J Cole Is In No Man's Land With "Middle Child"
By Sean Lee
The schtick is getting old. J Cole, the Fayetville rapper, made ripples on the internet with the drop of his highly anticipated single “Middle Child.” And while the single indulges in the rapper’s usual turns of rhymes and his can-do-all attitude, the song sounds oddly lackadaisical for a rapper who demonstrated his true artistic prowess on his three last “platinum with no features” albums.
Whereas the album is the perfect medium for a multifaceted rapper like Cole, his thoughts seem repetitive at best on his most recent single. For a rapper who spent the majority of his last album—2018’s K.O.D—rapping about how he occupies a realm separate from the next generation of trap rappers, he is unable to use their platform: the single as provokingly as this next generation does.
“I love you lil niggas, I’m glad that you came/ To the OG’s I copied your cadence, I mirrored your style,” raps Cole alluding to his identity as a generational therebetween separate from the OG’s of rap’s hay day as well as this generation of SoundCloud rappers. Cole came to his own before the hay day of music’s streaming era and his alienation from today’s online rap community seems well warranted.
But if he truly believes he is distinct from this generation, it makes no sense that he continuously adopts the superficial aesthetics of the now. With lazy trap production by T-Minus as well as Cole’s own insistence on utilizing what has now become trap’s cliché flow, the rapper’s intention to prove the point that he can do it all at this point seems lazy and done before.
While Cole’s incessant need to prove himself relevant through hyper awareness made for one of the best albums of the last year, his constant addressing of this subject is beginning to sound whiny. One of the more interesting moments of the single—“Just left the lab with young 21 Savage/ I’m bout go and meet Jigga for lunch,” offers a tangible glimpse into the rapper’s actual generational straddling. However, this rare momentary glimpse is offset by a retreat into the rapper’s usual tropes of social consciousness.
Now don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong about conscious raps. In fact at times it seems like that level of lyricism keeps hip-hop in the realms of true high art. However, Cole is neither here nor there. He occupies the space of the can-do, will-do know it all, occupying both the realms of the capitalistic modern rap scene with cliché chorus, “I just poured something in my cup/ I’ve been wanting something I can feel,” to half assed attempts at talking about deeper social issues: “We hurting our sisters, the babies as well/ We killing our brothers, they poisoned the well.”
It’s not that J Cole doesn’t exceed the lyricism of today’s trappers, nor does he make consciousness seem corny. What doesn’t work for me in this song is that the rapper has done this dozens of times before and it would be nice for once to have him commit fully to one of his facets instead of half-assing all facets of his artistry simply because he has the bars for it.
Arguably, J Cole’s place in hip-hop is that of the great coagulant, a rapper who is aware enough of his own irrelevance to utilize modern sounds as something that makes the listener reexamine why they like the music they like in the first place. However, what this listener was looking for was evolution and with a single this hyped that evolution inevitably didn’t happen.
This piece is by Sean Lee. Follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leee.