“I ball, I ball like Kobe in the fall, put trophies on the wall, rather trophies on my mantle” —J. Cole, “Cole World”
On January 26, 2020, two days before his 35th birthday, multi-Platinum rapper J. Cole won his first-ever GRAMMY award in the Best Rap Song category for his and 21 Savage’s “a lot.” The North Carolina native didn’t attend the ceremony at Staples Center in Los Angeles, but the triumph was fitting for a man who had adolescent dreams of playing ball in the NBA. On the same day that Kobe Bryant lost his life, J. Cole took home a trophy for his mantle.
The rapper and label executive born Jermaine Cole was 12 years old when the Charlotte Hornets drafted Kobe Bryant in 1996, six years younger than the Philadelphia-born NBA prospect. Penny Hardaway of the Orlando Magic was Cole’s favorite player, but I wonder if Kobe made the basketball-loving hoop dreamer believe he could go to the league at 18. I don’t know a single black kid with the self-esteem of a winner who didn’t. Through our young black eyes, Kobe represented a genius talent, recognized by the world right out of high school. He made us want to graduate into greatness.
When J. Cole graduated from Terry Sanford High School in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in 2003, he was not preparing to enter the League. Still, he was well known for playing varsity basketball. Cole wasn’t a superstar in the making like Bryant, but during his junior and senior years, he committed himself to the game.
“A thousand shots a day, sprints, minute drills, one-on-one full court with the star player on the team, every day, literally for the entire school year then the entire summer,” he told Sports Illustrated of his self-imposed training regimen after being cut as a freshman and sophomore. Cole’s high school career spanned 1999-2003, a four-year stretch during which Kobe Bryant led the Los Angeles Lakers to three straight world championships.
“I’m a fan of players. I’m a Laker fan, but only because of Kobe. Once he goes, I’m sure I won’t watch the Lakers anymore.” —J. Cole (2012)
J. Cole is not the Kobe Bryant of hip-hop. “You looking at LeBron James of the game,” Cole raps on “Heartache,” a track from his 2009 mixtape The Warm Up. Of course, that comparison isn’t accurate either. But in light of Kobe’s unexpected and heartbreaking passing and Cole’s well-deserved GRAMMY-win, I haven’t stopped thinking about them.
Kobe Bryant moved as lightning moves on the court, swifter than a defender’s feet, and more elegant than the swordplay of Syrio Forel. J. Cole, on the other hand, isn’t a lightning-tongue emcee. Though he is a poetic lyricist, Cole doesn’t always rhyme with a swan’s grace. My favorite verses in his catalog, however, are those which resemble a ballplayer driving to the rim, full of adrenaline and moxie, and ready for placement in a future 30 for 30.
Let’s begin with J. Cole’s 2009 verse on Wale’s “Beautiful Bliss.” Sure, his breakout feature on JAY-Z’s “A Star Is Born” was a respectable introduction, and Miguel’s “All I Want Is You” is also a memorable highlight. Still, for a rookie who is entering the rap league, Cole’s “Beautiful Bliss” stands as the ideal guest appearance. “If you listening, and wondering where the fuck they found me, I’m from the Ville, boy!” he raps to close the record. J. Cole knew his performance would inspire the age-old question that made Mike Jones a ringtone legend.
All of hip-hop knows about the J. Cole guest verse. On Kanye West’s “Looking For Trouble,” 6LACK’s “Pretty Little Fears,” and Bas’ “Tribe,” he’s the number one highlight on SportsCenter. But his greatest performance is on the remix to Cozz’s 2014 record “Knock Tha Hustle.” Over not one but two verses, Cole possesses the lung-burning fire of a man grappling with a changing life.
“I ain’t called my pops back in way too long, I done made my girl wait for way too long,” he raps, both honest and ashamed. The sound of cracking under pressure is present in his voice. It’s the fourth quarter. The game is tied. Every ticking second intensifies the energy in the room.
Most of Cole’s highlight reel consists of verses that are athletic and emotional—a strong technical performance, verbally captivating, and emotionally gripping. On “Grow Up Fast,” “Cole Summer,” and “Return of Simba,” he flexes his lyrical muscles, but these efforts don’t compare to the feeling of “Be Free,” Cole’s tribute song to Mike Brown, or his closing verse on Dreamville’s “Sacrifices,” a solar flare of earnest combustion. He pours it out: a husband, a father, a rapper, in a moment of mature self-analysis. Then again, the record doesn’t hit quite like “2Face,” a Friday Night Lights deep cut that bleeds with coming-of-age angst:
“Let’s change the topic / Before I go berserk / I’m so alert, riding down 95 / Naw I ain’t finna to go to work / I’m headed back home ain’t staying that long / I’m chasing dreams shawty, I’m paying back loans / I’m paying dues that a nigga paying tax on / I’m tryna blow like a nigga playing saxophone / I’m playing daddy to another niggas daughter / Don’t worry, even Jesus never saw his real father / It don’t bother me at all, though”
We must also honor the calmer, calculated Cole, a rapper who sets up the play to ensure repeat listens over time. Think of records like “Lights Please,” “Chaining Day,” and “A Tale of 2 Citiez.” More impressive than all three titles, however, is “4 Your Eyez Only,” the self-titled, seven-minute storytelling opus that concludes his fourth studio album of the same title.
Cole performs the first three verses from the perspective of James McMillian, Jr., a friend who inspired the album’s overarching narrative. The record is slow to start, vivid with details, unfolding with delicate ease as if it has all the time in the world. The tone is heavy but cold, like a witness delivering testimony in a courtroom. By the fourth verse, the perspective switches from McMillian Jr. to J. Cole, who brings the song home with the sincerity of a man burdened with a story that’s bigger than him. No, “4 Your Eyez Only” doesn’t exude the magic of a game-winner, but in terms of originality and thoughtful execution, the song is a double-double.
Critically, it’s hard to place J. Cole in a group or class, but artistically, his field goal percentage has always been ahead of the pack. Back in 2017, Matt Starks, a former teammate at Terry Sanford, told Bleacher Report the perfect anecdote that summarizes his rap career thus far:
Cole was so close to dunking cleanly. Sometimes in practice he would get it, but he hadn’t ever done it in a game. During our senior night, we were up big, he was starting, and at one point he stole the ball. He had a breakaway, came from the left side—just like he always did in practice—got to the middle of the lane and jumped off of his left foot for a one-handed dunk.
We all thought he was going to get it—on the game tape, you can see everybody standing up in anticipation. He went up, it looked so good, and then he missed it. The ball popped straight up in the air, and the whole crowd was like, “Awww….”
But the best part was that he actually grabbed the rebound, drove in, and went up and under in a way that was reminiscent of Dr. J. That went in, and the place went nuts. There were like five seconds of everybody feeling bad for him, but then he went up and made one of the best layups we’d ever seen.
Watching J. Cole mature into a young veteran—into a champion—has been a joy. So to him, I say, Happy Birthday. May the cameras continue to capture all your greatest moments.