TAKE #28: how do we define an artist’s best project???

While I was on my mini hiatus, J. Cole dropped his newest project, The Off-Season (2021), a 12 track album with features from folks like 6LACK, Bas, 21 Savage, and Lil Baby. Despite the annoying typography of the tracklist – I still haven’t been able to ask my Google Assistant to play a song from this album without her getting stressed out – it’s a well-made, well-produced project. But an article I read around the time the album came out (don’t remember where I read it :/ ) had me thinking: is this Cole’s best project? How is an artist’s best project picked? 

My immediate answer, when thinking on the first question in the shower one day, was no. Of course, this isn’t Cole’s best project. The Off-Season doesn’t feel quintessentially Jermaine Cole to me. Anyone who has spent any significant amount of time listening to J. Cole has a good idea of what to expect when we hear a project from him. That’s how producers make all of those “type beats.” These producers tap into those characteristic sounds and musical flows of an artist – like on this J. Cole type beat from Yondo Beats – and create something that sounds like that artist could start flowing on the track at any moment. And that’s a unique part of the music listening experience – being able to pick up on the pulse of an artist and hear that throughout their entire discographies. And The Off-Season isn’t missing that pulse entirely; there are songs like “h u n g e r . o n . h i l l s i d e” and “l e t . g o . m y . h a n d” where that pulse takes centerstage. But as a whole, this project sounds different than what I feel like we typically get from Cole.

more cole more cole more cole

Week Fulla Dreamville – My Favorite’s of All Time #13: J.Cole’s ‘2014 Forest Hills Drive’

UMMMMM. So I don’t know WHAT happened yesterday. I had every intention to write this, but for some reason I was watching All Def’s videos instead LOL. And then there was a bunch of excitement later on (cable company came to set up the internet because we’ve been living recklessly, I made dinner) that I … Continue reading Week Fulla Dreamville – My Favorite’s of All Time #13: J.Cole’s ‘2014 Forest Hills Drive’

There’s a nostalgic quality that has always existed in Cole’s music, a sound that feels necessarily reflective and requires a level of contemplation from the listener. Songs like “Once an Addict” from KOD (2018), “Apparently” from 2014 Forest Hills Drive (2014) (really, the majority of the songs from that album), “Born Sinner” from Born Sinner (2013), and “Enchanted” from Friday Night Lights (2010) feel familiar and easy to slip our own moments into. And that’s been the appeal of Cole’s music to me since I started listening to him in high school. And throughout Cole’s discography, that nostalgia has been the backbone of his projects; he’s required pondering from his audience. But on Off-Season, Cole replaces the nostalgia with the contemporary. The album acts as Cole’s moment to remind us that no matter how long he’s been in the game, he can still step into something fresh; he still has it. The album is braggadocious in all the right ways, and it works because he’s not wrong. He is one of the best and has continued to prove that over and over again.

That’s why I gotta flex sometimes
‘Cause niggas just try to act like you just not that motherfuckin’ nigga, like
Like you just really don’t do it how you do it
Like niggas will really try to act like you don’t do what you do
Nigga look you dead in your face
And really act like you don’t do it to the level that you do it
That’s why sometimes you gotta come through and just do it at the level that you do it in front of every nigga face
So they know the difference between you, the real niggas, and the mothafuckin’ fraudulent niggas

J. Cole, “a p p l y i n g . p r e s s u r e” (via Genius)

And while it’s definitely not at the top of my list of favorite Cole projects, I can recognize the energy that this project has. And that’s why this project was the genesis of a weeks-log back and forth that I’ve had in my head about whether or not this can be Cole’s best. Should an artist’s best work be the one that feels like a conglomeration of what we’d expect from them? If the answer to this question is “yes,” then The Off-Season feels like it’s out of the running, where a project like 2014 Forest Hills Drive feels more true to this idea. BUT (and it’s a big one), I’ve always maintained (well…since seeing Tyler the Creator’s interview with Funk Flex a couple years ago) that an artist’s best work is one that recognizes where they are at the present moment. An artist is at their creative best when they’re able to pull from what’s happening to and around them now, allowing the work to be a part of the current conversation (and maybe even a way to find answers and clarity to contemporary questions and issues). This creates a situation where that artist is always reinventing (a part of) themselves. And it took me to lean further into the creative products of Tyler and The Weeknd to really understand how important that is.

There are many MANY times where (in the past) I’ve wanted The Weeknd to give us Trilogy (2012) Part II; I wanted the mysterious, brooding, late-night, sleepy-eyed Weeknd that we got with House of Balloons (2011), Thursday (2011), and Echoes of Silence (2011) because that’s where I first met The Weeknd’s music. Even when there was speculation about there being some Trilogy-sounding tracks on After Hours (2021) before its release, I was super excited to enter into that world again. To me, that’s where Weeknd was at his best. Now, I can confidently say that I like After Hours almost as much as I like Trilogy, if not more. And I don’t think it’s a bad thing to want to feel the way you felt when you first heard someone’s music. It’s a really special moment that we have with an artist’s creative product that’s truly once in a lifetime – at least with that artist. But to have the expectation that they’re going to make the same thing over and over again is unfair and devalues the work that they put in. Artists are creatives by nature (if they take the art seriously enough), and being able to stretch their creative wings is a necessary part of the craft. 

So we finally reach the question. How do we choose an artist’s best project? And my answer is….I don’t know lol. But what is important to consider in that conversation is creative growth and an artist’s agency. I talked last week about how Culture III (2021) didn’t give me the creative growth I was looking for from the Migos at this point in their careers. So in a situation like that, I think it’s alright to (while still being open-minded) look to older projects for the top rank. But if an artist, like Cole, the Weeknd, or Tyler, is continuing to push their creative boundaries and give us something new on every project, those new projects shouldn’t be discounted just because they aren’t what we expected. And really, as long as we recognize that our opinions on what an artist does with their art matters a lot less than we think it does, none of this really matters in the first place 🙂 An artist makes for themselves (read: should make for themselves) not us, so our ideas of “best” and “worst” have little bearing.

here’s something else you might like…

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