From Denny’s to the Top of Hip-Hop: Wale & J. Cole’s 7 Years of Friendship
Names are missing from both of J. Cole’s verses on “False Prophets.” He alludes without revealing, sketching silhouettes without faces, but through his descriptive writing, it gives listeners enough to speculate. The idol that has fallen from grace, the genius who is losing his mind, a style thief surrounded by writers who is unable to create new work on par with his past—all signs point to Kanye West.
The second verse is a bit more abstract, detailing a rap friend who desires fame, acclaim, and respect, but is unhappy with his current status in the game. You could hypothesize that this could be about Omen, Cozz or Bas—three hungry artists signed to Dreamville. Being in the company of Cole, seeing his career elevate, of course, they would want more. Just reading the lyrics, the desire for respect and recognition is a shoe that could fit any foot; no artist is above getting lost in the obsession of acknowledgment.
Unexpectedly, on Saturday morning, Wale released “Groundhog Day,” a response to Cole that solidified that the second verse was about him.
“It's not a diss song, just a real song,” Jay Z once said; a perfect quote that describes both “False Prophets” and “Groundhog Day.” Cole’s verse starts the dialogue, a sincere perspective on fixation and how that can cause you to overlook blessings. He relates—he isn’t above wanting to be recognized for his greatness.
Wale continues the conversation from his perspective, expressing his own hardships throughout his time in the music industry, and with his mental health—by far one of the best songs to perfectly articulate who Wale is: a complicated man with a complicated career.
I love the way he contrasts J. Cole's beginning with Roc Nation and his time at Interscope. The two songs are a public back-and-forth between friends.
Due to how quickly he was able to respond, I’m almost certain that Cole played the song for Wale in advance—he did play Nas “I Let Nas Down” before the song was released.
J. Cole used the second verse on “False Prophets” to detail a problem that plagues artists in the industry by using a friend as an example. Wale took things a step further and told the world in his own words about that very same issue and other issues that come with the burdens and pressures of life as a rap artist. They were both truthful, honest and candid. Cole has been championed as the rapper who you can relate to—an ordinary man who lives an extraordinary life. Wale isn’t much different. He’s flashier and more outspoken, but at his very core, he’s an ordinary man who wants to be recognized for his talent. I find that to be human, and rather relatable.
Don’t they remind you of Jay Z and Kanye? I wouldn’t say they are a reflection of the two, but there are small similarities in their traits and personalities. The rappers who tend to impact people’s lives are the ones that seem the most human. You can see yourself in Cole, and you can see yourself in Wale. The same can be said about Jay Z and Kanye—both very different, but it's the way they display the many sides of themselves that allow you to connect on a deeper level.
Next to each other, “False Prophets” and “Groundhog Day” create a portrait of two artists who came into this game together and somehow managed to stay on good terms throughout their careers. We are seven years removed from 2009, it feels as if decades have passed since Jay Z embarked on a tour for The Blueprint 3 that featured both Wale and Cole as opening acts.
At the time, Wale was the Mark Ronson-discovered, promising lyricist hailing from D.C., and Cole was the rookie rap protege of Jay Z, the very first artist signed to his Roc Nation label. Wale wasn’t signed as an artist, but his management was through Roc Nation, a company he was with when they were still going by S. Dot Enterprise. Wale might have been more known, but they were both in the early stages in their career, on a major tour, learning the ropes together. There’s a video of a young Wale and a young J. Cole freestyling in Denny’s right before the tour’s conclusion—before the fame, before the plaques, before they were household names—that showcases two hopeful kids that saw a future in hip-hop. Look where they are now—the two couldn't walk into a Denny's in 2016 without the entire building exploding.
It’s impossible to have a conversation about Wale’s debut album, Attention Deficit, without mentioning J. Cole’s impeccable performance on “Beautiful Bliss.” The song is incredible, Wale’s wordplay is razor sharp, but J. Cole, the level of hunger that he displays is like a Mike Tyson haymaker. On Wale’s introductory album, a project that features Bun B, Gucci Mane, Pharrell and Lady Gaga, it was J. Cole whose mighty roar stopped you in your tracks. At the end of his verse, J. Cole thanks Wale for the look, for the chance to stand on his stage; a chance to be heard by the masses. Attention Deficit was a big deal, the debut album of someone who was expected to be huge in hip-hop and giving Cole that feature allowed him to be recognized. Cole was still a newborn in the business, his guest appearances on Blueprint 3 and Attention Deficit only helped to announce that this kid Cole was a monster in the making. “Beautiful Bliss” will forever be an important link between J. Cole and Wale’s careers.
Friendships don’t last in the music industry. We see time and time again how people that enter together eventually split, separate, and at times, become adversaries. Look back on Jay and Dame, 50 and Game, Drake and Meek, Future and Rocko—the list could simply go on and on with the names of all those who failed to stay cordial throughout their careers. Wale and Cole have been able to rise through the ranks without allowing music and the nature of the industry to overshadow a genuine friendship. All the fame and fortune can make it difficult to build a relationship with someone, especially a fellow peer; another warrior chasing after the very same crown that you seek.
They’re like two pirates on separate ships, but instead of trying to sink one another, there’s nothing but love when their paths cross. They may be sailing in the same seas, in search of the same treasure, but there’s a genuine respect that is worth more than any gold. I think back on how Kendrick’s “Control” was misconstrued as a diss song—it’s really a salute to the artists he respected, artists he acknowledged as peers, and artists he saw as rivals.
Wale could’ve easily taken Cole’s verse and felt slighted by a friend mentioning him in a song, the same way Drake took Kendrick’s verse on “Control.” He could’ve taken to Twitter and ranted, or gone to Instagram with a wall of words, but he didn’t. He responded instead of reacted, and he did it in a way that was hip-hop. I will always prefer a rapper in the studio than a rapper on Twitter (Vince Staples is an arguable exception).
A friend should be able to tell you about yourself, and as a friend you should be able to listen, heed the words, respect their opinion, and respond with your outlook. I respect how Wale admitted on “Groundhog Day” that some of what Cole said is true, but what I respect even more is how the two friends were sitting courtside at a basketball game while the internet erupted in a frenzy.
Since “Beautiful Bliss,” Wale and Cole have collaborated many times: “You Got It,” “Rather Be With You,” “Bad Girls Club,” “Winter Schemes” and “The Pessimist,” along a couple of remixes from other artists and multiple tracks from MMG's Self Made trilogy. When the two are together the mightier pen changes hands. It’s like a friendly competition, an exhibition between two skilled swordsman. Not every record is meant to be lyrical miracles; as artists both Wale and Cole have matured and grown, and the music shows how much the two have evolved over time.
While there’s a desire for a Kendrick and Cole to do a joint project, I wouldn’t mind if it was Wale who Cole ultimately teamed up with—something like a short mixtape full of powerful punchlines, wizard-level wordplay, and a song with Miguel to put radio in a figure four leg lock. I nominate Jake One to handle the production; a project full of “Winter Schemes” and “Groundhog Day”-caliber records would be a gift from above.
If you've been following Wale and Cole’s journeys since the beginning, it’s a great time to celebrate their careers. Somehow, someway, they have made it this far. They were once seeds of promise, who blossomed into artists and grew to be two of the biggest rap acts of this generation. We witnessed their trials and tribulations, failures and successes, glory and achievements—all the good, all the bad, and all the ugly.
The two made it off Jay Z’s tour bus and became big enough stars to have their own tours, with their own opening acts. They did it all without hatred, malice or jealousy toward one another. It’s good for us to see, a reminder that this business can tear people apart, but it also can introduce you to people with whom you’ll remain close.
Cole and Wale started from the bottom, and now they are here, wherever here might be.
By Yoh, aka Wale Yohlarin, aka @Yoh31.