Song Of The Week: “7 Minute Drill” - J. Cole

The Dreamville leader's attempt at fiery, pre-festival fireworks pulls punches and leaves numerous opportunities on the table.

Song Of The Week: “7 Minute Drill” - J. Cole

Given the loosely-defined, ever-evolving nature of what Super Empty currently is, I’ve gotten questions in recent weeks about whether this “Song of the Week” column was going to be defined more by cultural relevance, or by quality and subjective endorsement. Would it solely be a place to promote great new music, or would there be the occasional North Carolina-based release so big that, despite deserving little in the way of praise, simply needed to be covered? Today, with J. Cole’s release of “7 Minute Drill” — the final track on a 12-song surprise album (mixtape?), released on the doorstep of Dreamville Festival — we may have our first resounding example of the latter.

That's because, for all the colorful back-and-forth debates it's sure to prompt between the dogmatic fan bases of Cole and Kendrick Lamar, the unfortunate fact about Cole's response to last week's "Like That" diss record is that it would've been perfectly OK if it were never released.

From the outset, the song's title seems to reference the timed writing exercises that Cole has reportedly challenged himself and other teammates with over the years — to get out of one's head and just get words on paper. As the kind of activity that conveys a “not worth my time” brush-off, like a mentor to an apprentice, it’s a strange tactic to see deployed here, in response to arguably the greatest rapper of a generation. Taking aim at your most powerful peer, maybe you want to take… a full hour? An afternoon? Writing to a shot clock leads in some less-than-inspired directions, but worse is the tepid, built-in caveat that it provides, putting a preemptive defense against valid criticism right in its title: “Sure, it’s not the best diss ever, but hey, he wrote it in seven minutes!” The implicit suggestion that Kendrick Lamar’s diss wasn’t worth more than seven minutes of Cole’s time, and yet was important enough that it demanded tacking an extra song onto an already full Might Delete Later tracklist, is telling of the lack of conviction that surrounds “7 Minute.” For a song that so transparently declares itself essentially a workout session, it’s fair to wonder whether the listening public needed to hear it at all.

But let’s assume that it did. That Dreamville Festival and everything else of import this weekend — NC State’s Final Four games included — could simply not go on until the world had gotten a “Like That” response from J. Cole. How does one go about viciously tearing apart a person they so obviously like and respect, as Cole has made clear about Lamar throughout his entire career (and even reaffirms repeatedly on this song)? With such a dearth of material of actual merit to wield against Lamar — to say someone “fell off” who bests you in both streaming numbers and critical acclaim is an extreme form of desperation — wouldn’t a reaction of unbothered, almost distanced bemusement be better than concocting a thin veneer of contempt? Or if not better, at least more honest? Instead, we’re left with plainly bogus claims about Lamar’s discography. Are we really supposed to believe that J. Cole thinks To Pimp A Butterfly was bad?

From Cole’s peaceful, laidback real-life demeanor to the fact that he was only obliquely targeted on Lamar’s “Like That” in the first place, it would make perfect sense to instead take a page out of what made “False Prophets” so satisfying, and look upon the present moment, and Kendrick’s diss, more with jaded disappointment than performative disdain. Why not turn it back around, and instead of offering up barbs that listeners aren’t sure you mean, question whether Lamar even means his? Instead, engulfed in his own recent obsession with legacy-building and crown-snatching, he takes the battle bait and attempts to breathe fire into trite boasts and cheap gags, most of which die on the vine. 

Most maddening of all is Cole's failure to feast on the one silver platter this whole fracas offered him — the chance to definitively break away from his recent over-affiliation with Drake, and reassert himself as his own man. For all the times that Cole has said he alone is the best to ever do it, it’s staggering to see him be dissed as half of a duo, and passively relinquish the opportunity for a “it’s just Big Me” moment of his own. Rather than a demonstration of individual strength, talking only about Lamar while Drake idly watches from his corner has the inverse and unintended consequence of making Cole look like a water-carrying foot soldier.

No doubt intended as a showstopper and authoritative statement heading into Dreamville weekend, "7 Minute Drill" — despite some genuine moments of interest — feels more like a question mark, and its author like an artist in need of some grass and some fresh air. Thankfully, in the wide open fields of Dorothea Dix Park in Raleigh this weekend, there will be plenty of both to go around.


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