Ahead of two new singles from “The Fall Off,” J. Cole must once again grapple with the expectations that tend to surround him ahead of a big release.

J. Cole has previously grappled with the weight of expectation. Only a few weeks ago, Cole found himself facing criticism over perceived neglect toward systemic racism following the murder of George Floyd. Despite the fact that he was actively involved on the ground level, many felt that Cole wasn’t using his platform to the fullest extent. The ensuing backlash ultimately sparked him to stand up for himself with “Snow On The Bluff,” a song challenging some of the narratives working against him. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the defiant tone struck a nerve with a number of listeners, with some going so far as to call for his cancellation.

While the doomed movement lacked any real weight, it served as a valuable reminder that Cole’s opinion is placed on a pedestal, a fate earned through years of acting as a hip-hop leader by example. Seldom associated with controversy, always seeming to value musicality, and keen on exploring complex topics within his lyricism, Cole does in many ways encapsulate the “leader” archetype. Despite his own protestations as issued on “Bluff,” hip-hop has come to expect Cole to set examples on levels ranging from morality to artistry. Noble in theory, but these expectations do come with some unfortunate side effects.

J. Cole The Fall Off

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For one, it places heavy pressure on Cole whenever album time comes around, and seeing as he’s gearing up to drop a pair of Fall Off singles tonight, it’s safe to say that it’s about that time. But those great tidings spawn a few doors, the likes of which tend to open every time a revered rapper readies a project. The inherent conundrum every rapper faces — can they outdo their previous work? For an artist held in such high regard, the stakes feel particularly weighty. If that wasn’t enough, Cole has a few different lenses trained upon him. The lens held by those who seek his counsel; the lens held by those who value his technical prowess; the lens held by those who find him stagnant. Unfortunately, the likelihood of pleasing each camp is staggeringly low. Yet it does leave us wondering — what does The Fall Off aim to achieve in the greater context of Cole’s career?

There are many who would tout J. Cole as one of the greatest rappers of the past ten years, citing albums like 2014 Forest Hills Drive, 4 Your Eyez Only, and K.O.D. as but a few exhibits. Yet when contrasted alongside some of the other oft-cited GOATs — be it Jay-Z, Eminem, Nas, even Kendrick Lamar — there’s a reluctance to elevate Cole to that level, as his discography doesn’t quite hold that one undeniable classic. At least, according to some. There’s a case to be made that Cole’s best work has yet to come, and thus the hype for The Fall Off is all the more electrifying. A known competitor — as evidenced by his dynamic and swagger on the Dreamers 3 project — it wouldn’t be surprising to see Cole wanting to make a resounding claim even more than the fans want to hear it.

J. Cole The Fall Off

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To be fair, that opens up a whole new can of worms — what ultimately makes a classic where J. Cole is concerned? He certainly possesses the chops to outrap a vast percentage of his contemporaries, not to mention a solid ear for production; he can confidently lace great instrumentals himself, and his prestige ensures no self-respecting beatmaker is ducking his call. And while his own musical inclinations tend to be more contemplative, several of his recent tracks feel closer to “banger” territory, particularly the ones on Revenge Of The Dreamers 3. “Down Bad,” “Sunset,” “Rembrandt…Run It Back,” and “Middle Child” come to mind. The question becomes whether Cole can please both crowds. Balancing an album is no easy task, and for an artist that draws ire the minute he swerves from his expected social messaging, plunging headlong into carefree territory feels like somewhat of a gamble. It’s hard not to think of Kendrick Lamar, who himself must consistently grapple with balancing heightened technical prowess with societal responsibility; an album of “Humble” and “DNA” might not land that Pulitzer Prize, but damned if it wouldn’t be enjoyable.

Given everything that has come to transpire in the doomed write-off that is 2020, there’s plenty of topics for Cole to address — many of which would benefit from his leadership, even if it does come at the expense of “fun.” Though his more recent music — namely his slew of guest appearances and Revenge Of The Dreamers 3 — seemed to indicate a Cole hellbent on upstaging the entire rap game, his reputation as a hip-hop thought leader feels too important to sacrifice. Even if an album lined with Cole murdering simplistic bangers would go a long way in establishing his dominance. Perhaps it’s wise to hope for a healthy balance, and if we’re lucky, a heightened Dreamville presence. With two The Fall Off singles arriving tonight, we’ll have a better idea what to expect by morning.

J. Cole The Fall Off

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