J. Cole Is Finally Having an In-Between Year, And He's Never Felt Like More a Part of Hip-Hop's Mainstream

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J. Cole, "Middle Child"

For the past half-decade, J. Cole has been on as reliable a schedule as anyone in popular music: Every even year since 2014, he's put out an album with little advance notice, no advance singles and of course, no features. And every odd year since, he's rested. 

OK, that's an exaggeration: In 2015, he made a handful of featured appearances on album tracks from artists like Wale and Chance the Rapper, as well as providing a guest verse for Janet Jackson's "No Sleeep" single. And in 2017, he did the same on LPs from Miguel and Jeezy, as well as dropping his own SoundCloud one-off "High For Hours." But compared to other rappers on his commercial level -- and it's not that long a list -- he does have the tendency to stay out of the news cycle in between LPs, while he tours, tends to his Dreamville label and other personal causes, and generally recharges. 

But following his most recent even year of 2018 -- in which he released KOD, his fifth straight set to top the Billboard 200 albums chart -- he's flipping the script a little for 2019. He's already landed one of the year's most high-profile feature appearances, a headline-grabbing, empathetic turn on 21 Savage's soulful I Am > I Was single "A Lot," a top 20 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 with one of the year's most powerful music videos. He's dropped a video for his sensual Creed II soundtrack collaboration with Dreamville signee Ari Lennox, "Shea Butter Baby." And this week, he debuts on the Hot 100 as a guest on one of the highlights of Offset's FATHER OF 4 album, the woozy "How Did I Get Here." 

Most notably, Cole released "MIDDLE CHILD," a non-album single produced by Canadian hitmaker T-Minus. Cole has released tracks in between albums before, but this isn't a meditative one-off like "High For Hours," or last year's KOD-following "Album of the Year -- Freesytle": It's a full-on radio single, one whose rapid-fire triplet flow and queasy, horn-led beat has drawn comparisons to current hip-hop airplay kingpin (and longtime T-Minus collaborator) Drake. 

Even with its accessible production and singalong hook ("I just poured something in my cup/ I've been wanting something I can feel"), it doesn't sound like Cole is stretching outside himself for a hit -- as he famously did on debut LP Cole World: The Sideline Story's Paula Abdul-inteprolating lead single "Work Out," to his own regret. It's still obviously from the rapper's conscious-bordering-on-lecturing perspective, extending arms to both hip-hop's old-school vanguard and its SoundCloud kids ("I'm dead in the middle of two generations/ I'm little bro and big bro all at once") while dismissing identity found through materialism or violence ("Pistol in your hand don't make you real/ Money in your palm don't make you real"). 

The response to "MIDDLE CHILD" has been reflective of it serving as more than just a tossed-off loosie in Cole's catalog: The single quickly became the rapper's highest-charting hit on the Hot 100, jumping from No. 26 to No. 4 in its first full week of tracking. And this isn't the case of a song making a strong first impression and then dramatically receding afterwards: In the month since its No. 4 peak, it's yet to slip below No. 11, and this week jumps back up to No. 5, following the debut of its unsettling music video. And sure enough, "CHILD" has already started to catch on at radio, jumping to No. 15 on Billboard's R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart this week, while debuting at No. 48 on our all-format Radio Songs chart

This is all noteworthy, because while Cole has remained on hip-hop's A-list as an albums artist and live attraction, it's been a little while since he had a conventional hit single. While KOD launched all 12 of its tracks onto the Hot 100, and made chart history by top 10 in the same week -- "ATM" (No. 6), "Kevin's Heart" (No. 8) and the title track (No. 10) -- all three fell out of the top 40 the next week, never to return. Meanwhile, "MIDDLE CHILD" hitting No. 48 already makes it a bigger Radio Songs hit than any Cole song since 4 Your Eyez Only single "Deja Vu" in early 2017, which peaked at No. 36. The story's the same on streaming: As of publishing, "CHILD" had racked up over 141 million plays on Spotify, which is already more than any track on KOD except the title track (170.5 million), despite having been out for roughly nine months fewer. (The same is true of Savage's "A Lot" as well, though Cole is not credited on the official Spotify listing.) 

And in-between years are often the truest marks of music's marquee acts. Take 2017, when neither Justin Bieber or Rihanna were on any kind of album cycle, but both still owned the year essentially from start to finish -- the former with his guest appearances on Hot 100-toppers "Despacito" and "I'm the One," the latter with her features on hits from DJ Khaled, N.E.R.D. and Kendrick Lamar, and her own "Love on the Brain" proving an unkillable final ANTI single. Cole could stay relevant forever through albums and tours alone, but to remain a star, occasionally he has to emerge from the North Carolina shadows with an undeniable hit single, a scene-stealing guest verse, and/or an Internet-captivating music video -- if for no other reason, to prove he still can. 

It's also a new level of engagement for Cole with hip-hop's mainstream -- including fellow stars like Offset and Savage -- for an artist who's often expressed ambivalence about the competitive nature of rap stardom in general. “For so long my mind state was, I have to show how much better than the next man I am through these bars. Who’s the best? Let me prove it," he told the New York Times in 2017. "And it’s just like, damn, I’m really feeding into a cycle of keeping black people down, I’m really feeding into that.” But Cole's return doesn't feel like he's back to reinforce his place in hip-hop's hierarchy at the expense of his fellow hitmakers: In fact, both "A Lot" and "MIDDLE CHILD" namecheck and express sympathy for some of hip-hop's biggest names, including controversial younger phenoms 6ix9ine and Kodak Black, who are currently in the midst of legal battles. He doesn't sound like he wants to put them in their place, he sounds like he wants to help.  

And maybe that's what J. Cole's in-between creative spurt is about as much as anything. For a performer whose music is as message-based and youth-oriented as anyone in hip-hop's mainstream, he was starting to risk coming off as hectoring: KOD closer "1985" - named after the year the now-34-year-old rapper was born -- found Cole tut-tutting the younger set for living fast and acting foolish, and had fans in a frenzy offering theories about which rappers he could be subtweeting. The song wasn't quite as cloud-yelling as the headlines might have led you to believe, with Cole attempting to empathize with the temptations placed in front of his subjects, but did still come off as patronizing and combative in spots ("I'm hoping for your sake that you ain't dumb as you look.") 

If Cole desires to be a positive voice for change in the culture, and one younger people will actually listen to, it doesn't do him any good to be seen as the adult wagging his finger at the kids to keep off the grass. So in his recent efforts, rather than disengaging from stardom as he may have wanted to do a couple years ago, he's thrusting himself into it. He's acknowledging the struggles of his peers and followers without acting above them, and at the same time, he's re-establishing his clout with a couple of the biggest hits of his career, getting himself back to the top of radio and Spotify playlists. He won't let himself be forced to the older side of a generational schism -- where artists rarely find themselves in a greater position of influence -- and now, there's no telling what he'll be able to do from the center. 

Speaking of the center, that's where he found himself during his Febraury gig headlining halftime at the NBA's All-Star Game -- in many ways, the most visible performance gig in sports behind the Super Bowl. Playing in his NC home state and sporting a retro Charlotte Hornets windbreaker, the MC ran through "MIDDLE CHILD" and his "A Lot" verse -- shouting out the incarcerated Savage before the latter, something no one bothered to do at the Super Bowl or the Grammys -- while walking out to a platform in the thick of the Spectrum Center crowd, surrounded by fans essentially on all sides belting out the words of his hits, new and old. It was a triumphant homecoming, easily the most exciting All-Star halftime show in many years, and a reminder that when it comes to making an impact, being the middle child still has its advantages.