The King is back.
Hip-hop fans just may have heard that superstar rapper J Cole dropped a new album, KOD, last week on April 20, or 4/20 – a date whose numerical enunciation has become a euphemism for millions of weed smokers everywhere.
And you probably agree that there’s a certain amount of irony in the Fayetteville, North Carolina rapper choosing that date to release KOD, an album that is possibly the most pointed, cautionary sermon about the drug culture by any hip-hop artist in the 21st century.
And while critics debate whether KOD represents Cole’s best work, with its railings against various addictions (in addition to drugs, he also addresses money, social media, lust and infidelity), its tales of struggle and recovery and his fatherly rebuke of the new generation of SoundCloud rappers, one thing hasn’t been discussed, at least not ad nauseam, and that’s where this album places him in the pantheon of rappers overall.
When KOD and its various tracks make their official debuts on various Billboard charts this week, J Cole will move up on a number of lists and continue a legacy he began seven years ago with his début release, Cole World: The Sideline Story.
Cole World debuted at No. 1 in October 2011, and J Cole hasn’t looked back since. His next three studio albums also debuted at the top (Born Sinner in 2013, 2014 Forest Hills Drive in 2014, and 4 Your Eyes Only in 2016).
With KOD selling nearly 400,000 units (and breaking Drake’s first-day streaming records along the way) in its first week, it will be Cole’s fifth No. 1 studio album out of five tries, giving him a perfect batting average seven years into his career. Only one other rapper hit No. 1 with his first five albums, DMX (from 1998 to 2003).
But Cole’s five No. 1 albums also move him into a tie overall with a number of rap legends and place him just behind some of the (other) biggest names in the business. He’s now in the top ten list of rappers with the most No. 1 albums in chart history.
Here’s the list of rappers with the most No. 1 albums in history:
1. Jay-Z (fourteen)
2. Eminem (8)
3. Drake (7)
3. Kanye West (7)
5. Nas (6)
6. J Cole (5)
6. Future (5)
6. Rick Ross (5)
6. 2Pac (5)
6. DMX (5)
11. Kendrick Lamar (4)
11. Ludacris (4)
11. Beastie Boys (4)
14. Jeezy (3)
14. T.I. (3)
14. Lil Wayne (3)
14. The Game (3)
14. The Notorious B.I.G. (3)
See the complete list of all the No. 1 rap albums in chart history here.
As you can see, Cole is now tied with four other legendary rappers with five No. 1 albums each. Of those that are tied, 2Pac and DMX are inactive, and Ross hasn’t hit the top since 2014’s Mastermind album, leaving Future as Cole’s biggest challenger in that cluster.
Of those behind Cole on the list, the biggest challenger is obviously Kendrick Lamar with four No. 1 albums (including the recent Black Panther: The Album, for which he’s been credited as “curator”). Lamar, whose last solo studio album was the highly acclaimed (and recent Pulitzer Prize winning) DAMN., is due for another soon… at least that’s what we hope.
As for the five rappers above Cole on the list, all five have hit No. 1 with their latest releases. Jay-Z, Drake and Eminem padded their totals in the past 13 months, while Kanye’s last came in 2016 and Nas’ was in 2012.
Drake has officially announced his new album Scorpion scheduled for release in June (it’s already generated the current No. 1 single “Nice For What” and will likely include his biggest hit, “God’s Plan”). A No. 1 début is practically guaranteed and will move him into a tie with Eminem for second-most overall behind Jay-Z.
Likewise, Kanye tweeted the news this week that he has two new albums coming out – also in June. At least one of them should hit the top, provided he doesn’t limit it to Tidal availability and it doesn’t have to contend with Drake’s expected juggernaut. Recall, Kanye’s last album nearly missed No. 1 when it was given exclusively to Tidal. It wasn’t until he made The Life Of Pablo available on the other major streaming and download services that it achieved chart-topping status.
The chart battle setting up between Drake and Kanye in June will be interesting considering that if both of Kanye’s releases hit No. 1, that would catapult him above Drake on the list and in sole possession of second place with nine No. 1 albums.
Either way, it appears J Cole will have a tough uphill climb when it comes to ascending the list of rappers with the most No. 1 LPs. Given his slower release schedule, it’ll likely be late 2019 or beyond before we see a sixth album from him.
Age may also factor into this race.
J Cole is now 33 years old. And while that doesn’t make him ancient in hip-hop years (especially considering Jay-Z, 48, and Kanye, 40, are older and very much still in the mix), it certainly places him among the elder statesmen in hip-hop. If you don’t agree, just listen to “1985 (Intro to the Fall Off)” on KOD, as the rapper rails against an unnamed (eh hem, Lil Pump) member of rap’s younger (and apparently more disrespectful) SoundCloud generation.
Only a handful of rappers have hit No. 1 when they were older than Cole is now (Jay-Z, Kanye, Eminem, Nas, Rick Ross the most notable among them). The good news for Cole is that all of them are the ones he’s competing with on this list, and age clearly hasn’t deterred some of them from churning out the hits, which should bode well for J Cole and his followers who, like the rapper, are also aging.
J Cole and his fans can take comfort in that as well as the knowledge that KOD represents some of his biggest consumption numbers yet – five albums in.
They can also relish the fact that KOD is the latest in a string of J Cole albums NOT featuring other acts, something unheard of in the modern hip-hop era (and which J Cole boasts about on the album’s title track; sample lyric: “niggas ain’t worthy to be on my shit”).
In that way, he’s been labeled a lone wolf, a me-against-the-world isolationist whose only collaborations are the occasional appearances he makes on other people’s albums. Hell, the man still lives in North Carolina where he records his albums (when he’s not recording them overseas while touring).
In other words, J Cole is doing his thing his way and without help from others (notwithstanding his own pitched-down singing alter-ego kiLL Edward on the latest album).
And while he dabbles in a little self-indulgence on several of the album’s tracks and mocks trap music on others, KOD is as much a hit with the critics as it is with consumers.
Besides, how many other rappers can carry albums by themselves in this day and age and still get the numbers and respect Cole does?
Not many, if any.
And that alone should stand for something when it comes to determining who the real kings of hip-hop are.
J Cole is definitely among them… and rising.