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J. Cole vs. Kendrick Lamar: Who Is the Greatest Rapper Alive?
Let's get something out of the way: I know Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole are friendly collaborators, have no ill will against each other, and are probably never going to get into a good old-fashioned rap feud, let alone a bonafide hip-hop battle. Additionally, I love both rappers and don't necessarily prefer one over another most days.
But hip-hop music and culture is about competition, and as two of the hottest young rappers making unique and beautiful music today, Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole are well-positioned to be pitted against one another, head to head, in determining who is the Greatest Rapper Alive. So, reality aside, who takes the crown in this fantasy hip-hop battle royale, and why?
Kendrick and Cole: Similar Stories, Similar Credentials
While Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole have wildly different family backgrounds and personal histories (Compton vs. Fayetteville is a whole different article...) both have had similar relationships with the rap game throughout their career.
Both Kendrick and Cole started as underground MCs with impressive independent mix tape releases and dedicated indie followings, were co-signed by rap legends (Dre and Jay, respectively) who vaulted them into the mainstream, and both were able to maintain a surprising amount of their indie credibility and fan base as they started producing music for a wider audience.
Kendrick has a better reputation for consistency among hip-hop nerds, but with Cole's stellar new album 2014 Forest Hills Drive, the North Carolinian ROC rapper is finally receiving some well deserved critical acclaim. (Come to think of it, Good Kidd, M.A.A.D. City was about Kendrick's hometown and growing up as well.) So, overall, both rappers have had impressive and similar career trajectories.
How Their Rapping Abilities Compare
When you compare their rapping abilities, both MCs have similar credentials as well. Both are renowned storytellers who can deftly incorporate creative lyrics into stellar narrative tracks. Both have multiple flows they employ well, and notably, both can go HARD on tracks if they so choose, busting out aggressive styles that are energetic and unique (See "M.A.A.D. City" and "Firing Squad"-->).
Their styles are not identical: Kendrick favors imagery where Cole favors punchlines, and Cole's flow is on average more laid back and accessible while Kendrick's is more complex and unexpected. But as far as the skills go, both rappers got 'em, and it would be hard to argue that one or the other was a better MC on a technical level.
Kendrick Lamar vs. J. Cole: The Politics of Rap
So if both rappers have so many things in common, how can we compare the two? Cole and Kendrick are undoubtedly two of the best cats rapping, but who takes the crown, and why?
Back in the days of Public Enemy, before the Jay-zs and Snoop Doggs of the world changed what sold in rap, MCs were obsessed with an idea whose meaning has changed so much that it has become unrecognizable: "keeping it real." Starting in the mid-90s, "realness" became associated with being a criminal or "gangsta," but in the late 1980s and early 1990s, "keeping it real" meant speaking on real things and making sure your music had a real message to it.
This "politics of rap" has faded a great deal in the mainstream, but there are still MCs who "keep it real" by speaking truth to power. J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar are two such MCs. In judging who is the best alive then, I will be basing my comparison on a term as old as rap itself. Between Kendrick and Cole, who is the "realer" MC? Who is able to more meaningfully and interestingly comment on the social and political issues of the day and successfully incorporate the politics of rap into their music?
#BlackLivesMatter to Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole
While Cole has been much more public than Kendrick about his anger regarding police brutality and the tragic deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and others, we are not judging who is the better tweeter or social commentator. This is about the music. Yes Kendrick has been notably absent from the debate around #BlackLivesMatter (see below) but that doesn't mean his music hasn't confronted the issue. As the biggest social and political movement of the moment, especially in the hip-hop community, I will be judging Kendrick and Cole on who "kept it realer" in handling the recent related issues of police brutality and black oppression.
Police Brutality in J. Cole's "Be Free"
Before he released his newest album 2014 Forest Hill Drive, Cole dealt with the issue of police brutality head-on in the online, non-album release of his incredible "Be Free." The song was penned as a direct response to the death of Michael Brown and drips with emotion and raw power. No doubt about it, the track is as real as it gets.
When Cole performed "Be Free" on Letterman, he took the emotion of the track to another level. His raw and passionate vocals, especially in his echoing chorus of "all we wanna do is take the chains off, all we wanna do is be free," portrays his emotional response beautifully. And then, when you don't think Cole can get any more emotive, he ends the track with a bridge that makes his voice crack and shake:
"Are we all alone, fighting on our own/ Please give me a chance, I don't wanna dance/ Somethings got me down, I will stand my ground/ Don't just stand around, don't just stand around"
Cole delivers the entire performance expertly and beautifully, and there is no doubt while watching him that Cole is most certainly a "real" artist. Some lines in the track are mediocre, especially when he breaks into rap mid-song and declares oddly that he has "other s*** to think about, like my bank account." The line is likely meant to be self-reflective and ironic, but it falls flat. Overall though, "Be Free" is a stellar track and proves Cole is the definition of real.
Black Oppression in Kendrick Lamar's [Untitled] New Track (Featured on Colbert)
Not to be outdone by anyone, King Kendrick appeared this week on The Colbert Report as Stephen Colbert's last musical guest ever and premiered an absolutely amazing as of yet untitled track which deals with the oppressed nature of African Americans in U.S. society very directly.
In typical Kendrick fashion, there are so many lines here that need dissecting and need to marinate for a while that it is hard to pass judgement on the MCs lyrics right away, but the immediate imagery that does shine through on my first dozen listens is incredibly powerful. While in a hypothetical conversation with a record executive, Kendrick asks the question, "What if I compromise?" and gets back "it don't even matter," making some commentary on how he as an artist is valued and treated. However, the song quickly becomes about more than Kendrick and the rap game, as he begins chanting "I will enjoy the fruits of my labor if I get free today." Finally, Kendrick asks "what does the black man say?" before entering a rousing chant of:
Tell em we don't die! Tell em we don't die! Tell em we don't die! We multiply!
At this turning point, it becomes obvious that, like on so many other brilliant Kendrick songs, his personal narrative journey has become a piece of commentary on a larger issue. With the obvious incantation of "we don't die" that Kendrick positions as a saying of "the black man," Lamar makes this track about Ferguson and police brutality and all of the things happening in the nation that need to be talked about. But he does it in a very different way than J. Cole.
Liberation of the Body vs. Liberation of the Mind
Cole's "Be Free," as well as a lot of his great commentary on "2014 Forest Hills Drive," is a visceral, emotional reaction to the unjust killings of Brown and others. It's power lies in the fact that it is a straight forward call for justice, for freedom from the kind of tyranny that results in dead minority kids and free police officers doing the killing. Cole is most concerned with a liberation of the body; of the freedom to live and breathe peacefully without getting shot by an agent of the system like Darren Wilson.
And Kendrick is concerned with this obvious travesty as well, as he echoes "tell em we don't die." However, he is concerned with much more: "we multiply" is a warning to the establishment, and to anyone who hopes that #BlackLivesMatter and the protests surrounding Ferguson will simply fade in to obscurity. In his new untitled song on Colbert, as well as on his stellar single "I," Kendrick speaks profoundly about the liberation of the mind, about changing and shaping the nation's consciousness as both a means and an end to ensure #BlackLivesMatter. Kendrick is worried about the rise in police brutality in the nation, but he wants more than safety for the black youth he speaks to: we wants genuine freedom, and speaks about shaking off the chains not only of violent oppression but of psychological oppression as well.
So Who Is a Better Rapper: Cole or Lamar?
By demonstrating a complexity far beyond what Cole puts forward, both as a lyrical complexity and a depth and nuance of message, Kendrick proves that he still deserves the crown. Despite not putting out a full album since 2012, Kendrick Lamar is still the realest rapper around, and is able to engage with the politics of rap in such an elegant and meaningful way that it will be hard for any other rapper to unseat him as long as his upcoming album meets the bar set by "I" and his new untitled track. Cole is a brilliant MC, and has a lot to say about Ferguson and police brutality, but he chooses to do so in a more direct and simplistic way. Where Cole delivers his message emotionally, Kendrick constructs a detailed and intellectual canvas that none the less isn't lacking for passion, and expertly handles the politics of rap and the social issues of the day. Kendrick Lamar has proven, yet again, that he is the realest MC putting out music, and the greatest rapper alive.
Do you agree?
Final Note: Support the Art!
If you like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole, or you were touched by any of the music that I linked to here, please support the artists. Kendrick and Cole represent something very positive and important for hip-hop and mainstream culture, and buying their music means you like what they have to say and want to see more rappers use the stage like these two do. So put your money where your mouth is.
© 2014 Cassidy Michael Kakin
Matija on May 28, 2019:
Kendrick is just better artist in general you have GKMC album that is literally like watching movie when listened to or whole TPAB which is one of deepest albums that i heard in my life
as for me cole is proving to be the Greatest!...u can listen to him until u're old enough that u cant stew...#Cole is Mature! on February 21, 2019:
Cole is the real deal King of mature rap...u wil bliv wit his nxt album!
victor on September 07, 2017:
Kendrick lamar is the best hip hop artist alive, j.cole is the best rapper alive.
Zacara Azubike on September 06, 2017:
j.cole is better and always will be
Hopes on June 03, 2017:
Both have a story to tell, not to mention their achievement for the first time in history of rap we have two rivals with the same amount of skills, one can challenge your life lyrical and one can challenge your existence, so I believe it goes either way,in addition I love both rappers.
michael on January 08, 2017:
Kendrick is a great rapper but j Cole is just a rapper you can easily relate to and understand the stories he writes about its like u can put yourself in the situation...
Kingdez98 on December 20, 2016:
J. Cole is real kendrick is real theybdo it different but i gotta go with cole. He doesnt thug it out he speaks to his fsns and do it fir his listeners. I have yet to hear from Kendrick but cole produced in 2014 and now in 2016. Much respect too both but jermaine is a head by one percentage they both are head to toe though. Like i said
Ruben on December 20, 2016:
Em is the best alive. Content is preference, skill is universal.
Truth Avalanche on December 03, 2016:
Other than Nas the realest is J. Cole
PV on August 23, 2016:
King Push kills all. Pusha T is one of the most underrated rappers in thge game, but his work is clearly more versatile and cohesive than kendrick's. He should one day be acknowledged as a great.
Jeff on July 28, 2015:
this was a great article, with well driven out points and arguments that were all well supported. I'd first like to start off saying Cole and Kendrick are by far my two favorite rappers, and I think they are both virtually equal in terms of skill as emcees. to me it comes down to personal preference and who you can relate to more and to me that is J Cole. I personally understand and agree with what Cole has to say more than I do with Kendrick, but don't get it twisted in any way I love kendricks work and think he could easily be considered the best but I think Cole has a slight edge. Honestly though, I just can't wait until they colas (if they are) because I think that will be the album that brings hip hop back
sam on April 29, 2015:
J. Cole is the greatest
Cassidy Michael Kakin (author) from San Jose, California on January 02, 2015:
^Kanye is amazing, and you make good points about his consistency in addressing oppression. But i honestly think Kendrick is a better rapper. Not the better artist overall; I have so much respect for Ye's production work and ability to craft stellar and cohesive albums, which he has done for his entire career. But to me, Kendrick is just a better MC. Just opinion though, like i said a convincing case could definitely be made for Ye along the guidelines I set out
Annemarie Musawale Simiyu from Kenya on January 02, 2015:
I love JCole, like seriously, and I have come to respect and appreciate Kendrick's craft. But...when it comes to being consistent about talking about freedom of consciousness and the oppression of the black man, as well as making phenomenal music with a message and being consistent; there is nobody that surpasses Kanye West. That man is the truth.
Onizuka-Sama on December 28, 2014:
Super Great article brother !
I think that we are witnessing a turning point in Hip-Hop, it was sleeping for years now. And with artists such as Kendrick, Cole, Joey badass, Big KRIT and many others, we have a new wave. So we should be proud of it and support it in all the ways we can.
As of your great comparison, I disagree in few points:
- Both are on top for me, in storytelling we can compare a 'Wet Dreams' (that was supposed to be on Sideline Story) to a 'Cut You Off'; things that people can easily relate to because of the level of the story teller. Plus, both believe in God and this is a huge point since it shapes the way they do music. We have songs like 'Faith' and 'Show Me Something'. In this whole case, both are untouchable.
- Cole seems more hot blooded and thus, more emotional while Kendrick is the opposite and reflect a little bit more. This why we have 'Be Free' that came out few days after Mike Brown's unjust death while this 'Untitled' came months later. But I think the point here which is super important is that Cole had to deal with something in his life with this album. This album is so special in a lot of different ways: look a the promotion for example. Cole came back to the REAL. While Kendrick already came down to earth since 'Control' (as an example, the line 'And I ain't rocking no more designer shit').
I think that if Cole had put the same amount of time that Kendrick did for the great 'untitled' song, we would had a similar song. And vice versa for 'Be Free'
- Cole looks more connected to his fan, as of now, just hit Twitter to see what's going on with him. Yes I agree with the fact that Hip-Hop is not social media. Even Kendrick admitted that he's not really good at it. But the point is that Kendrick seems more unreachable than Cole.
- We can put their mixtapes (I consider Section 80 as a mixtape now) on the same level even if The Warm Up was more freestyle.
- Good Kid Maad City is a classic / 2014 Forest Hill Drive can go for classic (and by the way both albums reached Gold, great news for Hip-Hop).
I just wanted to put a little bit more balance for J. Cole because he is one of the greatest alongside Kendrick Lamar. Okay he lost himself in the industry game and he even put out an incredible song like 'Let Nas Down' for it. Now he is back on some REAL ish and we are ready to witness something great for our culture and even see a collab with Kendrick.
(PS: Cole snatched the crown and destroyed it, both are kings haha.)
SA on December 25, 2014:
There is always a slight bias when it comes to these such a narrow set of rappers, in this case two rappers. At least we can agree Cole and Lamar run the rap game right now, and will be all time greats if they consistently put out albums like they have. I prefer J Cole, he explores much more different vibes, different rap styles, beats, hell he even did singing. Kendrick is known to the majority of the media for his hard verses, while J Cole is known for his intellectual and emotional messages. It is a matter of opinion, and in my opinion I just want them to the a collab man!
Good article by the way, as I said, it can go either way.
Cassidy Michael Kakin (author) from San Jose, California on December 24, 2014:
I love Ruck, but I don't think anything more recent of his is in the same league as GKMC. Just my opinion though; determining the "greatest alive," while fun, is ultimately subjective
carAnthony on December 24, 2014:
Best rapper alive? Really tho? Got tons of love for Kendrick & Cole but Sean Price, nuff said...
Cassidy Michael Kakin (author) from San Jose, California on December 20, 2014:
^how come? Where do you disagree with me?
duel on December 19, 2014:
J. Cole is the greatest.
Eslam yosef from Egypt on December 18, 2014:
well wrote hub, but i don't think Kendrick is the greatest rapper a live in the world, there is a lot of good rappers like him and maybe better and this don't mean he is a bad rapper, but not the greatest, "greatest word is too big for a singer to handle" but it's good thing if that one of his dreams that will make him do better and maybe one day he become the greatest in real, thank you.
Cassidy Michael Kakin (author) from San Jose, California on December 18, 2014:
^Thanks! Have you listened to section.80 and Overly Dedicated much? There is a lot of great preGKMC Kendrick to listen to, though I totally hear your point that it is past time for a new k.dot album
Salah G on December 18, 2014:
Great read, but disagree with you. Yet my bias deludes my judgement. The reason I'd go with J Cole is simply because he's put out more official material for me to appreciate. Been listening to GKMC for too long. Still, you justified your conclusion well. Enjoyed the "politics of rap" section.
Cassidy Michael Kakin (author) from San Jose, California on December 18, 2014:
^See my definition above. Em is great, and in the running for GOAT in my opinion, but the music he is putting out recently (both with MMLP2 and his new group LP) isn't as good as what either Kendrick or Cole have put out, especially when you look at the message and the politics of the rap.
Princess Talisaysay from Philippines on December 18, 2014:
Eminem is the best rapper alive!
Cassidy Michael Kakin (author) from San Jose, California on December 17, 2014:
I would define "greatest alive" as a rapper who is a. alive (duh) and b. CURRENTLY putting out the greatest material. You could define it as the greatest rapper living too, in which case I would have to elect Nas. Nas doesn't fit my first definition just based on his most recent music, which while good isn't as good as GKMC in my opinion. And I wouldn't call Kendrick the GOAT for a long time; that distinction means to me that an artists catalog has stood the test of time (B.I.G. maybe being my GOAT. or Nas again). But yeah, Kendrick greatest living AND making music currently imo
Sharp Points from Big Bear Lake, California on December 17, 2014:
Extremely well written hub. A+. I don't think Kendrick has put out enough material to be called the greatest alive, but I'm confident that over the next few years he will take the crown.