How J. Cole Used Drake’s Playbook To Score His Biggest Hit & Win A Grammy
Sunday night (January 26), J. Cole won his very first Grammy Award. The 2020 “Best Rap Song” trophy was for the “a lot” collaboration from 21 Savage’s i am > i was. While 2019’s category winner, Drake, was included in the televised portion of the show (giving an impassioned and controversial speech after the win for “God’s Plan”), 21 and Cole were not given the same TV real estate even while marking Jermaine Cole’s first win among 11 nominations dating back to 2012.
It is not clear if J. Cole even attended the event. 21 Savage, whose latest full-length was also nominated for “Best Rap Album,” was inside Los Angeles, California’s Staples Center. In that category, he competed against Cole’s Dreamville compilation, Revenge Of The Dreamers III. As Issa Rae read the nominees before announcing the winner (Tyler, The Creator), the broadcast showed a file photo of the Dreamville collective. Since the win, Cole has released no reaction statement. Perhaps it was just another day at the office for one of the last decade’s most dynamic musical talents.
J. Cole seems to have an odd relationship with the mainstream that awards of this kind represent. The 35-year-old MC/producer had earned more than 25 BET Hip Hop Awards before finally grabbing Grammy gold. He has Soul Train Awards and Billboard Music Awards in a career that took shape following 2009’s mixtape, The Warm Up. One year ago, Cole’s KOD received no nomination from the academy, despite record-breaking consumption, critical praise, and a broad theme that condemned drug use among the youth, as perpetuated by some rappers. Weeks after the event that seemingly snubbed J. Cole and KOD, Cole noted that in a career without a Grammy, the drought allowed him to grow as an artist.
“[A win] would’ve been disastrous for me, because subconsciously it would’ve been sending me a signal of like ‘Okay, I am supposed to be this guy,’” Cole told GQ‘s Allison P. Davis in early 2019. “But I would’ve been the dude that had that one great album and then fizzled out.” Instead, Cole released five platinum-selling, chart-topping albums. “I’m not supposed to have a Grammy, you know what I mean?…At least not right now, and maybe never. And if that happens, then that’s just how it was supposed to be.”
Those comments arrived within a month of video single “Middle Child.” The song’s chorus made it abundantly clear that Cole felt “counted out.” What was not certain was by whom. At a time when podcaster Joe Budden had challenged J. to step his game up, that could be one target. It also seemed aimed at something else, as the ensuing video showed Cole using decapitated heads of Rap peers for trophies. The lethal MC had to fill his case with something, right?
More overtly than trying to interpret who invoked “Middle Child,” the song chronicles Cole’s challenges fitting in the Rap landscape. “I’m dead in the middle of two generations, I’m little bro’ and big bro’ all at once / Just left the lab with young 21 Savage; I’m ’bout to go and meet Jigga for lunch,” Jermaine rapped at the top of the second verse.
Early on, the Roc Nation artist had to earn the respect of JAY-Z’s fan-base in a different way than Roc-A-Fella’s Beanie Sigel, Kanye West, or onetime Def Jam darling Young Jeezy. None of it was handed to him, despite some cross-promotion. Even after support on The Blueprint III Tour (and a spot on the corresponding album), Cole represented a different kind of rapper a decade ago. In 2018, J. Cole was an object of ridicule by the Lil Pumps, Smokepurpps, and XXXTentacions—at least ahead of KOD. Songs like “F*ck J. Cole” made one of the 2010s leaders of Hip-Hop out to be something of a pariah in much of the Rap Caviar space. Cole reminded that he had ties to a 21 Savage. At the time, 21 was in a state of maturation, at least with i am > i was, his first Grammy-nominated album. Meanwhile, Cole produced for YBN Cordae, another Grammy-nominated artist who had responded to 2018’s “1985 – Intro ‘The Fall Off,'” with “Old Ni**as,” asking Cole to take a closer look at the younger Heads.
“Middle Child” worked. The single became J. Cole’s highest-charting song of his career. It since achieved quadruple-platinum status and became a lead-in to Dreamville’s #1 compilation. Perhaps though, it was the tipping point of a new strategy from J. Cole. Cole has his Grammy now. Maybe it did not happen as he would have envisioned, or on the most deserving song or work in his catalog. However, it’s a step, a necessary feather in the cap at a time when the Recording Academy is under fire to change. At a time when Cole is competing with the best in Hip-Hop—especially peers such as collaborators Drake and Kendrick Lamar—perhaps he used another artist’s playbook to his advantage.
Since he released So Far Gone, Drake has been viewed as a Pop star. Embraced in Hip-Hop and R&B, Drake’s 2009-2010 takeover was a tour de force indeed. Aubrey Graham hopped onto records by Rick Ross, Birdman, Timbaland, Lil Wayne, DJ Khaled, and Diddy. These were not the typical stamped-out features, but they were focal point singles. It was an extension of Lil Wayne’s mid-2000s takeover ahead of Tha Carter III. Unlike Weezy, Drake was no former Rap group standout and a 10-year star. Instead, he was a polarizing new artist who crooned about trust issues—all after being a teen TV star. However, by 2013, Drake had guested on six #1 songs on the Rap charts as well as seven topping appearances for R&B. It was careful exposure and strategic cross-pollination. Even as Drake ascended to one of the biggest Hip-Hop artists of all-time, he still offers his services. Recent songs by Travis Scott and Blocboy JB keep Drake’s music in your face, across the map.
Since jump, J. Cole has proven that he can blend with anybody. Ahead of 2011’s Cole World: The Sideline Story, Cole made a groovy hit alongside Miguel, appeared on a standout track from Blueprint 3, and went bar-for-bar alongside Talib Kweli, Mos Def, and Jay Electronica for Reflection Eternal. He refused to be boxed-in and made his rounds following two mixtapes.
After sharing the love at the onset of his career (working with Yo Gotti, The Game, French Montana, Fashawn, Maroon 5, and Red Café, to name a few), Cole changed up. With 2014 Forest Hills Drive, the MC/producer led a new charge in Rap, avoiding the guest list. It made Cole stand out. Those who liked him noticed tremendous progression from Cole World and Born Sinner. At a time when Drake and Kendrick Lamar were making some of the best Rap albums of their generation, Cole did the same—but on his terms. That album went triple platinum after becoming the artist’s third consecutive #1. However, while Drake and K-Dot were undeniable forces in the mainstream, J. Cole still seemed like an outlier. The middle child sometimes seemed easy to forget.
Something happened in 2018, and it was before KOD and the Grammy snub. Apart from records by R&B/Pop acts like Janet Jackson, Miguel, and Jeremih, J. Cole’s features were uneventful to the charts or the major masses. Even hidden tracks with Logic, collaborations with Kendrick and Jeezy, and work with Joey Bada$$ just didn’t stick. But by 2018, J. Cole started working differently. Everything he touched became a moment, a video, and each verse was album-quality.
The song that started things may have been “Boblo Boat,” for Royce 5’9″. Cole produced the song, which became the first look at the best album to date from Nickel Nine. If anything, it was Royce stepping into J.’s sort of song-making, looking back at a loss of innocence at the same time family dynamics. The two artists gelled together at the highest level, complete with a beautifully-shot video. Cole and Royce formed a bond for a song as molecular as Bad Meets Evil or Slaughterhouse—perhaps more even.
In the next year and change, collaborations followed for Jay Rock, Miguel, Moneybagg Yo, 6LACK, Bas, J.I.D., Ari Lennox, Ty Dolla $ign, and 21 Savage. There were videos for every single song. Other places, Cole gave supreme verses to Rapsody and Cozz, plus cut new songs with Offset, Wale, and Anderson .Paak. Like “Boblo Boat,” many of these songs were focal points—the kind of verses that artists tend to hold for themselves. However, that was not the Drake blueprint. Nor, in the late 2010s, was it the J. Cole agenda. Rapsody’s “Sojourner” is one of Cole’s best showings, ever. The award-winning verse alongside 21 Savage showcased crisp commentary to an industry of smoke-and-mirrors. In the middle of his own KOD cycle, J. Cole was a John Stockton of assists.
In the middle of this run, Dreamville invited 343 artists to work on ROTD3. Through the resulting, Grammy-nominated album, Cole cut songs with DaBaby, Saba, Maxo Kream, Smino, Young Nudy, and Two-9. The promotional hype around the 10-day January 2019 recording sessions gave Cole and Dreamville a buzz. It linked the sessions with everybody from Benny The Butcher to Guapdad4000 to T.I.—even if they did not make the album. Thanks to carefully-consider social media invitations, fans knew who was behind it, and it was part of a year where Dreamville stepped miles ahead in a race that had, arguably, already been winning.
Last year, J. Cole made what may be the most surprising feature of his career. In October, the MC appeared on Gang Starr’s “Family And Loyalty.” It marked DJ Premier and Guru’s first group song in 16 years. After Drake and Nas reportedly declined to rap on the album, One Of The Best Yet, Cole responded immediately with a resounding yes. Featuring with one of hardcore Hip-Hop’s proudest brands, Cole’s sole question was if he could write more than the traditional 16 bars. Eventually appearing in the video with Preemo, Guru’s son KC, and Big Shug, Cole shows that he fits anywhere, with a verse that only enhances a deeply personal song. Just days after the song released, Cole announced that it would be his last feature.
The veteran Hip-Hop double-threat accomplished what he set out to do. J. Cole made his rounds on a pivotal award tour.
The formula worked. It did not take a Grammy to show J. Cole that he’s winning. One year ago this week, Cole released “Middle Child.” It did not complain. Instead, the song embraced its title and sentiment. It showed an MC who bridged the gap between the poles of Rap—and could do so without compromising who he is.
J. Cole seemed to use Drake’s formula, but he stands out on his own. One of the most talented Hip-Hop artists went worked the room while holding the mic, showing everybody in the house that he’s the master of ceremony.