The element of surprise can work wonders in hip-hop. Beholden to a community that are in constant pursuit of the newest and most exciting output, the ability to catch even the most studious hip-hop head off-guard can keep your vitality up. For the better part of two years, Dreamville’s commander-in-chief J. Cole exemplified how and when an artist should strike in order to retain a stranglehold on the news cycle. Cole held his audience’s attention span captive for a period of around 2 years with his prolific features spree. Each time that he’d pop up beside artists ranging from MoneyBaggg Yo and 21 Savage to Rapsody, 6lack and a litany of his own proteges, he’d bring the internet to a screeching halt as listeners made a beeline to see whether he’d kept his unimpeded winning streak going.
The typically-reclusive artist seceded from his self-contained bubble to make his presence felt across hip-hop. As to his reasoning, an interview with XXL informed us that it was born of a desire to never have to survey his career and see any glaring omissions from his list of accomplishments.
“Last year, I set an intention to say yes way more than I say no,” said Cole. “Say yes to features. Step outside of my comfort zone. And it’s still going. I’m trying to level up this year on the features. Last year was like a preview. I don’t want to be done with rap years from now and look back like, Damn, I didn’t even work with nobody. I don’t want to have no regrets. The year that I’m going to have is all coming from a place of when this shit is all said and done, I want to know that I left no stone unturned.”
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Then just like that, the moat has been retracted and Cole will return to the comfort of the familiar. In coincidence with the arrival of his verse on Gang Starr’s “Family and Loyalty,” the Carolina native announced that his illustrious spree would be coming to an end on the iconic group’s first track in 15 years. The acclaimed artist headed to Twitter and made the statement that sent fans into a panic-stricken frenzy:
“This is the last feature you’ll hear from me. Thank you to everybody I got to work with during this run. ?? @REALDJPREMIER This song a classic, thank you. RIP GURU.”
Garnering the usual array of gifs, upper-case statements and general reactionary response that you’d expect on social media, it felt as though the hip-hop community was commiserating over Cole’s decision to end his equal-opportunities, cross-generational jaunt across the genre.
But if you take a step back and examine this decision from a lateral perspective, the rationale that governed his embargo on features makes a whole lot of sense.
At the risk of equating Cole to the boy who cried wolf, this is not the first time that he’s placed a moratorium on handing out 16’s to his fellow rappers. Speaking in the run-up to All Amerikkkan Bada$$,Joey Bada$$ relayed to Ebro that Cole’s performance on “Legendary” was to be his curtain call as far as non-canonical verses go:
“Literally he told me like, ‘Yo, Joey you’re the only person I got on my features list. I ain’t doing no more features. Only your feature is the one that’s important to me.’ Literally the day before 4 Your Eyez Only came out, he sent the verse back.”
The news of an MC reneging on a pact that he’d made isn’t exactly unfamiliar– they’re known to be unreliable narrators when it comes to sales, backstories, wealth and even retirements. However, where things get interesting is in the fact that it came on the heels of his own 2016 project.
By the time that All Amerikkkan Bada$$ came out on April 7th 2017, Cole was preparing to decamp to the studio and set about readying his conceptual piece KOD which would emerge in that very same month, a year later.
Thus, it appears that Cole is preparing to batten down the hatches and repeat the feat again. Expected to drop in the latter stages of 2019 if not early next year, the album that’s been tentatively titled The Fall Offis more than likely in production as we speak. The release of his 6th studio album is meant to be preceded by a mixtape known as The Off-Season— but– knowing what we know now, could we possibly interpret that “the off-season” as the “Album Of The Year (Freestyle)” all the way through to his final Gang Starr feature? Declared a “masterclass in preparation” by the video’s title card, the weeks and months of holding hip-hop to ransom now feels like a fact-finding mission and promotional tour all rolled into one. In this sense, ending his features spree should’ve seemed like a foregone conclusion as he’d accomplished everything he set out to.
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For one thing, his extended period of exposure achieved something that far surpasses the fever-pitch that any one individual verse incited: it legitimized Dreamville in the eyes of the masses. Whether he was popping up to test his penmanship against JID, ruminating on love with Bas & Ari Lennox or helping Cozz shoot his shot on “Zendaya,” Cole’s decision to allot his stable of artists bespoke features granted them all credibility and star-power in a way that conventional marketing wisdom never could.
Besides that, the way in which he brought proceedings to a close was a masterclass in symbolism and brought his own “Middle Child” theory to fruition. Barring his contributions to Revenge Of The Dreamers III, if you look at the final salvos of Cole’s outreach program, there is a notable disparity between the artists who acquired his services.
First off, we had Cole linking up with his younger slime Young Thug & Travis Scott on “The London.” A breezy party anthem that was tailormade for the clubs, he then side-lined the frivolity to work with an artist whose come-up took place at a comparative time to his own. Turning in a poignant verse that implored a day-one fan to keep their head up amid real hardship, his work on Big K.R.I.T’s “Prove It” solidified them as contemporaries in every sense of the word. But then, the Dreamville head honcho leapt at the chance to celebrate the golden era that moulded him by posthumously rhyming with Guru.
When asked as to how Cole’s appearance on the new Gang Starr track, materialized, DJ Premier discussed how the MC was honored by the opportunity.
“I was like who do we get from that generation of spitters of that age range who also have the younger fans so I was like’‘it’s either Drake, Kendrick or Cole,'” Preem told SWAY. “Shout to my manager Ian who said ‘send it to him and see what he says.’ I texted to him and said ‘hey man what do you feel about hopping on the second verse? Guru did the first and third.’ I swear to you, it wasn’t even five minutes and he replied ‘like bro I’m shivering right now. This is so emotional, Guru sound like he just wrote this.'”
By gracing each of these three tracks in the final round of his feature spree, Cole was able to bring attention to artists from the old school, the new school, and even a “Middle Child” (K.R.I.T.). Considering that he’s managed to collaborate with an artist from beyond the grave, it’s probably safe to say that he’s met his own criteria, ensuring he has no regrets in the game.