The diss track is having a renaissance. Earlier this week, reformed actor Shia LaBeouf debuted the ultimate lo-fi diss track: a modest recording emailed to radio presenter Charlemagne Tha God. Like so many unsolicited email attachments, LaBeouf’s freestyle offerings went viral. As an up-and-coming rapper, Shia embraced the important rite of passage of attacking his more experienced peers, coming for Drake and Lil Yachty. But LaBeouf’s DIY diss track was quickly dwarfed by J. Cole’s Thursday night drop. The North Carolina rapper kicked off his weekend with the release of a new documentary Eyez, marking the roll out of his fourth studio album, 4 Your Eyez Only. Calling out another artist on Twitter is so 2014—these days, a surprise visual experience on Tidal is the only acceptable mode of throwing shade.
Directed by Scott Lazer and edited by Roberta Spitz, Eyez is a window into Cole’s recording process. Among its many revelations is the fact that, not content with merely rapping and producing, Cole has taken to extensively guiding the engineers and various musicians behind his upcoming album. Of course, viewers aren’t just tuning in for an intimate look at a dedicated auteur. Eyez is making waves for its numerous clips from the upcoming project—many of which seem to be going in on Cole’s hip-hop competition. The most blatant example of this is “False Prophets,” a new track that’s showcased in the doc.
From the very start, “False Prophets” is about as unsubtle as a diss track can be while still qualifying as shade. Cole raps, “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 / he’s falling apart but we deny it / Justifying that half-ass shit he dropped, we always buy it / When he tell us he a genius but it’s clearer lately / it’s been hard for him to look into the mirror lately / There was a time when this nigga was my hero, maybe / That’s the reason why his fall from grace is hard to take.”
Given the fact that Kanye West was recently hospitalized on the heels of a very public breakdown, it’s clear that “False Prophets” is aimed right at Yeezus. What’s slightly more mysterious is Cole’s decision to pen this toxic tribute like fan mail—a 2016 “Stan.” By voicing his criticism as a care-frontation, Cole seems to be coming from a place of admiration. Still, his very public disappointment in West feels cruel—good intentions aside, there’s no denying that Cole is getting some free press out of kicking the volatile rapper when he’s already down.
Because 2016 is ugly and dark, this isn’t the first time we’ve debated the ethics of dissing another rapper’s mental health. In late October, Drake successfully showed that not all Canadians are nice when he attacked troubled rapper Kid Cudi. Cudi had recently announced that he was checking himself into rehab in order to deal with his anxiety and depression. While the majority of the hip-hop community applauded Kid Cudi’s openness and honesty, Drake responded with a lyrical gut punch entitled “Two Birds One Stone.” On the track, the Degrassi alum rapped, “You were the man on the moon, now you go through your phases / Life of the angry and famous / Rap like I know I’m the greatest and give you the tropical flavors / Still never been on hiatus / You stay xan and perked up so when reality set in you don’t gotta face it.”
The internet’s response was quick and uncharacteristically unanimous: while all may be fair in love and hip-hop, another rapper’s mental health issues should be off-limits. Strangely enough, J. Cole’s new track hasn’t been met with that much ire. Either people really want an excuse to rag on Drake, or Kanye West is a much less sympathetic victim than Kid Cudi. While bravado is a hip-hop staple, West’s out-of-this-world confidence has routinely rubbed people the wrong way. Watching the self-declared second coming fall from grace is an understandable opportunity for schadenfreude. From his fashion line to his much-hyped opuses to his tabloid fodder marriage, West has dedicated his adult life to occupying the spotlight. The promise of a humbled, more sedate West signals a possible vacancy on the hip-hop throne. And for West’s haters, it may feel like karmic comeuppance for the man who claimed he was too big to fail.
Kanye West has always been bold and braggadocious. But in the weeks leading up to his hospitalization, he turned off and offended many of his remaining fans and allies. In a series of caustic, meandering pre-shows rants, the Life of Pablo rapper offered up some controversial opinions on Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Jay Z, and Beyoncé. For many, West’s insistence that he would have voted for Trump was a massive deal-breaker. Supporting a man accused of serial rape on Twitter was one thing, but supporting a groper-in-chief was apparently quite another. Kanye even got his own cancellation hashtag—#KanyeWestIsOverParty—an honor formerly reserved for his nemesis, Taylor Swift.
Talib Kweli dedicated a series of tweets to holding West accountable for his reckless ranting, writing, “@Kanyewest feelings don’t matter fam. Facts matter. Real niggas still got love for you. But our ppl dying out here. Never Trump. the same way you want Jay to reach out to you, u should reach out to real niggas. Cuz someone ain’t keeping it real w u fam. the ppl gonna ride w you til the wheels fall off for what you’ve given us. But only if u ride w the ppl. Come back home. Love. we love u. u r everything u say u are. A genius, an icon. U added greatness to my life. But lifting Trump up kills us. Come home.” Snoop Dogg weighed in with a succinct “this nigga crazy.”
Per Cole’s lyrics, it’s easy to see how West’s recent remarks could be read as a betrayal, even if they were the result of mental instability. After all, West has historically been praised for his politics—he fearlessly stood up for black Americans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and even took on the sensitive issue of homophobia in hip-hop way back in 2005. While West has always been erratic, his pro-Trump rhetoric marked a new nadir of trolling; for many fans, celebrating the election of a man whose proposed policies threaten black lives was simply inexcusable. It will doubtlessly take some hard work for West to regain the trust of his fans and peers. Suffice it to say, Jay Z and Beyoncé may not be picking up his calls anytime soon.
But going after West’s uncharacteristic new political opinions isn’t the same thing as mocking his mental health issues. Cole’s timing, right on the heels of West’s hospital release, is in poor taste. Still, it’s clear that Cole isn’t exactly coming for Kanye—while he disses his later albums, the brunt of the verse seems to stem from genuine concern. If anything, Cole is attacking West’s fans and sycophants for failing to see that their idol was in need. In fact, most of Cole’s disses are sort of sweet. In addition to rapping about worshipping Yeezus, he also fires some soft shots at a “homie”: “He a rapper and he wanna win bad,” Cole raps. “He want the fame, the acclaim, the respect that’s been had, by all the legends, so every time I see him, he stressing, talking ’bout, niggas don’t fuck with him, the shit is depressing.” He goes on to urge his frenemy to stop worrying about the critics and focus on his adoring fans. It’s less of a diss and more of an unsolicited dose of tough love, most likely aimed at his good pal Wale. Cole wants his friend to stop whining about being a superstar and refocus on the music. It’s good advice, but we can’t help but wonder if Wale would have preferred a private phone call to being publicly put on blast.
That being said, Cole isn’t above going for the cheap shots—when it comes to rappers who he doesn’t have love for, anything goes. He goes off on Drake for ghostwriting, saying, “These niggas don’t even write their shit / Hear some new style bubbling up, then they bite that shit.” Then there’s this up-for-grabs throwaway diss: “Especially the amateur-eight-week rappers / Lil Whatever, just another short-bus rapper / Fake drug dealers turned tour-bus trappers.” The most likely target is Lil Yachty, who had a bit of a beef with J. Cole way back in 2011.
All in all, Cole clearly delineates between the rappers he’ll make a punchline out of, and the ones he genuinely cares about. Whether that excuses his decision to come for Kanye West depends on your understanding of hip-hop decorum.