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J. Cole Surveys His Empire on the Low-Stakes Mixtape ‘D-Day’

Earlier this year, a debate briefly flared on social media: where have the superstars gone? What happened to the days when Kendrick Lamar and Drake battled for global supremacy, Kanye West elicited praise from the likes of David Lynch, the Future Hive controlled rap Twitter, Lil Wayne was the best rapper alive, and Nicki Minaj commanded the Hot 100? With those “stadium status” acts largely past their imperial phases – perhaps the jury is out on Pulitzer Kenny, who has yet to issue a follow up to his 2017 album DAMN – the genre seems irrevocably atomized. Tyler, the Creator tours arenas without a radio hit. Cardi B earns millions while only releasing a song or two a year.

Still, even new-gen rappers like Lil Durk who equate doing numbers with millions of streams instead of iTunes and CD sales know that critical mass is important, no matter how elusive it may be. It’s why J Cole, a man who often gets treated like the Andy Murray of arena rap, spends the final track of D-Day: A Gangsta Grillz Mixtape reasserting his superiority. “Some people think I’m runnin’ in third, they threw the bronze at me/Behind Drake and (K) Dot, yeah them niggas is superstars to me,” he raps on “Heavens EP.” Cole admits he can seem awkward and distant, “keepin’ my kids away from the gaze of the public.” He’s made a career out of these conflicted feelings, delivering albums that teeter between disarming introspection and trad rap boasts, evoking the days of “O’Shea aiming a gun at your brain” without the rhetorical confidence Ice Cube wielded so freely. “I piss in the celebrity tea,” Cole claims…except when he needs appreciation like everyone else.

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“Heavens EP” is the most insightful track on D-Day: A Gangsta Grillz Mixtape, which was released in conjunction with the 2022 edition of the Dreamville Festival in Raleigh, North Carolina. The rest feels entertainingly low stakes. It kicks off “Stick,” an impressively charged cipher between Cole, J.I.D., Kenny Mason, and Sheck Wes. The horn fanfare is reminiscent of Cole’s “Middle Child” from the previous Dreamville comp, 2019’s Revenge of the Dreamers III. “Hand on my dick and hand on my gun/One is for shooting off and one is for fun,” J.I.D. rhymes. Meanwhile, DJ Drama sprinkles the track with automatic machine-gun fire, then lathers the first half of the tape with outrageously aggressive ad-libs. He uses Lute, Cozz and Omen’s “Starting 5” to crack wise about Will Smith’s Oscar slap. “Keep playing with Dreamville’s name. Don’t get Chris Rock’ed out your socks!” Drama bellows.

As for the rest, pick your pleasures. Ari Lennox sounds off on a bad boyfriend for the saucy “Coming Down,” then offers some icky sexual metaphors on “Blackberry Sap.” Earthgang and 2 Chainz join forces, leading to the disappointingly muted “Ghetto Gods Freestyle.” Cozz flows with palpable hunger on “Big Trouble Freestyle,” which is set to the beat from the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Who Shot Ya.” As a prospect who hasn’t quite made an impact yet, Cozz sounds eager to make the most of D-Day; that same workmanlike energy enlivens “Starting 5.” But in the end, D-Day is more content for the Dreamville metaverse, the kind of project on which empires are sustained but not won.

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