(Ed. Note: Valentino introduced me to Solomon Hillfleet and recommended him to me. I’m always about showcasing new talents–or slightly-unknown ones–to the world. His first post on SOTB is an editorial about two polar opposites in modern rap coming together to make beautiful music and moving mountains)
Since rap’s inception, rap duos have always played an important role in the culture, starting with the DJ and then the rapper From Eric B and Rakim, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince to GangStarr, the DJ and rapper template fit and worked. Over time, the genre changed and rap duos became emcee-oriented, from OutKast to Blackstar all the way to Little Brother and Earthgang.
In the last two years, there has been one particular rap duo whose unofficial partnership has given the rap game great gems, and that’s the one between J. Cole and 21 Savage. Both rappers earned their first Grammy together (for their work on “a lot”). After that, they, in 2021, created one of the most-popular songs of the year. Their partnership represents a changing generational shift of rappers in their prime, partnering with slightly-younger leaders to produce impactful music.
In the 1990s, an influx of rap duos came on the scene like Mobb Deep, Black Sheep, Das EFX, OutKast, and others who deviated from the model of producer (or DJ) and emcee. As impactful as all these groups were, their content often reflected their counterpart, rather than blending together. In fact, their ability to reflect the other’s content on songs determined their success. Being able to compliment your partner’s music allowed all the aforementioned groups the ability to make music beyond their time, but didn’t per se represent two contrasting styles merging. For example, Raekwon’s classic album Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, for all of its acclaim, doesn’t showcase two completely different genres coming together as one. It changed the aesthetic of rap, but both emcees occupied a similar lane with their music.
That’s what makes the pairing of J. Cole and 21 so impactful. It is the backpacker’s dream–or nightmare–come true.
This record served as his first number 1 on the Billboard R&B Top 100. Cole’s stardom isn’t a question; he is one. However, it’s more than interesting to note that he had his highest commercial success working with an artist many consider to be in a varying lane. What makes their partnership essential, though, is how contradictory their brands are at first look. J. Cole’s brand and aesthetic reflect hip hop’s love for socially-conscious rap and part of his success lies in how he’s been able to reflect that tradition while embracing the opposite audience.
In the eyes of the general rap fan, J. Cole’s music is drastically different from someone like 21, who came into the game embracing the more-violent dynamics of rap music. But, rather than keep their brands separate, Cole used his platform to embrace the younger rappers like 21 Savage and Young Thug. He chose to collaborate with them and, at points, even mentor them. Building on the legacy of Kanye West, who paired backpackers on songs with street rappers, Cole’s partnership has helped bring forward a more-balanced rap game. Cole and 21’s collaboration reinforces the new generations’ collabs (such as Cordae and Gunna or Tyler the Creator and NBA YoungBoy) and adds to the push to blur the rigid lines of backpack rap and mainstream rap.