, but more of an embodiment of an ideal — everyday people see themselves in him.
This type of artist, not too many folks who write about music at the tastemaking level are going to relate to. Because those people don’t come from that kind of background, and if they do, they are likely trying to forget about it.
In comparison, some of what Kendrick does has more of a narrative that writers and critics can latch on to, because that Los Angeles lifestyle, that gang shit he speaks about (whether it’s in a positive, negative or neutral way), feels like a familiar fantasy — it’s very easy to imagine.
Drake too, a lot of things he writes about are unique to him, but also things that modern day yuppies, “millennials,” if you will, are going through. It’s not simplistic, but it’s easy to identify with.
Cole is more of a direct line to everyday America, if you ask me. Not quite as fantastical and comic-like. I don’t think his true moment of recognizance has come just yet. Maybe on his next record.