J. Cole has tirelessly worked his way into our generation’s holy trinity of rappers alongside Drake and Kendrick Lamar, and his honest lyricism is celebrated by peers and veterans alike. Along the way, Cole’s been honing his craft as a dual-discipline artist and constantly reinventing himself to amplify his artistry beyond his voice.
I think the first time I started paying attention to production was around 1997: the year Biggie’s second album [Life After Death] and Puff Daddy & the Family’s album No Way Out came out. Puff’s crew [The Hitmen] was sampling all these older songs that my mom would recognize, or my stepfather would call out, so I got into the credits to find out who produced the songs.” – J. Cole (2014)
J. Cole started producing at fifteen years old after his single mother, a postal worker, bought him a $1,300 ASR-X as a Christmas present. But this hefty purchase came with some caveats: he had to forego a birthday present, buy his own clothes for the next year, and pay out of his own pocket for basketball camp. Cole had started taking violin lessons just a year prior (he was the first-chair violinist in the Terry Sandford Orchestra at his high school in 2009), and after teaching himself to play piano, he was well on his way to transitioning from a musician into a full-fledged producer.
Just being in an orchestra every day, even though it was just a school thing, it really taught me about music — more than what I knew at the time. I didn’t appreciate it. But how to count notes and how to read music and count beats or whatever so I have that background.” – J. Cole (2013)
Cole would dig through stacks of his mother’s CDs — a diverse palette of artists like Steely Dan, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Bob Marley, and Marvin Gaye — and loop samples before programming drums around it. He stumbled upon a Pete Rock interview where the legendary producer revealed that he always did the drums first, and Cole decided to break routine and follow suit. While the ASR-X limited him to samples and drums, he was thrust into a world of infinite possibilities after converting to Reason, a digital audio workstation developed by Propellerhead Software.
I fell in love with all these instruments. I could make a beat the same way, but then I could pull up a piano on top and play some keys, then go through all these bass lines to choose the one I want. Getting to touch the keys and play changed the whole thing.” – J. Cole (2014)
J. Cole’s Early Trajectory as a Producer
The Warm Up and Friday Night Lights are critically-acclaimed mixtapes that garnered an electrifying buzz as well as cosigns from bonafide legends, and J. Cole self-produced nearly 70% out of a total of 42 tracks. He stuck to his childhood roots, as both of these projects gravitated towards jazzy boom bap and utilized the most samples out of his entire discography. The North Carolina emcee — who started out selling his CDs for a dollar on college campuses — had a lot to say, and one of his idols took note.
I would always have both aggressive and mellow, deep stuff. I liked the emotional and moody beats, too. But when I really found a groove as a producer was around the time I did “Lights Please” [on Cole World: The Sideline Story, 2011]. I didn’t have to try as hard; I trusted my instincts, and I didn’t have to add 100 drum sounds or samples on top of each other. I had a drum loop, a kick drum, a melody, a sample, and a snare.” – J. Cole (2014)
Jay-Z signed J. Cole to Roc Nation, and Cole’s debut album, Sideline Story, was released in 2011. With the backing of a major machine, he had both the resources and reputation to work with nearly any producer in the industry, and this level of access is an opportunity that most aspiring rappers wait their entire lives for. However, Cole had different plans — he ended up with sole production credits for 12 out of 16 tracks (with only 3 co-producers and 3 guest producers), and under mounting pressure from the label to create radio hits, he delivered. “Work Out” and “Nobody’s Perfect” were both self-produced and charted on the Billboard Hot 100. The album also featured live orchestra and musical sections.
One night I was in this hotel room after a show, and I was listening to The College Dropout, as I do. And on the worst song on that album, which is my favorite album, so I’m not dissing. But on the worst song on that album, ‘The New Workout Plan,’ I heard the shit that I had been hearing for like — eight years now. I heard it different as a producer like, oh shit… made a rough version of the beat right there in the hotel room. By the time I got back to Europe a few days later, I had ‘Work Out’.” – J. Cole (2013)
The collaborative aspect of making music is often overlooked in the relentless pursuit of self-sufficiency, but it seemed to hold more weight in the creative process for J. Cole’s sophomore album. While he had sole production credits on 75% of his debut album, this percentage dropped to 25% for Born Sinner with 5 co-producers listed on 9 different tracks, and 2 guest producers. The production style of Sideline Story seemed to be appropriately tailored for his first major commercial release, but he admittedly had a lot more creative freedom this time around, going as far as using a 18-piece string orchestra for a few of the songs.
Honestly, I use tools like panning to clear up space, especially now that I’ve grown as a producer, but in my early stages there was no such thing—just sounds piled on top of each other. Only now am I starting to take control of things that used to be done in the mix. Now I’m doing EQs, reverbs, delays, panning, etc. while making the beat. I didn’t have the mixing ear at first, just an ear for melody and drums and adjusting the volume of the sounds. This album [Born Sinner] was the beginning of my putting more motion in the sound design, and it’s only scratching the surface.“ – J. Cole (2014)
Cole ever-so-slightly broadened his horizons as a beatsmith on Born Sinner, but the sample-heavy production and double-time tempos tended to bleed into each other in a muddled haze. However, there were a few standouts: “Power Trip” peaked at number 19 on the Billboard Hot 100, and “Let Nas Down” was an apology to the legendary Queensbridge rapper Nas (both self-produced). It was inspired by a phone call from Cole’s mentor No I.D., a veteran producer, about the single “Work Out” from his previous album.
My partner gets a call from No I.D…And he’s like ‘Yo, who approved this shit? Who’s behind this? Ya’ll standing behind this shit?’…He finally did call me a week later, and he was explaining to me like ‘To tell you the truth, I was in the studio with Nas, man, and that nigga was like ‘Yo, why the fuck that nigga make that shit? He don’t know he the one?'” – J. Cole (2013)
Cole’s Production Finds Beauty in Simplicity
When one of your idols gives you game, you listen. Nas’ sentiment clearly struck a chord, because Cole’s next album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, had no radio singles and birthed the sacred ‘platinum with no features’ mantra for his rabid fan base. The number of different co-producers more than doubled from his previous album to 11, and the production was rich, symphonic, and soulful, curating a nostalgic soundscape for this coming-of-age concept album.
J. Cole used an average of 12 samples across 3 mixtapes and 3 studio albums up to this point, but as his artistry grew, so did his confidence. The true spirit of self-sufficiency leaves no room for complacency, and the gradual drop off in his sample usage is a reflection of his growth as a producer.
But when I’m in a zone — especially more before the deal when all I had to do was wake up and do music — I used to have to go through CDs and albums and vinyl, these days I just go online and download as many albums as possible and I’ll spend three, four hours just combing through samples, putting them to the side, then another five hours making beats.” – J. Cole (2013)
4 Your Eyez Only was the first album where he had production credits on every single track, and it only contained 6 samples (nearly half of his average up to this point). Cole began taking a more minimalist approach in his production to reflect the importance of his message. Critics acknowledged that the songwriting was arguably his most grounded and mature, and the lyrical content was accommodated by slow, jazzy beats.
J. Cole had dropped “Everybody Dies” and “False Prophets” prior to the release of 4YEO, and more or less, this was what we wanted to hear from the Dreamville emcee. However, Cole took a hard left for the creative direction of the actual album, and he was undoubtedly aware of the potential backlash of doing so (the album was trashed on social media for being corny and boring). But in the microwave era of cookie-cutter raps, this mentality is what separate boys from men. Instead of riding the momentum of 2014 FHD, Cole chose to create from a personal space rather than catering to fan expectations, and this organic approach laid the foundation for his most ambitious body of work thus far.
While many dismissed KOD as preachy and self-righteous, it was a long overdue PSA about the fuckery that runs rampant amongst SoundCloud rappers and their constituents. With 12 tracks, 5 samples, 2 co-producers, and 1 guest producer, these numbers are the lowest across all of his studio albums, respectively.
If you listen to the flows and the patterns and the production, it’s like… these dudes inspired that form, that’s the form I took to get this message off on this album.” – J. Cole (2018)
In the first half of KOD, J. Cole opted for triple-timing over trap beats, a reflection of the modern trends that dominate hip-hop’s airwaves. Listeners who had certain expectations were probably turned off by this sound, but it was simply a means to an end. In the latter half, the tempo slows down to sparse, somber melodies to reflect the darker aesthetic of KOD. This was the first glimpse of Cole stepping completely outside of his typical production pocket, and his willingness to experiment has me hopeful for the direction of his future projects.
And aside from his solo discography, he’s produced 58 tracks for 36 different artists, including Kendrick Lamar, Janet Jackson, and Mac Miller. Kendrick sat in for 25 mixes of “HiiiPoWeR,” their first collaboration: “His production is crazy, man. The first time we locked in, he played about 10 beats. I wanted 11 of ‘em.”
Producing in 2019: Where Does J. Cole Go Next?
I’ve never gone to whoever the hot producer is. I’ve never gone to see him, you know what I mean? I’ve always just relied on myself. But imagine if I did. In a sense you could say I might be further. I might have more this, more hits, blah, blah, blah. But it’s a marriage that I feel like works for me. It’s the way I enjoy making art — I like sitting down and making five beats; I enjoy that process. I can go two weeks without making a song and just making beats and I’ll be OK.” – J. Cole (2013)
J. Cole’s love and respect for the craft is reflected in both his tenacity and evolution as a producer. He’s one of the few top tier artists that refuse to compromise integrity for the sake of relevancy or pandering, and he’s earned the luxury of freely exploring his artistic whims far from the burden of industry politics.
And if 2018 has taught us anything, it’s that ‘feature Cole’ is a different animal. The spirit of competition runs at its highest when emcees share the spotlight and microphone with one another, but even beyond that, it seems Cole is challenged and forced into a different pocket over beats that aren’t his own; the chatter over this disconnect between ‘feature Cole’ and ‘album Cole’ has been growing exponentially.
But we can’t ignore the fact that J. Cole gave us an incredible album in KOD that proved he was willing to step out of his comfort zone. We just need him to take a step further. And the sheer amount of self-confidence in refusing to abandon his DIY approach to production is truly remarkable, especially with the level of success that he’s had. He’s been making beats for more than half of his entire life, but in this world that he’s built for himself, even growth is tinged with complacency. In order for J. Cole to make quantum leaps in 2019, he needs a change of scenery. We’ve been seeing flashes, and now, we want the full picture.