When J. Cole released his latest track “Snow On Tha Bluff,” it’s highly unlikely he foresaw the full scope of the ensuing events. After the internet quickly deduced the unnamed female in his verse was Chicago MC Noname, he was accused of tone policing an African American woman in the midst of what can only be described as a revolution.
Rough week, to say the least.
However, this is far from the first time the Dreamville capo has drawn attention with a subliminal shot. HipHopDX has compiled a list of other shadow jabs and passive-aggressive rounds fired by Cole over the years.
Song: “Purple Rain” (2010)
Perceived Targets: Diggy & Vanessa Simmons
Bars In Question: “Good girl, huh, father was a preacher/Sent her off to college thought I got her on a leash though/From the outside though, them girls be the squeakiest/You get ’em inside them girls be the freakiest.”
Although this Friday Night Lights leftover leaked in 2010, it wasn’t until two years later it began to ruffle feathers. The song’s second verse is believed to be about Vanessa Simmons (daughter of Run-DMC’s Rev. Run and niece to Russell Simmons), who attended St. John’s University at the same time as Cole.
The track’s original intents only got spotlight after Cole made another reference to both Vanessa and her brother Diggy on the song “Grew Up Too Fast” in 2012 (“You more Diggy, me I’m more Biggie”). In response, Diggy fired off his own diss, “What You Say to Me.”
The previously unreleased track, according to Rev. Run, was actually a response to the almost forgotten “Purple Rain.” However, this was the first time many, including Cole’s now-wife Melissa Heholt, had heard of the rumored hook-up. Heholt even reportedly ran up on Vanessa to question her.
Song: Justin Timberlake’s “TKO (Black Friday Remix)” f. A$AP Rocky, Pusha T & J. Cole (2013)
Perceived Target: Kendrick Lamar
Bars In Question: His entire verse
This Justin Timberlake remix hit the internet months after Kendrick Lamar’s guest verse on Big Sean’s “Control” (which also featured Jay Electronica) shook up the game. Lamar proclaimed himself the king of New York, called 11 prominent MCs out by name and effectively gave Hip Hop one of the decade’s most significant moments.
Cole was one of those MCs called out and though four months had passed, which is like four years in Hip Hop, he took this particular opportunity to air out his friend and collaborator — though without directly naming Lamar. Based on their relationship, it’s obvious the situation wasn’t that deep.
Song: “No Role Modelz” (2014)
Perceived Target: Kanye West
Bars In Question: “Now all I’m left with is hoes from reality shows/Hand her a script, the bitch probably couldn’t read along.”
This platinum-selling song was the crown jewel of 2014’s Forest Hills Drive, the album that took Cole to the next level and debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. In hindsight, buried under heaps of nostalgia and a nod to E-40’s “Captain Save A Hoe,” there is a glaring reference to Kanye West.
According to Charlamagne Tha God, the reference was far from unnoticed by Yeezus at the time.
“Who else out here is in love with people from reality shows like me,” Kanye allegedly told the Breakfast Club host. Though Charlamagne added, “Kanye didn’t say it in a malice way at all — he was laughing about it.”
Song: “Black Friday” (2015)
Perceived Targets: Future
Bars In Question: “No Promethazine, I’m a king no leaning, I got a better way to fight these demons.”
This particular reference feels as though it could have easily be chalked up to Cole sharing his general opinion on lean-induced hitmakers of the day, which made it extra subtle.
“I pour Activis and pop pills so I can fight the demons,” Future spits on the original. As there was no provocation or further jabs from Cole (and Future didn’t seem phased, assuming he caught it), this one flew under the radar.
Song: “False Prophets” (2016)
Perceived Targets: Kanye West, Wale & Drake
Bars In Question: The entire song
Released alongside his Eyez documentary and originally appearing on 4 Your Eyez Only (before being cut in the 24th hour as it didn’t correctly fit the LP’s narrative), this song caused a furious Twitter debate.
It wasn’t difficult to immediately find references to both Drake (“Hear some new style bubblin’ up, then they bite the shit”) and Kanye (“Ego in charge of every move, he’s a star/And we can’t look away due to the days that he caught our hearts”).
Wale, widely understood to be the subject of the song’s second verse, was the only one to respond almost immediately with the diss record “Groundhog Day.” However, friendship prevailed as the two were seen at a basketball game about 12 hours after it dropped.
Kanye did acknowledge the track, albeit via an unreleased version of Pusha T’s “What Would Meek Do?” noting, “You heard Cole on that song, he was tryna hate.”
Song: “Everybody Dies” (2016)
Perceived Targets: Lil Uzi Vert & Lil Yachty
Bars In Question: “Bunch of words and ain’t sayin’ shit, I hate these rappers/Especially the amateur eight-week rappers/Lil’ whatever—just another short bus rapper.”
Also released alongside Eyez, “Everybody Dies” saw Jermaine let his clip spray in a fashion exuding “I bet you think this song is about you” to the highest degree. While there were lots of “Lil” rappers to choose from in 2016, most seemed to believe he was aiming his comments at the top of the next-gen food chain: Uzi Vert and Yachty.
Both rappers were seemingly unbothered, at least publicly. Uzi was flattered, calling the song “some beautiful shit.” Yachty (during a Power 106 interview) was clear he didn’t give a fuck, adding he doesn’t even listen to Cole, making an exception only because fans flooded his timeline.
Song: 21 Savage’s “A Lot” f. J. Cole (2018)
Perceived Targets: Kanye? Migos? Chris Brown? The entire music industry?
Bars In Question: “Question/How many faking they streams? (A lot)/Getting they plays from machines (A lot)/I can see behind the smoke and mirrors/Niggas ain’t really big as they seem.”
In 2018, streaming continued to reshape music consumption, causing a few scandals along the way. Some artists attempted to game the charts, using absurdly long albums to help rake in extra streams. Chris Brown released the 45-song Heartbreak On A Full Moon, and it was certified gold in less than 10 days even though none of its singles cracked the Top 40.
However, some were accused of falsifying data altogether, inflating streams and shelling out millions in royalties. Tidal was one such platform said to have intentionally falsified streaming numbers for Beyonce’s Lemonade and Kanye West’s Life of Pablo.
Considering his history, it’s highly unlikely he wasn’t spitting this with Kanye on his mind.
Song: “1985” (2018)
Perceived Targets: Lil Pump & Smokepurpp
Bars In Question: The latter half of the song
Jermaine made his feelings about “Lil” rappers quite evident on “Everybody Dies,” and one person it wasn’t lost on was Lil Pump. Dating back to 2016, Pump was seen trolling Cole via social media. It culminated in 2017 when he dropped a snippet of a Smokepurpp-produced diss record aptly titled “Fuck J. Cole.”
Cole’s response came in the form of “1985,” the closer to his critically acclaimed KOD. Without naming Pump, outside of noting he liked his “funky lil’ rap name,” he laid out a detailed account of how he saw Pump’s career trajectory.
Taking up for his Florida brethren, Smokepurpp infamously led a “Fuck J. Cole” chant during an Atlanta concert, prompting a sitdown between the old(er) and new generation.
Cole and Pump had no hard feelings, even sitting for a thoroughly entertaining hour-long interview shortly afterward. That didn’t stop a plethora of other new-school MCs from dropping responses though.
Song: “Middle Child” (2019)
Perceived Targets: Kanye West
Bars In Question: “But I’d never beef with a nigga for nothin’/If I smoke a rapper, it’s gon’ be legit/It won’t be for clout, it won’t be for fame/It won’t be ’cause my shit ain’t sellin’ the same/It won’t be to sell you my latest lil’ sneakers/It won’t be ’cause some nigga slid in my lane.”
Kanye and Drake beef hit a fever pitch in 2018 following an eventful feud with Pusha T, which was highlighted by King Push revealing to Drake had become a father (a revelation Drizzy blamed Ye for blabbing).
At the top of 2019 though, Cole made it clear on “Middle Child” he was team Drake, aiming some seemingly direct subliminals at Kanye — no surprise to anyone who had followed the arc of his career.
It’s hard to argue Cole’s points though; in a year that saw Ye release a string of seven-song projects and generate roughly a billion-dollar in shoe sales, all press was good press.