J. Cole & Kendrick Lamar wouldn’t exist if they didn’t blow up when they did — here’s why. (Part 1)

The Come Up, The Warm Up, Friday Night Lights, Sideline Story, Born Sinner, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, 4 Your Eyez Only and KOD. 12 years in the game, 3 mixtapes, 5 albums with all of them platinum. Jermaine Cole may be “boring” to some, but to others, he is hip-hop’s saving grace, being able to swerve into any lane, hop on your favorite rappers’ song and remain true to himself. This two-part series goes into the ascension of J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar and why this process would be unsuccessful today if it were attempted.

J. Cole isn’t boring, he is just able to dominate in an era that wouldn’t have birthed him if he attempted the same approach today.

Let’s get straight to the point. J. Cole’s target audience consisted of college students (8–10 years ago) and it was these college students who remained loyal to Cole even after they graduated from university. To add to my previous statement, the high school student demographic closely followed the college student demo who brought Cole to the mainstream. Here’s how it happened.

Before I continue, let me add additional context:

2. J. Cole was a college student at St. John’s, making him relatable to his target demo.

3. People actually cared about meaningful lyrics 10 years ago.

4. Soundcloud existed, but the “Soundcloud Rap” genre had yet to catch on. (A very influential sub-genre today)

Now that I have already brought up the college student demographic that J. Cole was able to target, let’s analyze how he was able to win them over point by point. First, we have to recognize that college students are in a monumental point in their lives. They are finding themselves, understanding who they really are and are pretty much setting up their foundation for the rest of their lives. Not only that, college is often a time where students tend to find the love of their lives, experience heartbreak, begin to question/challenge authority and where students start to express their sense of individuality as majority of them are on their own for the first time in their lives. With that said, let’s analyze “Lost Ones” a song that can be considered relatable to his target demographic of college students.

“Lost Ones” is a conversation between a couple who regrets being romantically involved. When the girl shares that she’s pregnant, the male involved suggests getting an abortion, causing a strain in the relationship. Here’s why the song is relatable:

1. The characters in the song are in their early 20s, the age of his demographic.

2. People tend to be more sexually active in college where some may experience a pregnancy scare for the first time in their lives.

3. The story told in the song is often a true one that people experience personally or through people they care about.

J. Cole was able to craft a story to his audience because he has either lived through the same experiences (being a college student) or has people that are close to him that have experienced the same thing. Not only was his music relatable, people cared more about lyricism and storytelling back then opposed to today. Remember when Kendrick pretty much broke the internet with “Control?” Now that Cole was able to resonate and create a foundation before a new paradigm shift was introduced into Hip-Hop, he has loyal, evangelical fans who support him in any way that they can.

Today, we live in an era where producers can attain more fame than the artists that they produce for. Instead of the lyrics, people place more stock into beats, the vibe or “feel” of the song than the actual lyrics. J. Cole isn’t boring, he is just able to dominate in an era that wouldn’t have birthed him if he attempted the same approach today. Because of this paradigm shift, Cole still would have made a name for himself if he tried in this era, but not to acclaim of where he is today. The college students today aren’t looking for what Cole provided 10 years ago.

*Note: Obviously, I am biased as this is an opinion article. Personally, I would identify as a J. Cole enthusiast, but I would not consider myself to be a stan. Also, the first project that I was exposed to from Cole was Sideline Story in the 9th grade, so I am in no way a “day one” fan.

Founder/CEO of Wavlength l Self-proclaimed Hip-Hop Economist | Legitimizing Musicians, One by One.