By now, any stan or hater knows the half-joke, half-praise J. Cole receives for “going platinum with no features” on 2014 Forest Hills Drive. He did it twice if you consider Ari Lennox’s contributions on 4 Your Eyez Only to be “additional vocals” and not a credited feature. And he’s almost guaranteed to do it again for his recent drop, KOD. But whatever. Everyone can admit he’s talented, so I’m not here to argue about whether the dude is corny or the rap messiah. I’m here to talk about longevity and what separates the “good” artists from the legends.
Some say that having such consistent success with no collaborators isn’t that impressive when you’re on J. Cole’s (or Kendrick’s, or Drake’s) playing field, and that any of these artists could sell the same number of records with or without features simply because they already have dedicated fan bases that propel them into the Billboard Hot 100 no matter what.
In other words, J. Cole could record himself farting and sell the same number of records he would if K.Dot contributed his own flatulence to the album (this is actually possible, given Cole’s obsession with the bowels). Here’s what Dreamville president Ibrahim ‘Ib’ Hamad had to say about Cole’s lack of features:
He’s not the guy that’s hanging out with rappers or in the studio with rappers all day. He’s really in the studio with his team and making music with his producers and his artists. He’s done songs with other people involved but it might not make the album… If it doesn’t work, Cole’s not gonna put it on there because it’s a name. He’s never gonna put it on there just to say he got a feature. He also didn’t go into it like, “I’m gonna have no features on this album.” He didn’t go into Forest Hills Drive initially saying he was gonna have no features. That’s just how it ended up. — Billboard, 12/21/2016
Sure, I get it. No need to throw a big name on an album just to do it. But let’s look at this another way. What if collaborating with other high-tier rappers and singers is necessary to take Cole to the next level?
The biggest Cole skeptics argue that he is boring, afraid to “push the boundaries,” and never reaches his full potential. As Brian Iniguez writes: “J. Cole is like if your best friend started rapping and you’re proud of him, but you question how good he really is and if he’s reaching his potential. You want him to win,” writes Iniguez, “but now that he’s not the underdog you wonder if he’s got a classic in him. But you’re still his friend.”
There is a very simple solution to this: J. Cole should spend less time dissing the new wave and use his studio albums to promote the artists he respects. His albums are guaranteed to be heard by millions as soon as they’re released. He has the potential to completely flip the genre and what sounds are considered popular with every release. Instead, he promotes more of the same (albeit, pretty good) material time and time again.
In that sense, he can learn a thing or two from Drake, who releases entire playlists featuring artists he thinks we should listen to (think More Life, or Spotify’s OVO Sound playlist). Cole is so focused on being antisocial and creating a lane for himself that he misses opportunities to have insane featured verses or transform his mediocre hooks into sonic masterpieces. His lyricism is always there, but the musicality suffers from riding solo so often.
Remember, it was Kanye’s ability to bring together some of the greatest artists of our time together for a glorious five minutes on “All Of The Lights” that launched him into rap immortality. When discussing the genius of Kanye, it’s impossible to ignore his recognition and recruitment of other talent, which resulted in arguably the greatest feature of all time in Nicki Minaj’s “Monster” verse.
In her Ted Talk about increasing creativity, fulfillment, and social interaction in the workplace, serial entrepreneur Margaret Heffernan described what makes a “superstar”:
“When I talked to producers of great albums, they all said, ‘Oh, sure. We have lots of stars in music, it’s just, they don’t last very long.’ It’s the outstanding collaborators who enjoy the long careers because bringing out the best in others is how they found the best in themselves,” Heffernan says.
Cole hasn’t unlocked his greatest potential because he hasn’t attempted to highlight the potential in others. Of course, he co-founded Dreamville Records, through which he promotes a whole roster of dope artists whose projects he lends some of his best verses to. But why not feature those artists on his albums? Cole could be the most relevant artist of our time. But the real question is, does he even want to be?
The worst part is that Colse clearly hears both the fans and the haters. He knows the jokes. On KOD, he trolls everyone with one featured artist, kiLL edward, who happens to be Cole’s own voice, toned down—clever, but annoying, like your younger brother discovering he can get away with doing the same things you get in trouble for.
Without features, Cole limits himself. As they stand, his albums don’t sound like the earth-shattering bodies of work someone of his caliber could produce with just a little more gall. They sound more like personal journals that sorta-kinda happened to leak to his friends, and subsequently, the masses.
But maybe that’s how his over-dedicated fans want it. More importantly, maybe that’s exactly how he wants it.
Stream KOD, released unironically on 4/20: