For those who aren’t obsessed with the minutiae of the Billboard charts: This week, Drake officially tied Michael Jackson for most Hot 100 No. 1 songs, thanks to his new track “First Person Shooter,” a song reportedly recorded days ago, on the night of October 5, in which he boasts about being “one away from Michael.”
We can debate the merits of those 13 Drake songs and the calculation disarray wrought by streaming another day. More important right now is what this means for J. Cole, who’s also featured on “First Person Shooter,” and has thereby netted his first ever No. 1 record. It’s both the perfect cap to the run the North Carolina rapper has been on for the past few years—his most active and critically acclaimed period yet—and the perfect launching pad for the next phase of his career.
Cole’s been dropping scene-stealing guest verses left and right for the last few years, in what started as a rebuke to the ongoing joke that he was allergic to collaboration—remember “platinum with no features”?—and has since morphed into an ongoing project of declaration. As Cole mentions in “First Person Shooter,” he, Drake and Kendrick Lamar are a triumvirate of success from the 2010s, a reign no one in subsequent rap classes has meaningfully challenged. Kendrick and Drake are the only rappers alive to whom Cole’s achievements pale in comparison, but in place of Pulitzers or chart dominance, Cole’s been keeping up pace with a steady diet of minimum 16-bar verses all written with the mission to remind everyone why his name belongs in The Conversation——instead of one, world-stopping “Control” verse, a series of potent micro-agressions. The pairings have been just as exciting as the verses themselves—boom-bap purism with Benny the Butcher, somehow pulling off a verse in a cheeky London accent alongside Bia, left-field link-ups with Young Thug and Travis Scott. (A new personal favorite: an even further left-field collab with Lil Yachty from a few weeks ago, “The Secret Recipe”.)
It feels right that the feature that’s paid Cole the most dividends to date and notched him a new career milestone is on a song by a fellow Big Three member. Drake and Cole broke into the mainstream around the same time, and since then their careers have been inextricably linked; their static-free friendship continues to defy a weird narrative that seemed intent on positioning them as conflicting forces in rap—from the 2010 memes that likened them to a new class Jay and Nas to the assumption 10 years later that, as Cole debunked on his 2019 single “Middle Child,” “two legends cannot co-exist.”
Despite the bromance, Cole doesn’t take his foot off the gas pedal for his buddy. The pair haven’t released a track together in 10 years; 2013’s “Jodeci Freestyle” was a laid-back loosie and before that there was “In the Morning,” a mixtape-turned-album cut for the ladies. This is their first real chest-thumping bar-fest, and Cole rises to the occasion. It’s one thing to show up 21 Savage; it’s a given that Cole would have the most rewind-worthy lines against Yachty. Next to Drake, he still has something to prove, or at least assert, and he doesn’t waste any time making the subtext plain: “Love when they argue the hardest MC/Is it K-Dot, is it Aubrey, or me? We the big three like we started a league, but right now, I feel like Muhammad Ali.” By the time he starts actually bobbing and weaving in the booth, it’s clear he’s fully run away with the track and that’s before he switches flows. It’s a masterclass in respectful but blatant one-upmanship, as broken down with hilarious theatrics on the Joe Budden Podcast (in a segment that surely pissed Drake off.)
Cole has become more successful than day-one fans such as myself could have reasonably predicted, with his own festival and label, and a sizable loyal fanbase that shows up for every album and ensuing arena tour. We’re a far cry from the days of him having to frontload an album with a “radio” single to ensure its success. But the last three years especially—though Cole faithful would date this feature run back to Jeezy’s 2017 track “American Dream”—have seen a renewed sense of focus and energy, and a desire to level up even as he raps about how fans may never give him a medal higher than bronze.
To be clear, “First Person Shooter” doesn’t cap the J. Cole Classic Verse project. He still hasn’t had one such song with Kendrick, which feels like the last major missing piece to his mission. (Though a decade later, a CDQ of this would still be nice.) But I’d love to see him square off with Jay-Z, who gave him a breakout verse slot on 2009’s Blueprint 3 and contributed a requisite feature on Cole’s 2011 debut album; both fine songs but poppier tracks than you’d want to hear those two on. (“Mr Nice Watch” is understandably but unfairly maligned, but features a deceptively simple 16 from Jay.)
But garnering his first No. 1 in the midst of his showiest guest-verse run to date is the perfect springboard for Cole to fully shift into Album Mode and swing the Big Three conversation his way once and for all. Even before his last album—which already featured some career-best work—he’d started setting the stage for a project called The Fall Off, the grand statement magnum opus he’s been taking his time with but dying to deliver. There’s no release date at press time, but when it finally arrives it might be a watershed moment—and we’ll look back on this period as the harbinger.