Disclaimer: My opinion, as the section entails.
2022 and 2023 have seemingly become the years for artists to make it their mission to downplay their careers; from disappointing performances from the likes of Frank Ocean at this past weekend’s Coachella — which combined with a fractured leg led him to drop out of the second weekend — to Drake’s attempt at a house album to whatever prejudice Ye holds toward a new group each day. There’s been some diamonds in the rough, though, with JID’s “Forever Story,” JPEGMAFIA and Danny Brown’s “SCARING THE HOES” and Tyler, the Creator’s “CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST: The Estate Sale” grasping the tail end of 2022 and the beginning of 2023 by the neck. With each year becoming more volatile than the next regarding the range of music — and music quality — being released, a friend and I recently unearthed a nostalgic, high-school-era debate that has divided friend groups and internet forums alike: Kendrick Lamar vs. J. Cole. So, it’s time we settle it.
For the sake of fairness, I’ll be paring up albums from each artist that were released around the same time, pick a favorite and tally up the final score at the end. This list won’t include either artist’s entire discography, but rather works that I believe stand out as notable within their catalogues.
Section.80 (2011) vs. Cole World: The Sideline Story (2011)
Though “Overly Dedicated” and other K.Dot mixtapes predated Cole’s debut, “Section.80” is Kendrick’s debut album under his current stage name and definitely plays like his first studio-produced project. This, to me, is an easy pick in favor of “Section.80.” While “Cole World,” supported by Jay-Z, yielded some songs that remain popular for Cole such as “Work Out,” it’s clear Cole was still searching for his purpose as an artist. Pop-forward tracks like “Can’t Get Enough” and “In the Morning” juxtapose with the early 2010 drill sounds of “Mr. Nice Watch” and declarative “Rise and Shine.” This is all without that the album featured cameos from Jay-Z, Drake, Missy Elliott and Trey Songz.
In contrast, “Section.80” serves as Kendrick’s proclamation to the music industry. While there still exists some variation in direction, with “No Make-up” reminiscent of some fusion of David Guetta and Linkin Park, the majority of the album presents a sound that becomes synonymous with Kendrick. The eerie keys on “Keisha’s Song (Her Pain)” and reverb-heavy “ADHD” set forth a foundation for a style that follows Kendrick through his next two albums. Features from Missy Elliott, Schoolboy Q, BJ the Chicago Kid and Ab-Soul complement the already-standalone tracks they appear on, hoisting Kendrick’s poeticism to the upper atmospheres it already existed in.
“good kid, m.A.A.d city” (2012) vs. “Born Sinner” (2013)
I don’t think there’s even much of a debate on this one, so I won’t spend much time on it. While “Born Sinner” does have some bops in “Power Trip” and “Crooked Smile,” GKMC stands out with a laundry list of rap performances that, dare I say, exceed most of Cole’s entire discography. Here Kendrick explores his style, much like Cole did on “Cole World,” but in a much more cohesive way. Liquid-like tracks such as “Poetic Justice” and “B*tch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” provide the listener with an intermission from the ego-forward, in-your-face “Backseat Freestyle” and “m.A.A.d city,” while “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” stands alone as one of the saddest and moving tracks of the 2010s. I will give Cole credit for the 21-song track list, whereas Kendrick’s 18 includes a few remixes. In this case, however, size doesn’t pose a threat to Kendrick, and the additions made in the deluxe release of the album accent the project with an iconic verse from Jay-Z and bonus tracks featuring Dr. Dre and Mary J. Blige.
Winner: “good kid, m.A.A.d city”
“To Pimp a Butterfly” (2015) vs. 2014 Forest Hills Drive (2014)
This one pains me. With TPAB and Forest Hills considered the peaks of both artists’ releases — no question about this in the case of Cole — comparing the two is almost criminal. “2014 Forest Hills Drive” is undoubtedly Cole’s best album, as he put on a display of absolute entitlement mixed with soft storytelling. “A Tale of 2 Citiez” and “No Role Modelz” were formative to my youth, and I think we can all agree that “Wet Dreamz” is a masterpiece. “G.O.M.D” throws the well-earned arrogance Cole had accrued into your face, all to be put at ease by the intimate and self-reflective “Love Yourz” a few tracks later. Honestly, it’s a fantastic album, and one I still frequent to this day. As we all know, it went “double-platinum with no features.” The problem? It’s up against TPAB.
TPAB is the best rap album of the 2010s — No, MBDTF is not even close — and arguably the best album released during the decade, period. It’s rap; it’s jazz; it’s politics; it’s an anti-capitalist declaration against the American justice system. Topics of police brutality and gun violence are explored at heavy depths without ever sounding “too political,” a common complaint against projects such as Childish Gambino’s “This is America” or Joey Bada$$’s “All-Amerikkkan Bada$$.” Top-to-bottom this album is a paragon of music. Again, if Forest Hills was up against maybe any other artist’s album I’d pick it, but it’s difficult to see a reality in which it’s more significant or impressive than TPAB.
Winner: “To Pimp a Butterfly,” without any question.
“untitled unmastered.” (2016) vs. “4 Your Eyez Only” (2016)
Another tough one. Not only is “untitled unmastered.” a follow-up to TPAB, as the project is made up of alternate thoughts and ideas Kendrick had while recording the latter, but it’s damn good. With its minimal marketing — the cover is a blank, green slate — and dance between rap and jazz-funk, there’s not much to dislike. “untitled 02” and “untitled 07” explore two counterpart approaches to arguably the most unique instrumentals on the project; “untitled 05” includes a wild bassline from Thundercat before, with the following track, “untitled 06,” switching to a jazz-forward idea with assistance from the eternally soulful Cee Lo Green and keyboard chops from Terrace Martin.
That being said, “4 Your Eyez Only” exists as a full studio album, though it’s only 11 minutes longer than untitled’s 34-minute run time. The album follows a saga of introspection as Cole continues to dig deeper into his mind. Tracks such as “She’s Mine, Pt. 1” and “She’s Mine, Pt. 2” are composed of flowing background vocals and strings, delicate piano and a pensive side of Cole only hinted at on previous albums. “Neighbors” reminds us of Cole’s classic flow and includes arguably one of the greatest music videos — surveillance footage of Cole’s house being raided by police. Though I won’t include this in the rating, it’s a cool watch you should check out.
It’s just so, so difficult to say that, despite this more personal side of J. Cole, “4 Your Eyez Only” beats out “untitled unmastered.” The fact that the latter was created by an afterthought of Kendrick’s and yet still holds up against a standard release will always impress me, and for that I have to pick Kendrick again.
Winner: “untitled unmastered.”
For the sake of brevity and the Opinion section I have to end my list here. Yet I don’t think it even matters; Kendricks 2017 “DAMN.” is wildly more groundbreaking than Cole’s 2018 “KOD,” and even won Kendrick a Pulitzer. Even the 2022 “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers,” which remains one of Kendrick’s most critically-reviewed, tells a more profound story and offers much more complex production than Cole’s 2021 “The Off-Season.” Going into this I didn’t expect to pick Kendrick for every comparison, trust me, otherwise I wouldn’t have even bothered writing this piece. But the more I reflect and listen, the more I’ve come to appreciate the genius of Kendrick. High school me would’ve been yelling at the screen reading this, and I still hold a deep appreciation for the nostalgia and technique of J. Cole. I just have to give it to the king on all fronts.
Winner: Kendrick Lamar, period.