Nas vs. J. Cole and the Struggle to Stay Relevant in Hip-Hop
Mentor and mentee provide a perfect example of what works and what doesn’t work for rappers to stay successful.
Written by Dylan Keesee
When hip-hop started in Brooklyn, it focused on the DJ, and the MC was either used as a hype-man or completely omitted. As time went on, more emphasis was placed on the MC and lyricism, and the DJ became an accompaniment. Today, sub-genres have developed, resulting in more unique sounds than ever in the genre of rap. From trap to grime to … whatever it is that Death Grips does, there is an avenue for any artist. But as the genre advances, so too must the rappers, or else they’ll fade into obscurity.
At the center of the rap game in the mid-90s, Nas proved his skill with elite storytelling and a complex flow that incorporated rhymes not only at the end of the bar, but also in the middle. He released Illmatic and It Was Written and rose to fame. His next two releases, I Am… and Nastradamus, sold well but were torn apart by both fans and critics for his new sellout sound that catered to a pop audience and focused less on his lyrical ability.
Returning to his old sound, Nas regained the attention of his ecstatic fans with Stillmatic in 2001. This album featured “Ether,” one of the most brutal diss tracks in rap history, which targeted Jay Z and reignited the excitement surrounding Nas. He continued to release a couple more albums which made small splashes but were mostly popular with committed fans. Slowly, however, Nas began to disappear from the mainstream as he was replaced with the likes of Kanye West, 50 Cent, and Lil Wayne, who were all focusing on catchier beats and accessible one-liners.
Nas tried to make a comeback with his Kanye-produced album NASIR in the summer of 2018, but it flopped again, possibly as one of Kanye’s least talked about releases that summer. It almost solidified that Nas’s time in the mainstream was over. Almost.
The rap veteran’s album with Kanye showed that he was willing to try something new to stay relevant. Using Kanye’s catchy beats with pitched-up vocal samples was a new step for Nas — someone whose beat selection has been less than exciting over his career. Although his new production sound improved, his flow remained the same: classic boom-bap storytelling that couldn’t compete with the likes of melodic trap that had gained massive popularity through Young Thug and Future.
In his most recent release, The Lost Tapes 2, Nas again finds himself in his same cadence, supplying a 1990 verse in 2019. This album, full of lines like “Ejaculatory depression after sex / And that mean after I nut, don't touch me, no questions,” somehow doesn’t land in modern day. His flow never changed, and he found himself overshadowed by the releases of Houston rapper Maxo Kream and international pop sensation Peppa Pig. His stagnancy and refusal to incorporate modern day elements has led to his downfall and eventual obscurity.
It isn’t just a case of old people being out of touch, though. There are cases of success and failure from young and old rappers alike. Since 2011, Big Sean has been rapping about the only things he knows: his mom and coming from Detroit. Like Nas, his records have been growing staler in the public’s eyes as they fail to evolve. A Tribe Called Quest, one of the most influential rap groups from the ‘90s, released We Got It from Here... Thank You 4 Your Service in 2016, retaining enough of what made them beloved by their fans, but incorporating enough new elements to ensure that they stayed interesting. But when it comes to constantly creating music that excites old and new fans, J. Cole perfectly exemplifies how to adapt to survive.
J. Cole, a once proclaimed mentee of Nas, learned from his mentor’s mistakes and decided that he wouldn’t fall prey to the same fate. His debut album, Cole World: The Sideline Story, and sophomore album, Born Sinner, were identifiably inspired by Nas but were also full of new-age elements, containing lines in which he would change his intonation or rap in a sing-song manner.
As Cole further developed his sound, he began to experiment with other flows and styles. Most notably on 2014 Forest Hills Drive, he pitched his voice both up and down to simulate multiple voices on one track, earning him the illustrious “platinum with no features” mantra that his fans recited incessantly. On 4 Your Eyez Only, Cole showed his more vulnerable side, crooning about his wife and daughter. And on his most recent solo release, KOD, he borrows the Migos’s triplet flow and spits his verses with staccato styling.
However, to say J. Cole was able to change his style and stay afloat by himself would be naive, and he can’t be given credit without his self-started label, Dreamville Records. Cole’s sound has no doubt developed from the talent that he has recruited to help keep him relevant, seen in recent signees J.I.D and Earthgang who both brought a renewed, frantic energy to J. Cole’s music. There is no better example of this than on the label’s most recent album, Revenge of the Dreamers III.
On the album, the label founder takes a step back, chiming in on most of the tracks, but only for a moment as he lets the young stars take the lead. J.I.D and EarthGang are the stars of this album, and Cole tries to keep up by mirroring their energies and cadences. He invites newcomers who aren’t signed to the label like Smino, Ski Mask the Slump God, and Yung Nudy to come and share their expertise as well. It all creates a fun, cohesive album that Cole remains the hidden star of while providing a place for rappers to grow their abilities together.
J. Cole’s ability to change his sound is what maintains his status as an A-list rapper. Contrastingly, Nas’s inability to change anything about his delivery or sound is why he was left behind. Admittedly the rapid evolution of the genre is hard to keep up with, but innovation tends to pay off and stubbornness often makes a sound go flat.