J. Cole's Middle Child Syndrome

Maligned by critics and fans alike, "Grippy" is the greatest test yet to the 39-year-old's self-defined role as a bridge between generations.

J. Cole's Middle Child Syndrome
Illustration by Christian Arnder © 2024

The late poet and critic Malcolm Cowley believed a new generation was not simply a matter of time or dates. Rather than something that naturally and cyclically occurred every 20 or 30 years, he viewed generations as a result of writers, of the same age, joining in revolt against their forefathers — and in doing so, adopting new lifestyles, and finding their own role models and spokespeople.

Cowley was referring to literary movements, but his statement resonates with the current state of music and how innovative eras and stylistic evolution only come after a tribe of newcomers break through together as if their destinies were intertwined. It’s happening now: the burst of faces never seen, names yet to be known, voices on the verge of being heard, but give it time — they’ll soon be the trailblazers pushing out the old guard and aging the once-youthful faces.

Losing one's youth is a gradual process, so slow the results won’t appear overnight. They will arrive though. Some are prepared, some are surprised, but in today’s time, in which it seems that generations are once again beginning to overlap, what aging looks like takes on many forms.

Consider "Grippy" — rap luminary J. Cole's recent attempt at a remix of “Dunk Contest” by Cash Cobain. Cobain’s star has risen significantly over the last 38 months. His innovative, sample-driven take on New York drill music has created a unique cocktail of provocative swag, seductive melodies, and extremely horny, Casanovist raps. His ability to play the dual roles of infectious vocalist and inventive producer has allowed the prolific 26-year-old Bronx native to cement his place in modern hip-hop through an easily recognizable and undeniably catchy style of rap full of youthful desires and a sound that's constantly pushed to uncharted, lust-filled dimensions.

Cole’s unexpected appearance on “Grippy” is his shot at adopting those same idiosyncratic trademarks. Humming, flowing, and even soaking his usually nimble voice in a syrupy Autotune like Cobain would, Cole luridly muses about a woman who shares a nickname with the song title. The outcome isn’t one of the cleverest, standard-setting raps in his catalog, and has been widely panned online for the way the North Carolina flag-bearer, for all his talents and accomplishments, seemingly misstepped into a world that doesn’t feel like a natural fit.

The opinion on Cole online and offline has always been a fluctuating mixed bag of hardcore fan support and displeased critical analysis. Elusive moments of universal acclaim come and go, but in this instance, the sour reception around “Grippy” has brought more doubt than demand for more. 

What resonated with me wasn’t the verse itself, but the symbolism. This is a much bigger artist, in what some may see as a calculated move in pursuit of relevance, trying on the clothes of a new emperor on the scene. Cole wore the Cobain-tailored cloth without shame, and although most found him to look like a tacky trend-seeker, the truth is that aligning with new artists has been his consistent role ever since the release of “Middle Child" in 2019.

Released five days before J. Cole’s 34th birthday, the generationally minded, T-Minus-produced single was the beginning of a reinvention. Instead of becoming specifically age-conscious, there was a greater awareness of the passage of time between his era and the next. Instead of retiring and leaving the game like the famous rapper who signed him, Cole actively embraced the artists who were emerging through his feature verses and Dreamville’s massive Revenge of the Dreamers III compilation album.

This alignment between emerging stars, living legends, and underground kings allowed Cole to age like a bridge builder rather than a road hog. Plus, his doubling down on the fundamentals of rapping — not just as a form of songwriting, but as a skill unto itself — saw him maneuvering comfortably amidst a diverse, rotating cast of characters spanning from Lil Durk, 21 Savage and Lil Yachty, to Cam’ron, Gucci Mane and Benny The Butcher, to Future, Bia and Lil Tjay. He’s mostly played to his strengths, and in doing so, kept a solid footing amongst peers both past and present as rap has moved from the golden age of blogs and SoundCloud links to the modern era of Apple playlists and Spotify streams.  

Now, the self-proclaimed "middle child" has reached a point where the middle has moved.

Why, then, does “Grippy” sound like a hiccup from someone normally so well-versed in weaving between soundscapes and timelines? I hear an artist out of their comfort zone. At his age, a year away from 40, trying something new and youthful can have awkward results. Remember Jay-Z’s verse on “Swagger Like Us?” Did it not sound like he was attempting to keep up with Lil Wayne and Kanye?

Jay-Z had a period when he was funny about aging. His attempt to promote 30 as the new 20 was a stubborn effort at reinventing the status of being the “old” rapper. Then, in 2009, the Mr. Hudson-featured “Young Forever” tried to erase age as a concept entirely in favor of eternal youth. It’s a fascinating outro on the same album that features “D.O.A. (Death Of Auto-Tune),” a verbal assassination attempt on the very tool being used by rappers then on the rise.   

The subject matter reveals Jay to be someone who knew the perks of aging but loathed the idea of being old or having to re-learn everything young and new. His saving grace was an embrace of the next generation: The Blueprint 3 features Drake, Kid Cudi, and the first rap signee to his Roc Nation label — J. Cole.

Cole was 24, freshly removed from college dorms, and quietly finding his footing in a new school of rap discovered through bloggers and social media. It was a time of swift, drastic change. By the time Cole reached the age at which Jay had first retired, a decade removed from his 2009 mixtape, The Warm Up, he had ascended to a status achieved by few and sought by many. His albums were platinum, even the ones without features. His raps were beloved, even if not all critics viewed him as an astounding emcee. He had survived all the changes that many artists couldn’t manage, and Cole saw himself standing between the industry that was, and the industry that blossomed after his arrival.

Now, the self-proclaimed "middle child" has reached a point where the middle has moved. He is no longer new. His youth isn’t what it used to be, and a new generation is on his heels. Where will he land? Will he continue to explore the transforming landscape, or is it better to remain safe, pursuing only what’s comfortable and less risky? In the aftermath of Kendrick vs. Drake, the question of who these three artists are and who they are becoming looms over every release.

As for Cole, a telling line appears on the most ruminative song from his recent Might Delete Later album, "Trae The Truth in Ibiza,": “Done tryna to be perfect, that shit is exhausting." It’s a lyric that reflects a difficult-to-maintain perspective when it comes to art: that it’s useless to seek validation from those with expectations that can never be satisfied. Self-satisfaction has to come first — other opinions aren’t as valid.

Although “Grippy” may be simply a cringe moment to many, it’s satisfying to hear an artist age through this ever-changing industry and look a little foolish paying homage to what’s fun, fresh, and original rather than shooting down and shunning a newcomer who is working to do as he did.

May we all welcome the next generation with open arms — especially while we're still able to reach them.

Yoh Phillips has written for DJ Booth, Rolling Stone, and more, and is cofounder and co-writer for the documentary film studio Rap Portraits. You can find him in the A.