They say “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” Particularly when the kingdom you survey is one that’s entirely of your own devising. At age 34, J. Cole has already accomplished everything an aspiring artist could conceive of. Sold out shows around the globe, multiple platinum albums— many of which are without features — and as of 2014, his own utopia of a label with Interscope distribution. If he was to bow out tomorrow, the North Carolinian would be hailed as one of the few that managed to leave with the audience still pining for more. But as the past year and a half have made abundantly clear, that's not Cole's plan-- rather, he appears to be gearing up to deliver the most complete document of his artistry.
At one time, J. Cole was viewed as a wily observer; taking stock, harvesting the talents that he saw ripe for inclusion on Dreamville rather than deriving anything from the genre that was evolving around him. Self-produced and self-directed, there was a period of time in which Cole’s ambitions didn’t stretch beyond satiating his own impulses as an artist. But ever since the promotional obligations for 2018’s KOD ground to a halt, he’s transitioned from taking hip-hop's temperature to actively wading into it.
From “Middle Child” through to Revenge Of The Dreamers III, Cole has been accentuating his place in the game and the things he’s capable of manifesting into reality. Now, he’s planning on topping this period of extended cultural visibility with the classic project it deserves.
J. Cole performing at Day N Vegas 2019 - Image by HNHHUnveiled during his performance at Day N Vegas, the lauded artist’s forthcoming album was teased through a tongue-in-cheek vignette. Purporting him to be “the hero” that the country needs, the video parodied the hyperbole that’s crammed into every second of a presidential campaign video and concluded on an optimistic note with the message of “The Fall Off 2020.”
Of course, there is an intentional irony to a rapper that once warned of the deceptions perpetrated by hip-hop’s “False Prophets” billing his album as “the one true unifier.” The difference is, his manifesto that’s laid out in the video hasn’t been delivered through a spate of audacious claims but through action. Healer of the inter-generational war? Just look at the amalgam of artists from all sects of hip-hop that he worked with during that all-encompassing features spree and sit-down summit with Lil Pump. Bold ideas? Look no further than getting artists and producers from across the musical spectrum to congregate in Atlanta for the ROTD3 sessions.
Let loose on hip-hop for a glorious 18-month spell, it appears that Cole is finally putting time aside to bring his 6th studio album to the masses. However, rather than emanating from one exponentially busy period in the studio, this record has been coming together in fragments for quite some time now. Prior to the release of his last record in April 2018, Cole made numerous allusions to the project that we’re now awaiting. “Was working on the fall off,” he informed an inquisitive fan, before reiterating it again with another fan in the same Q&A session. Then, in a rare longform interview the next month, he told Angie Martinez that “he’d been working on it for a year and a half.” Stowed away down the pipeline since 2016, this level of robust planning is uncharacteristic of Cole in recent years. Formulated while he attempted to vacation in Italy and Tanzania, 2018 saw him break streaming records with what was, for all intents and purposes, a creative whim in KOD.
Speaking to DJ Booth in 2017, Dreamville in-house producer Elite revealed that it was a similar moment of serendipity that formed the bedrock of 4 Your Eyez Only after the title track emerged.
“That was the song that kinda started the whole concept of the album and everything else was trying to get to that point,” he revealed. “That was a beat he found on SoundCloud by a producer who was pretty unknown [BLVK] and just blacked out for like 24 hours. He wrote and wrote and wrote to that loop…”
Since he burst out of the tunnel swinging on The Come-Up, Cole’s projects have always been a time capsule to where his psyche was at that moment. On Sideline Story, he was a brash up-and-comer, willing to compromise on his vision to gain the public’s adoration and making decisions that he’d later rue. On 2014 Forest Hills Drive, he’d surpassed youthful indecision and had the self-assurance to deliver the thought-provoking studio project that had always dwelled within.
J. Cole performing at Rolling Loud 2018 - Image by HNHHThe Fall Out, on the other hand, has been played close to his chest and it all comes down to the fact that it’s a project that’s been envisioned with a cultural shift in mind. Described as “the answer” in that very same promotional video, its language— parodical as the delivery may be— and the difference in rollout from the singular tweets that pre-empted both KOD and 4YEO make his intentions plain. This is intended to be his magnum opus, the album that transcends his diehard fans and impacts the world on the grandest scale. And what’s more, he may be taking some risks along the way.
Derided in some quarters for “playing it safe,” a 2018 profile with Vulture— that was penned long after the proposed timeline in which he’d began The Fall Off— saw him exhibit a new attitude that was unencumbered by the conservatism that some believe to have hindered other projects.
“These are the fuck-its,” he beamed. “And this is the fuck-it period.”
Throughout his career, Cole has always been frank about his shortcomings. After all, this is a man who dedicated an entire song to the fact that he’d fallen foul of the high standard that Nas had held him to. An artist without artifice that’s prone to making his intentions plain to see and righting wrongs where needed.
Forced to contend with accusations that he’s “boring,” The Fall Off’s title is not only a self-deprecatory nod to those who’ve waited for his demise, but is paradoxical when viewed in line with the prevalence that he’s had in the game in recent years. Where some MCs are winding down their career by the time they reach their mid-30’s, Cole plans to deliver the emphatic statement that some of his more ambivalent observers believe him to be lacking in. If they want him to throw caution to the wind, all signs suggest that this is the album on which he’s prepared to surpass their preconceived notion of what his art entails.
As if the album itself wasn’t enough, his brief interaction with Nardwuar The Human Serviette after his Day N Vegas set would suggest that he has an almighty victory lap planned for after its release. When asked if they could link up in Vancouver for his long-awaited return to the eccentric interviewer’s YouTube channel, he remarked that "it’d probably be late next year or in 2021." So, much like the presidential candidates that he lampooned in The Fall Off’s announcement video, Cole will be heading out on the campaign trail with, if all goes to plan, his most seminal and culturally important album to date.