A series of cryptic Instagram posts from J. Cole on Jan. 21 brewed the hype for a new single. Two days later, Cole dropped “Middle Child,” a reflective track on his place in hip hop, caught somewhere between 21 Savage and Jay-Z.
Cole has long been considered a middle child of sorts, both in hip-hop circles and to critics. Compared to his peers, he’s not quite as grandiose or artistic as Kendrick Lamar, nor as energetic or entertaining as Big Sean. That hasn’t stopped him from going toe-to-toe with both in record sales and mainstream popularity. However, Cole wants respect from more than just the mainstream. On “Middle Child,” he makes a bold assertion to his doubters: “This year gon’be different, I set my intentions / I promise to slap all that hate out your voice.”
Unfortunately, it’ll take more to prove that claim than what “Middle Child” offers. Cole raps with the “lazy Drake” triplet flow, but Cole credits the OGs who pioneered this sound as his influences, like Freestyle Fellowship, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony and Lord Infamous (“I copied your cadence, I mirrored your style”). This rhythm feels odd paired with Cole’s understated delivery on the track. The song would have had a much more powerful progression if Cole introduced the flow later on and with a harder delivery, like in Chance the Rapper’s Ultralight Beam verse. The hook is also in the vein of his rap-game peer Travis Scott, though Cole’s singing doesn’t hit the mark. Finally, the lyrics on the hook are laughably generic — typical fare for J. Cole.
Despite its shortcomings, “Middle Child” is still a step in the right direction. It’s as catchy as any J. Cole song, and the horns on the beat bring energy to the track. The production and flow may be typical, but the sound is still infectious. Cole cuts out all the cornball lines he’s known for, which is refreshing on a track touching on a topic as serious as violence and mass incarceration in the Black community. In a clever reference to the style championed by his “younger brothers” of hip hop, Cole layers autotune only in his second verse. His direct and literal lyrical style works to his benefit here — it feels genuine in a song that challenges the authenticity of beef in hip hop today.
“Middle Child” is Cole’s promise to end his divisiveness among hip-hop fans in 2019. He doesn’t need anyone’s approval: After all, Cole goes double-platinum with no marketing. But he wants a legacy, not sales. Will Cole step up to the plate this year? It’s too soon to tell.