J. Cole or Drake: Who Needs to Respond More to Kendrick Lamar’s Verse? The Cases for Both

The hip-hop world has been in flames since the Friday (Mar. 22) release of Future & Metro Boomin’s “Like That,” featuring an incendiary Kendrick Lamar verse taking thinly veiled shots at “First Person Shooter” co-stars J. Cole and Drake. Rap traditionalists are unsurprisingly clamoring for a response record from both MCs — but which of the two has the most to gain by jumping into the fray, or the most to lose by staying out of it?

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Below, two Billboard Hip-Hop writers present the case for each artist being the one who most needs to get in the game ASAP.

WHY DRAKE MOST NEEDS TO RESPOND

When Drake graced the cover of Billboard in August 2013 ahead of his acclaimed Nothing Was the Same album, he brushed off Kendrick Lamar’s genre-shaking “Control” verse, referring to the atomic bomb Lamar dropped on rap as an “ambitious thought.”

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“That’s all it was,” he said dismissively. “I know good and well that Kendrick’s not murdering me, at all, in any platform. So when that day presents itself, I guess we can revisit the topic.”

Just over a decade later, that day has presented itself. Lamar has dropped the gloves and scorched Drizzy and J. Cole, with a scathing verse aiming at his supposed “Big Three” running mates on Future and Metro Boomin’s “Like That” (“Think I won’t drop the location? I still got PTSD/ Motherf–k the Big Three, n—a, it’s just big me”), which had hip-hop in a tizzy over the weekend.

Actually, it extended well beyond the rap world: debates about the simmering feud between Drake, Kendrick and Cole extended far outside the genre, with even the likes of ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith spitting bars from Eminem’s final 8 Mile battle on his show while discussing the potential clash of the “Big Three.”

Drake has scoffed in the past at disses from rappers whom he didn’t deem worthy of his time. Some he’d address with subliminal jabs when he felt suitable, on his terms, while others beneath him on the food chain never even got half an OVO bar. It’s an opportunity he’s earned, as one of hip-hop’s titans with a battle-tested past where he’s repeatedly proven to be a formidable opponent – including battles with Joe Budden, Diddy and most notably Meek Mill in 2015, when he ethered the Philly rapper with “Back to Back” and put the ghostwriting claims to rest. After most battles, Drizzy has emerged stronger from his battle scars.

However, there’s always going to be a stain on Drake’s decorated resume that no record amount of Hot 100 hits could remove when it comes to his 2018 feud with Pusha T. Drizzy backed down following Pusha’s scintillating “Story of Adidon” exposing his child, Adonis, at the advice of Rap-A-Lot co-founder and consigliere J. Prince – who claimed his response would have “hurt families.”

This isn’t a situation Drake can rightly shrug off as beneath him, though. While Kendrick Lamar only stands at 5’5”, the West Coast legend sees eye-to-eye with the 6 God – one of his few true peers in rap, with comparable levels of commercial appeal, critical acclaim and years in the game.

With all that Drake has accomplished in his Hall-of-Fame career, it’s rare for an artist of his caliber to have an opportunity to elevate their legacy and wipe away some of the years-old stench leftover from the botched Pusha T feud that OVO detractors still bring up to this day.

Rising to Lamar’s challenge — and potentially emerging victorious — could wash out the bad taste Drake opting out of that beef left in fans’ mouths a half-decade ago.

The “Poetic Justice” collaborators have been entrenched in a Cold War of digs since “Control” and K. Dot’s BET Hip-Hop Awards cypher dissing the “sensitive” Toronto star months later. Drake has jabbed back on records like Future’s “Sh!t” remix and “The Language,” but they’ve never met head-on for a collision on the throne.

Showing out in such a showdown could have a profound effect on Drake’s legacy. To spell it out in sports terms Drake would appreciate, longtime New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady didn’t cement his GOAT case until completing the 28-3 comeback at Super Bowl LI in 2017 against the Atlanta Falcons. Similarly, many already labeled LeBron James as the best player of the 21st century, but pulling off the improbable 3-1 comeback against the 73-win Golden State Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals launched his legacy into the same stratosphere as Michael Jordan. 

Both were undoubtedly seminal moments in the careers of those all-time legends, and took place well over a decade after they entered the league. A line could be drawn to Drake possibly getting the best of Lamar in this rap version of the ultimate game.

While “Like That” is a response to Cole and Drake’s “First Person Shooter,” it’s Drake that most of Dot’s smoke is specifically directed at. After dismantling the “Big Three” argument, Kendrick takes aim at Drake with a For All the Dogs reference, and snarlingly compares their relationship to iconic rivals Michael Jackson and Prince: “And your best work is a light pack/ N—a, Prince outlived Mike Jack’/ N—a, bum/ ‘Fore all your dogs gettin’ buried/ That’s a K with all these nines, he gon’ see Pet Sematary.”

With Kendrick and Drake’s icy relationship taking shots at one another dating back to 2013’s “Control,” it’s imperative for the 6 God to step up and be first in line rather than J. Cole, who has had an admirable relationship with Lamar from a distance over the years. There’s been way less friction between the Dreamville boss and Compton native, as they were even rumored to be working on a joint project at one point. 

All that said, Drake could end up falling back and avoiding the fray, maybe addressing K. Dot down the line with a series of jabs after he goes on hiatus following his Big As the What? Tour wrapping next month. He’s already allegedly liked a comment saying he’s not taking K. Dot’s threats “seriously,” and is still posting selfies to his IG Story in an unbothered fashion. 

Not all hope is lost for a quicker response, though, as Drizzy appeared to respond to Lamar’s threats sweeping the rap world with a chest-puffed rant during a recent tour date. “I’m 10 f–king toes down in Florida or anywhere else I go – and I know that no matter what, there’s not a n—a on this earth that could ever f–k with me in my life,” Drake confidently told a Florida crowd while on stage over the weekend.

In a genre with a dwindling number of A-list stars, the Drake-Kendrick Lamar tussle gives rap a rare monocultural moment, and a chance for the 6 God to etch another chapter in the hip-hop history books. The ball’s bouncing inside Drake’s home court – but will he put a shot up or leave the gym and retreat to the wine cellar of his Toronto estate? — MICHAEL SAPONARA


WHY COLE MOST NEEDS TO RESPOND

Let’s keep it all the way honest: It’s scary hours. The rap civil war is upon us, and the best man to spar with Kung Fu Kenny is his one-time brother-in-arms, Jermaine Lamarr Cole. 

This part of rap is largely unfamiliar territory for Cole: though he’s had words for 6ix9ine, Lil Pump, and the Soundcloud generation, he’s never engaged in true one-on-one combat, making this potential battle with Kendrick Lamar an even more important one. Rather than let Drake stand ten toes down and attempt to get the pinfall on K. Dot, Cole needs to tag in, earn the W to get out of the shadows of both men, and show why he’s indeed not the two or the three when speaking on this rap hierarchy. 

In truth, there hasn’t been a time in Cole’s career when he was undoubtedly “the one.” When Cole entered the fray in the late 2000s, fans immediately pitted him against Drake because both were spry and capable lyricists with booming potential to push the genre forward. Going into it, Drake had the leg up after his seismic mixtape So Far Gone rocketed him to the moon in 2009. The following year, he instantly became the go-to guy with debut album Thank Me Later, netting close to 500,000 units sold during its opening week. 

Cole’s road to success was more arduous, as he struggled to put together a favorable single to please radio and his boom-bap audience. “Who Dat” failed to catch traction, and though “Work Out” became his first breakout hit, peaking at No. 13 on the Hot 100, skepticism surfaced because Cole had to dumb down its lyrics a little and rely on a borrowed Paula Abdul hook and Ye sample for radio approval. He later admitted to his missteps on the 2013 Born Sinner standout song “Let Nas Down” when he revealed Nas’ displeasure over the record. Still, Cole notched his first No. 1 album and mostly evaded further criticism until the mainstream arrival of Kendrick Lamar. 

Cole and Kendrick’s friendship goes back to the days before the Compton rapper was signed. “Before my album was even out, before he even had a deal, I was making sure to stamp him,” Cole told Elliott Wilson during his CRWN interview in 2014. “Kendrick was one I saw right away and said, ‘This kid is special.’” Cole even entertained the idea of wanting to sign Kendrick to Dreamville. That’s how real the brotherhood was. 

Lamar’s ascension into Rap God status wasn’t an overnight success. Like Cole, he played the long game, releasing mixtapes and EPs. While Section 80 was lauded in the underground as a classic, it wasn’t until his 2012 major label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city, that he was dubbed as a generational talent. By then, Lamar also received an extended Drake co-sign, as he worked with the 6 God on Take Care for his “Buried Alive Interlude,” opened up for him during his Club Paradise tour, and collaborated on “Poetic Justice.” 

Kendrick’s career crescendoed from there with classic album after classic album, spanning from good kid, m.A.A.d city to To Pimp a Butterfly, to his game-changing opus, 2017’s DAMN. Suddenly, most conversations about the best MC weren’t between Drake and Cole anymore. The narrative shifted to Drizzy and Kenny, with Cole sliding to third. Despite his superstar growth, Kendrick and Cole remained allies, with rumbles of a collaborative album brewing after they freestyled on each other’s tracks in 2016. 

During this time, Kendrick and Drake have sent shots at each other for title contention – most notably Kendrick’s “Control” verse and his BET Cypher freestyle in 2013 – while again, Cole quietly chipped away with No. 1 album after No. 1 album. The Cole and Kendrick joint album never happened, with the two’s lone team-up on record remaining their Born Sinner collab “Chaining Day.” And then, last year, Cole and Drake — who were once pitted against each other at the early stages of their careers – unleashed their For All the Dogs Hot 100-topper “First Person Shooter.” They would up the ante by teaming up again for Drake’s indelible gem “Evil Ways” on his Scary Hours Edition of Dogs and later going on tour together, where the love fest was inescapable. 

Was this a case of sour grapes for Kendrick? Of course. His old buddy is siding with the opps. So because of his allegiance to Drake, Dot brought the Uzi out on Cole and had no issues hosing him down. Now, even though Cole shouted Kendrick out on “First Person Shooter,” rhyming “Love when they argue the hardest MC Is it K-Dot? Is it Aubrey? Or me?” – realistically, in Kendrick’s mind, he consistently lapped Cole. And for quite some time, Cole believed it too, rapping on “Heavens EP” about how “They threw the bronze at me/ Behind Drake and Dot, yeah, them n—as is superstars to me/ Maybe deep down, I’m afraid of my luminosity.” But those words pierce harder when heard aloud from Cole’s competition. Kendrick essentially said it’s never been us; it’s always been me against me

Cole, who has cemented himself as one of the best feature artists of all time after constructing two hellacious runs in 2018 and 2023 – even being named Complex’s Rapper of the Year for ’23 without releasing any new music of his own – boasted about being on top of his game. If you’re feeling that froggy, then Cole, you have to leap – and do it over the biggest amphibian in the pond? If you’re tired of being the little bro, being told you’re not top-10 all-time material, a win against Lamar at your lyrical peak could shift your story considerably. The narrative wouldn’t be about you being the third-best; it’d be about the quiet giant who chose violence and defeated the Boogey Man when no one else could. 

All the rap greats have beefed at one time or another. A heavyweight battle between Cole and Kendrick would be must-watch material and could alter Cole’s all-time ranking. For many, he’s currently just outside that all-time top 10. Having a memorable feud and outlasting Kendrick could change his trajectory because he already has the stats of an all-world performer. Now, as the underdog, if he could slay the beast and be the last man standing, then he could finally be the No. 1 we all knew he was capable of being. — CARL LAMARRE

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