J. Cole is blessed with an old-school mindset and is seen by many as a throwback to yesteryear’s rap icon. Cole stands out in a pool of SoundCloud rappers, championing content and lyrics over pure ‘vibe’. The influence of countless rappers can be felt in his work but the inspirational figure of Nas is a shadow that looms largest over his canon. Cole is also a confessed fan, having once picked out his favourite album from the New Yorker.
The North Carolina rapper, Cole, chooses to leave trends at the door and admirably and freely creates the only way he knows how, speaking his truth and knowing his craft. It’s a mindset that has rewarded him richly and made him one of the most prominent figures in the rap game right now.
His most recent album, The Off Season, marked Cole’s return after three years away, and he didn’t miss a beat. Hip Hop Hero’s review of the album said: “There isn’t much to dislike about the record. In fact, the only thing I can pick out that turns me off the LP is that it is too short, but, in truth, even that would be harsh criticism. The reality is that the album is 12 rounds of potent and pure unbridled artistry.
“Like watching Muhammad Ali dance his way across the ring, guiding himself around the vicious world in front of him, delivering bloody noses and fat lips at will and never truly settling in one place except greatness.”
Hip hop has been a mainstay in Cole’s life since childhood, but he didn’t discover Nas until he got a little bit older, and as soon as he heard Illmatic, suddenly everything made sense. “When this album dropped I had to be nine, so I give myself a pass for missing out on this at first,” the rapper told Complex a few years ago.
He added, “It wasn’t until my cousin forced me to listen to ‘I Gave You Power’ off of It Was Written that I realised Nas was one of the greatest, and I had some homework to do! Illmatic is one of those albums that demonstrates the highest level of lyricism possible.”
In 2013, Cole released the track, ‘Let Nas Down’, in the wake of discovering Nas’ hated, ‘Work Out’, which understandably bummed him out. Finding out one of his favourite artists didn’t dig his stuff hurt him, and it felt like a kick in the teeth to Cole, who worshipped the ground that Nas walked on. However, in a turn of fate, he eventually won Nas around when the Illmatic man named him one of his favourite modern rappers in 2016.
Cole is no anomaly in having Illmatic listed as one of his favourite albums of all time, and if there’s a rapper out there who fails to get a shot of inspiration from Nas’ magnum opus, then they should make themselves known.
It sits firmly on the Mount Rushmore of seminal hip hop albums, and the magnitude of its greatness enhances even further when you realise that Nas was just 21 when he created it.
Listen below to J Cole’s favourite Nas album, Illmatic