Drake and J. Cole are getting up there. At 33 and 35, respectively, the two titans have more in common now than they did during the decade they were critically and commercially pitted against one another. Both are relatively new fathers and closer to their forties than their early twenties. Both have aged remarkably well, and managed to stay oddly prolific throughout this pandemic, with thrown-off projects, EPs, diss records, apologies, DJ Khaled appearances, and promises of full-length efforts. Another thing the two rappers have in common in 2020 is that neither are operating at their commercial peak. In July alone, Drake dropped three songs, while Cole released two — none of which will go down as candidates for song of the summer. There’s an ecosystem of much younger rappers ruling the charts — Roddy Ricch, DaBaby, Lil Baby — that have seen to that. Despite the slip in pure domination, or maybe because of it, Drake and J. Cole seem content experimenting on the margins.
Nowhere is this more evident than the lyrical miracle tour-de-force that is Drake’s “Only You Freestyle” and Cole’s Lewis Street EP. Each release is nigh-impenetrable to a wider audience. The hooks aren’t flashy, if there are hooks at all; the melodies are mostly beside the point; if the two are competing with anything, it’s their own encroaching boredom.
“Only You Freestyle” features Drake delivering his clumsiest and hardest verse in years, somehow simultaneously. Over the haunting M1OnTheBeat production, Drake raps on, before, and behind the beat. The lyrics are nonsensical. Drake begins the song with a comical threat — “Chubbs might jam this yute for a chain” (in laymen’s terms: his friend Chubbs will steal your chain) — and ends the verse by threatening to beat up some high school kids (it might be a metaphor, who knows at this point). He raps in a UK accent that dissolves into Arabic, which was quickly mocked by fans concerned the Toronto rapper said, “baby you and I are the shittiest,” because he couldn’t correctly pronounce the words. In essence, the whole affair is messy. There’s a sense that he’s trying to evolve in real time, letting fans see the seams of his interests.
In contrast, Cole’s Lewis Street EP initially seems to double down on the perception of the Fayetteville rapper as elderly curmudgeon wagging his finger from his platinum porch. “The Climb Back” and “Lion King on Ice” are soul-sampling screeds that arrive on the heels of Cole getting lyrically and socially thrashed by Noname in June. On the latter song, Cole returns to easier targets, rapping “I tried to warn niggas they wouldn’t last long/I hope that you see how they came and they went.” The veiled shots are likely aimed at the SoundCloud generation he tried to mentor on his last full-length album, 2018’s KOD.
At his best, Cole is a narrator motivated by conflict and, over the years, he’s often had to create it himself if it wasn’t readily available. But “The Climb Back” and “Lion King on Ice” feel like a re-centering exercise instead of a commercial gambit. He doesn’t sound like he has more to prove, and Cole even makes time for humor, something that has often escaped him at his most ambitious. “They fiend to clap as often as the Genius app misquotin’ me” and “A problem with me is like the BET Hip-Hop Awards/I’m startin’ to see you niggas don’t want it” are genuinely funny punchlines in otherwise serious affairs.
Drake and Cole are in a war of attrition with their legacies. The two will be popular for as long as they continue to be in the public eye. What no one wants to admit is that the music is largely beside the point at their level of stardom. And yet the two MCs still seem interested in honing their talents for some godforsaken reason. Even if the results aren’t perfect, the experiment has become a fascinating show to watch.