J. Cole is no stranger to hype. The North Carolina-based rapper has reached contemporary artistry’s upper echelon, where a single tweet about a forthcoming project sends the music world into a frenzy. Sure enough, J. Cole accomplished this on Monday, as he announced the arrival of his next album, “KOD,” which released just after midnight today, April 20.
For all his accolades, there is no sign that Mr. Cole has grown weary of dramatic preludes, which extend beyond mere music: they also have a place in sports. To ring in the NBA Playoffs, J. Cole narrated the annual pregame hype video that airs before the first game. And, well, he whetted everyone’s appetites for the next two months of hoops.
Against a bone-chilling beat, J. Cole unleashes a fury of rhymes that encapsulate the NBA season and elucidate the sport’s popular narratives. Each lyric matches up with its subject on video, starting with, “it’s gold at stake for Golden State/how much weight can The King’s shoulders take?” which coincides with a smooth transition from the Warriors’ Kevin Durant to the Cavs’ Lebron James. “Boys become men when postseasons begin” leads into images of a star-studded rookie class of Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, and Ben Simmons, while Karl-Anthony Towns and the No. 8 seed Timberwolves are serenaded with “those who got there by the skin of they teeth.”
Cole’s flair for the moment is on display here: he lingers on the last words in the lines “the bottom’s full of Wolves and they thirsty for blood/The mission is to catch somebody slipping above.” Perhaps he slips in an allusion to his own career, which has featured a rapid ascent in a field known for being cutthroat. Ascent against criticism is a consistent theme throughout J. Cole’s monologue, as he illustrates with, “but numbers don’t lie”, I’ve heard them say it at times/’Cream rises to the top’, is a favorite of mine,” while a shot of James Harden and Chris Paul transitions to one of Damian Lillard. Lillard, in particular, has made a name for himself with the Portland Trail Blazers as a superstar who consistently flies under the radar, a frequent characterization of J. Cole as well. Dolla Dame is also a capable rapper, as he has shown on a few occasions.
Cole saves his best for the next rhyme, rapping, “and the cream of this crop you know is impressive/But to quote the boy Hov, “Gotta finish your breakfast.” Cole halts in between “Hov” and “Gotta,” which perfectly coincides with James Harden’s deadly crossover on a defender, pause, and stare-down, before draining a three over the hapless player. The rest of the video features appearances from injured Celtics’ guard Kyrie Irving, Bucks’ phenom Giannis Antetokounmpo and, finally, Lebron James to end the performance.
The most notable aspect of J. Cole’s contribution to the NBA’s yearly pump-up is neither his creative rhymes nor his mellow voice: it’s his attention to detail and the way he weaves his own narrative into the stories of NBA players. Each player description and each team analysis is done not with X’s and O’s, but rather with succinct wordplay that frames the season’s journey as an epic. While eminently talented, Cole’s style lays in stark contrast to the rap music that comprises Billboard’s top hits, and has received criticism from listeners who poke fun at his verbiage or delivery. Yet, for all the (possibly valid) disparagement of Cole, it is difficult to argue that any other artist could pull off this narration. Plug in a more aggressive rapper, and you might end up with an overstated soliloquy. With a full-on crooner narrating, the NBA Playoffs would sound like a picnic instead of a battle. J Cole’s performance provided the healthy, appropriate medium.
Will Lebron James narrate the Fayetteville, NC product’s new album drop or star in its music videos? Perhaps not, but if J. Cole has shown us anything with his voice-over, it is that the marriage between basketball and hip-hop is alive and well. While it may be imprudent to suggest that basketball players make a career transition to rap, particularly following the failures of countless stars, we should anticipate an NBA to hip-hop crossover as lethal as James Harden’s in the near future. And when it arrives, we can play J. Cole one more time to remind ourselves of the perfect harmony between the two industries. Deja Vu, anyone?