We all love to see our favorite rappers at the top of their game and enter the lyrical ring if the moment calls for it. The “battle” is the essence of what hip-hop is built upon, and it wasn’t like we were going to see the likes of J. Cole, Drake, and Kendrick Lamar take things beyond the realm of the studio. The investment came to see the top dogs go line-for-line to see who can ultimately call themselves number one. That’s why Cole’s verse on “First Person Shooter” was so exciting to hear. It was his flag plant of his territory, one that was built off a tremendous features run and heading into his highly anticipated album, ‘The Fall Off. ‘ 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.

(not to mention the “Steppers” line that would soon after referring to Lamar’s latest album)

We were off to the races. Then, on Future and Metro Boomin’s joint album, ‘We Don’t Trust You,’ Lamar would respond with “Like That.” You can make the argument that the verse was more geared towards Drake than J. Cole himself, but the “f*ck the big three, it’s just big me” line made it clear that K. Dot had a difference of opinion on the order (or the need for one).

Bet. We were left to see who would respond first. Was it going to be Drake who caught the most direct shots from “Like That,” or was it Cole who had the moment to cement himself as the top bill? Enter last Friday and his surprise mixtape ‘I’ll Delete This Later’ (man, what a name thinking about what happened). Immediately, friends and I searched for a response record (skimming a project is a bad habit in the streaming era), and everybody turned their attention to the last track, “7 Minute Drill.” It’s the equivalent of the beginning of a boxing match when both fighters throw jabs to feel each other out. Cole’s main argument was that Lamar takes an abnormally long time to release music, and his albums 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly put “people to sleep” and 2022’s Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers was a letdown. Interestingly, the boring critique followed Cole around as well. He flips this back on Lamar because while TPAB and Mr. Morale might not be tangible to some people, it seemed like an argument that could be flipped back later. Either way, I was happy that Cole replied, and the collective awaited the subsequent response in what we hoped would be a legendary battle. 

Not even 48 hours later, at Dreamville Festival, Cole recanted the diss track and apologized for it. Again, I didn’t think the “your music was boring” thesis was enough to break a friendship. I would guess that K Dot would see that this was all in love of the sport. We all hoped that any response would have a little more to say. Cole would say “7 Minute Drill” didn’t feel right in his spirit, and honestly, that’s brave enough for him to admit that. You can’t hear it now (unless you ripped it or perhaps on YouTube), but if you listen to “7 Minute Drill,” it didn’t sound like a person fully invested in going at his friend and rap peer that way. I agree not to engage in it if that’s not in your heart. It wouldn’t have hurt him if he dropped the song and said nothing. Even if he “objectively” lost in a battle with Drake or Kendrick, it wouldn’t look as bad as bowing out prematurely. In the aftermath of Jay-Z and Nas’s battle, nobody questions Jay-Z’s status as arguably the greatest rapper ever to grace a mic — even though there’s a thought that “Either” was the track that beat him. We don’t think of Michael Jordan any less because he got crossed up by Allen Iverson. Cole’s status as one of the top rappers in the game would have continued. But it calls into question the build-up to what would have been a monumental event for the art form and a potential legend moment for himself. 

Maybe he saw how things would go and decided he just wanted no part of it. As this past Saturday shows, it’s Drake vs. everybody. Rick Ross has assumed the role of the jokester coming at Drake for alleged plastic surgery as we await the eventual return serve from K Dot. It’s the battle of the two remaining combatants on the top of the mountain, but there will always be a sinking feeling wondering if Cole regrets bowing out of this moment to stake his claim.

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