Might Delete Later

Evidently, J. Cole is not the kind of rapper he would like to be. Since the beginning of his career at the peak of the blog era, the North Carolina native has staked his reputation on being an out-and-out, bar-for-bar rapper’s rapper, the model for the genre, the control in the experiment. Though a talented singer with a pliable voice, he’s always been reverent (sometimes to a fault) of legends from the 1990s and early 2000s, writing about his life in long, mythic arcs and dotting his albums with radio singles that are anchored by neuroses and character details seeded on his earliest mixtapes. He delivers all of this in a manner designed to clear space for determined bursts of setup-punchline showmanship—a magnetic mode if you can hack it. Cole often cannot.

Might Delete Later, released as a “mixtape” without warning last week, exists solely to underline this competitive streak in Cole’s music. How else are we to receive a record that, in lieu of a single, took shaky aim at Kendrick Lamar, who had very lightly jabbed at Cole on Future and Metro Boomin’s “Like That” weeks before? But this past weekend, less than 48 hours after its release, Cole went on stage at his own Dreamville Festival in Raleigh and apologized to Kendrick for “7 Minute Drill” and its clot of repurposed Jay-Z bars and creaking metaphors (“Fly pebbles at your dome, we the Stone Temple Pilots”; “He still doing shows but fell off like the Simpsons”), calling it “the lamest shit I ever did in my fucking life.” Maybe! What’s certain is that Might Delete Later makes good on its dated title as a record that, for reasons apology-related and not, seems to negate itself in real time.

Both would-be singles, “Fever” and the Bas-featuring “Stealth Mode,” feel like half a record abandoned before being rounded into its ideal shape. (The former is slinking and still mostly effective, especially after it recovers from a clumsy opening line that for a second recalls his infamous, room-clearing verse on Jeremih’s “Planez.”) Elsewhere, attempts at verbal pyrotechnics become indistinct: By the middle of “Huntin’ Wabbitz,” his flow has settled into a sleepy seesaw, and his boasts about being “too locked in” don’t read quite the way they’re intended.

And still, Might Delete Later has plenty of compelling elements—rhythmic, textural, even personal. Opener “Pricey” is weighed down by an unnecessarily frilly interlude and equally strained references to John Gotti and Rick and Morty. But its drums sound like they’re dragging themselves through quicksand, and Cole darts nimbly through them. A track later, on “Crocodile Tearz,” he’s rapping through his teeth in a way that makes him sound more composed and more menacing than nearly ever before; “H.Y.B.” is an exceedingly rare thing, a subtle integration of drill’s wobble into a less industrial sound palette. On “Stickz N Stonez,” The Alchemist provides the sort of irresistible hop that forces rappers to snap upright and find new pockets.

Which Cole does—sort of. His takes on “Stickz N Stonez” are animated, but the first verse is stuffed with so many syllables that it suffocates the swing and syncopation that makes the beat alone so memorable. On the Cam’ron-featuring “Ready ’24,” a sequel to the classic from Diplomatic Immunity, Cole begins by approximating Juelz Santana’s style (spare, epigrammatic), then ratchets up the pace and word count. There is an indelible quality to the best Juelz verses that few rappers could ever replicate, but this is one of Cole’s best showings on Might Delete Later—and recalls certain stretches of To Pimp a Butterfly, where Kendrick grafted more syllables onto airy P-funk beats than many of that style’s originators ever had. In each case, a studious rapper dug to the core of the music he loved, trying to find new nooks and crevices in which to carve his name.

This is why the apology Cole offered over the weekend is particularly deflating. Since Big’s death in 1997—and certainly with the almost unbelievable rash of rapper murders over the past several years—there have been frequent and persuasive calls for rap beef to stay on records, or to be tamped down entirely. But “Like That” is not “Hit ’Em Up,” and “7 Minute Drill” is not “The Takeover,” whatever the latter’s publishing splits say. These aren’t even really disses: They’re the kind of quasi-friendly sparring that has characterized rap since its beginnings. And so the frequent, pointed declarations of greatness, demands for respect, and nonspecific threats that litter Might Delete Later are rendered vacant and vaguely sad, gestures to an ethos that is nowhere to be found.