Joe Budden Challenges J. Cole To Step Up His Game & Be Truly Great (Audio)
For anyone truly paying attention to Hip-Hop, J. Cole has had a career year in 2018. His album, KOD, released in April, became his fifth consecutive LP to debut at number one, selling nearly 400,000 album-equivalent units in its first week and breaking the record for first day streams, at the time. In an interview with Vulture, Cole said the seed for KOD was planted while he was attending a show for Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN Tour. “Kendrick’s show gave me chills because I got to see what it was like to have a hit album performed, and it set off a desire. It was a recognition — like ‘Oh, I’ll take that again.’ Like looking at a menu, ‘I’ll have that again.’”
KOD paralleled DAMN in a number of ways. Both albums were released in April of their respective years. Both were virtually surprise releases. Each album was highly conceptual, with DAMN being a tale of free will or fate, depending on the direction in which it was played, and KOD being a commentary on the devastating effects of addiction on an entire generation. Each album became the soundtrack for the respective NBA playoffs. And, each was both critically-acclaimed and commercially successful.
Cole’s 2018 success extended far beyond KOD, however. Through releases by Cozz, Bas and J.I.D., Cole established his Dreamville Records as one of the most formidable in Hip-Hop. He embarked upon a sold out arena tour. And, he assembled a collection of feature verses with artists like Royce 5’9, Jay Rock, Rapsody and 21 Savage (among others) that make a powerful case that he may be the current king of Hip-Hop.
Yet, despite all of his success, many, including Ambrosia For Heads, believe Cole has not remotely gotten his just due for such a banner year and as a member of Hip-Hop’s elite MCs. KOD has been a notable omission on a number of best of 2018 lists, and, although he has said Grammy recognition does not matter to him, he was inexplicably snubbed, in not receiving a single nomination for a project that arguably could be album of the year.
On this week’s episode of The Joe Budden Podcast, Budden and his co-hosts Rory, Mal and Parks provide an in-depth analysis of Cole’s career and what they believe is holding him back from reaching the full heights to which he is capable. The conversation commences at around the 77:00 mark in a discussion of Cole’s outstanding 2018 feature verses, with Rory saying “It’s the best year ever from any rapper on features.” While that sentiment is not shared by all the participants (who cite runs by Canibus, Nicki Minaj, Redman and others), there is no debate that Cole absolutely has been dominant in his guest verses, and it begs the question of why he seemingly has gotten more recognition for his work outside of his album (Note: the only Grammy nominations Cole did receive this year were in conjunction with appearances he made on other artists’ songs).
“My problem with Cole isn’t talent. It isn’t accomplishments, accolades…any of that. It’s presence,” says Budden. “That’s the difference. It’s Cole, Drake, Kendrick. That’s the end of that list for me. Presence is what keeps me from viewing Cole the way that the other two are viewed because, purposefully, it just feels like he’s not attempting to be out there. It’s like he does everything to be low, until he wants you to feel his presence on the sh*t that matters, like when he talks to the kids who are on drugs, but that’s hurting [him] because Hip-Hop is a braggadocious, competitive, kill or get killed type of business. So, when you seemingly are doing everything in your power to appear to not be as powerful of a presence as you are, it comes off a way.”
Cole, himself, confirmed Budden’s point in September, when he told Billboard that he had intentionally stopped doing interviews and removed himself from the media spotlight. “2014 was probably the year I decided, ‘F*ck it, I’m through trying to play whatever game is going on.’” In the same interview, however, Cole also acknowledged that it was important for him to become more vocal, at the very least to promote the artists on his record label, if not himself. “I don’t want to be so stubborn where I don’t listen to people. I’m also building a company, a record label, with other artists. Their success, in some way, may depend on me being a little more present or accessible.”
Budden contends that J. Cole’s withdrawal from the spotlight doesn’t just impact his artists, it’s hurting him, too. “Cole gives you his presence on album time, and he leaves. And, you never hear a word until a feature, and it has an effect. This is a perception-based game. It has an effect on how we view him…Imagine what his numbers would be if he used a little bit of effort on the people who are not in his core base.” Budden also says that even when Cole puts himself out there, it isn’t in the type of chest-thumping way that his peers like Kendrick and Drake do. “How can we view a ni**a who is as talented as all the people we think are talented, if every time we hear him he don’t sound that way?,” he asks. He also asserts that the only time Cole does flex is during his guest verses. “On the features is the only time he goes out of his way to sound that way to people who don’t normally hear him that way.”
Next, the conversation shifts to J. Cole’s sound. One of the longstanding criticisms of Cole is that he relies too much on his own production. While he is a talented producer, many believe he would be better served by diversifying his beat selection to include music crafted by others. “I would love to hear Cole on some Alchemist beats. I would love to hear Cole on some J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League,” says Mal. Budden agrees, adding “If Cole is on a J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League beat, we’re going to start having different conversations about Cole. Why do I have to use my imagination to know just how deadly a ni**a is?”
All of the participants in the conversation are careful to make it clear that they are not trying to discredit Cole. They acknowledge his talent and the extent of his success, but they have a desire to see him reach even greater heights. It’s at this point that Joe makes a suggestion about how Cole should approach his next project. “That’s the room I want him to lock himself in. I don’t want him to go in and say ‘I don’t know what I’m going to make, but I’m making all the beats.’ No. As soon as you go in that room and say that, you’re wrong. You’re not challenging yourself. That’s not me calling you un-great.”
Rory suggests that Cole needs outside help, in the form of an executive producer, and Budden offers specific advice along those lines. “It can be an artist that [he] likes and respects. Mal was saying earlier how the A&R position is dead, and he’s absolutely right. So, some artists who still take pride and integrity in having a complete body of work still are trying to put out great albums. And, when you have that integrity and you’re trying to put out a great album, you do whatever you gotta do to put out the great album. Get with [Rick] Ross. Get with one of these ni**as that you like a lot. Get with somebody.” Budden also suggests 50 Cent as a possible executive producer for Cole.
To emphasize the importance of working with different producers in breaking new ground, the podcast hosts cite another example: Lil Wayne. “Actually, that’s when Wayne’s career took off. Once he started getting outside production,” says Mal. “When he was [working with] Mannie Fresh, it was like ‘Dope. We love it.’ But, once he started stepping out and [working with] J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League and all these other [producers], it was like ‘Oh sh*t.'” Both he and Rory note that Wayne’s career went through the roof with Tha Carter II, and it was on that album that he began working extensively with producers beyond Mannie Fresh.
“Cole hops on an Araab[Muzik] beat and New York is in a frenzy,” says Budden. “Cole can get sh*t in a frenzy. He’s purposely trying to avoid frenzy. I feel him. I did it a long time. You [Cole] can’t do it. You too successful. You don’t get to avoid frenzy. Ni**as need you to go create the frenzy.”
Budden ends the discussion by making a case for why it’s Cole’s responsibility to step into his greatness. “It’s Cole’s job for the next ‘Cole.’ I guess that’s what I’m saying. I’m not trying to diss Cole. I’m saying his responsibility, in my eyes, is greater than [people] saying ‘Well, Cole’s good.’ I know Cole’s good. Cole is going to be good the rest of his career. I don’t know that Cole would have been good without some ni**as that was good [before him]. I don’t know if the next ‘Cole’ is good without Cole saying ‘I gotta take it a step further.'”