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Is J. Cole’s ‘Might Delete Later’ Debut a Win or a Loss for the Conflicted Rapper?

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks for J. Cole.

He was roped into the most buzzed-about beef in recent rap history last month when fellow superstar Kendrick Lamar sent apparent shots at him and collaborator Drake in his own Billboard Hot 100-topping Future and Metro Boomin teamup, “Like That.” Two Fridays ago (Apr. 5), he responded with his new mixtape Might Delete Later and its climactic answer diss, “7 Minute Drill” — before publicly backing off the rejoinder at his own Dreamville Festival the following Sunday, explaining that feuding with Lamar didn’t sit right with him, and announcing his intent to remove the response cut from streaming.

The backlash from the internet and the larger hip-hop community was swift, with fans first dismissing “Drill” as lukewarm and uncommitted, and then largely mocking Cole for bowing out of the beef rather than standing behind his response. Nonetheless, Might Delete Later debuts at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 this week with 115,000 units — down from Cole’s usual first-week totals for new albums, but still a strong showing by most other artists’ standards, particularly for a mixtape — while “Drill” bows at No. 6 on the Hot 100, though Cole made good on his promise to take the song off streaming on Friday (Apr. 12), following the end of its first full tracking week.



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What should we take away from Cole’s Might Delete Later showing? And will the sour taste this era has left in many rap fans’ mouths end up following Cole to his long-anticipated The Fall Off release? Billboard staffers answer these questions and more below.

1. J. Cole debuts at No. 2 this week with 115,000 units for Might Delete Later. On a scale of 1-10, if you’re J. Cole, how satisfied are you with that first-week performance?

Kyle Denis: If I’m J. Cole and I really am orchestrating all of this as an elaborate roll out for The Fall Off, 10. If I’m J. Cole and this has nothing to do with The Fall Off at all, probably around a 6. A six-figure opening week units total in 2024 is never anything to scoff at, but after six consecutive studio albums hitting No. 1 and debuting with over 200,000 units, these numbers certainly leave more to be desired. Of course, Beyoncé is Beyoncé, but the fact that Cowboy Carter’s second week pulled ahead of Delete’s first — despite the latter initially leading predictions – speaks to how quickly consumers decided Cole’s latest offering wasn’t worth their time. 

Angel Diaz: If I’m Cole, I’ll be at a 10. The second spot on the 200 isn’t too shabby for a mixtape that was overshadowed by an unfortunate apology amid one of the more intriguing rap feuds in recent memory. 

Carl Lamarre: A 5. If I were Cole, half of me would be proud that I cracked six figures with little to no promotion. Based on my surprise drop, I can’t be upset if I lost to Beyonce. The other half is sick because the rap community is bullying me over that one record.

Jason Lipshutz: An 8. Might Delete Later was a surprise release arriving in an absolutely stacked portion of the release calendar, amidst a hip-hop superstar civil war outshining a lot of the actual music, and headlined by a diss track that was regretted and removed from streaming services… and it still did six figures in its first week. This project didn’t receive a traditional rollout and has been defined more by where it fits into a Larger Beef Narrative than Cole’s greater discography, so its final total should be a sign that he’s still a commercial force.

Andrew Unterberger: Maybe a 4. Yes, it’s just a mixtape, surprise release, whatever: If hip-hop fans were genuinely excited about this release (and “Drill” in particular) it would’ve still done big business. Cole coming in second for a full-length project, with well under half of the first-week units for 2021’s The Off Season — with all the eyes and ears of the hip-hop world set upon him — is a disappointment by his standards, straight up.

2. Cole seems to have hedged expectations with just about everything regarding this set, from calling it a mixtape to repeatedly referencing it as the prelude to his upcoming The Fall Off project to titling it something non-committal to *actually deleting* one of its tracks from streaming this weekend. Given all of this, do you think it’s still fair to judge it as a proper J. Cole body of work, or do you kinda give it an asterisk there? 

Kyle Denis: I think all those caveats warrant an asterisk. Nonetheless, Delete is still an 11-track set released under the J. Cole moniker – it’s undoubtedly a body of work, just far from his best. 

Angel Diaz: I’m going to take it for what it is: a mixtape, a body of work, whatever you want to call it these days. Even if he decides to delete the entire tape eventually, the Internet is forever, and it’ll be floating around somewhere. He should throw it up on Dat Piff and really bring the feeling back. 

Carl Lamarre: It’s a body of work in which he was demonstrative about his rap standing and had no shame talking s–t. If you subtract the Dipset-flip for “Ready 24,” this was all original music with some creative touches. Even if it wasn’t up to Cole’s standards, Might Delete Later was packaged like an ordinary rap album. 

Jason Lipshutz: An asterisk, for sure, which makes its No. 2 debut on the Billboard 200 so impressive. If this is the prelude to a major new Cole project, based on its 115,000 unit start, I’d expect The Fall Off to score one of the biggest debuts of the year. And yes, if you’re literally deleting songs from a project once it’s released, chances are you don’t want that project to function as a defining work.

Andrew Unterberger: There’s a bit of an asterisk, sure, but not one nearly as big or as definitive as Cole’s hoping for.

3. “7 Minute Drill” debuts at No. 6 this week, and will most likely only get the one week in the top 10 after Cole removed it from streaming services on Friday. Do you think the lone week in the top 10 — particularly as “Like That” enjoys its third week at No. 1 — is more than the song deserves, less, or about right? 

Kyle Denis: Instinctively, I want to say it deserves less because of how limp of a response it is. But part of me thinks this is exactly what “7 Minute Drill” deserves. A single week in the top 10 is emblematic of the initial curiosity the song courted, and plummeting from that region as quickly as it got there is the perfect parallel to the lukewarm reception the song received once those first listens were complete. 

Angel Diaz: I’m not sure what’s going on with this track because it still shows up in my Apple Music downloads on my phone but isn’t available on Spotify or the desktop version of Apple Music. I think it makes sense that it would creep into the top 10 when you factor in all the drama surrounding it. Cole must really be apologetic because he’s leaving some money on the table, so I guess it’s about right. 

Carl Lamarre: Out of sheer anticipation, this is right where it should be. Cole isn’t a battle rapper — as proven by his swift exit from the ongoing rap civil war — but because of his high-level MC status, grit, and charisma, there was hope that Cole would at least try to even the score against Kendrick. Sure, scrubbing the record from streaming cleanses your spiritual energy — and waiting as long as he did to do it ensures it will still be forever deemed a top 10 record — but we all know the chatter that’s going on in hip-hop circles about that song and apology.

Jason Lipshutz: Sounds about right to me. Even if Cole hadn’t hastily removed “7 Minute Drill” from streaming services, I’d expect the track to attain an explosive chart debut and quick drop-off, since most listeners stopped by to hear the Kendrick disses without absorbing the actual song. While “Like That” stands on its own as a scorching-hot single surrounding Kendrick Lamar’s guest spot, “7 Minute Drill” sounds haphazardly constructed as a platform for a lukewarm takedown. It was always going to pique curiosities upon its release, and never going to last after that.

Andrew Unterberger: It’s about right. I was more positive on “Drill” that most — I feel it got some decent digs in there, and to be honest, I respect that he kept his attacks kinda practical and not that hyperbolic. But is it as good a song as “Like That”? Of course not. Even without the rapper Deleting Later, it probably would’ve fallen off the Hot 100 in a few weeks once the curiosity listens died down, and almost certainly would’ve spent just the one week in its top tier. That’s fine.

4. While “Drill” and its subsequent Cole about-face will likely make up the majority of the Might Delete Later legacy, is there anything elsewhere on the mixtape that you think is particularly notable/memorable/interesting for this Cole period? 

Kyle Denis: None of the music on Delete is interesting or impressive enough to rise out of the shadow of Cole’s decisions during this period – and that’s perfectly okay. I think his exit from the “Big Three” battle will easily stand as the most notable component of the Delete era for better and for worse. We’ll definitely look back on this entire back-and-forth – and Cole’s role and performance, in particular – as a key inflection point for the evolution of mainstream rap beef post-Hip-Hop 50. 

If anything, most of the mixtape’s collaborations were welcome, but unnecessary, reminders of how great the chemistry is between Dreamville artists.

Angel Diaz: J. Cole blacked on a couple of these records, man, that’s what makes his apology so frustrating and I’m not even the biggest Cole fan. “Huntin’ Wabbitz,” going bar-for-bar with Killa on “Ready ‘24,” and getting his lyrical miracle on with battle rap veteran Daylyt and TDE’s Ab Soul on “Pi” show that he belongs in the Big 3 conversation. For a surprise mixtape, Might Delete Later is a solid offering from a solid rapper.  

Carl Lamarre: I can’t lie; the erasure of “Drill” and his Dreamville Fest apology killed my listening experience post-release. Ironically, I wasn’t even a fan of “Drill” and thought “Trae The Truth in Ibiza” could have served as the project’s ideal send-off. But after he dismissed “Drill,” I tried listening again, and it hurt me because Cole spent the tape boasting about his lyrical prowess — most notably on “Ready 24.” I can’t even play that record back, because some of Cole’s first words are: “Ain’t no n—a better than me in this f–kin’ planet, I swear to God.” The about-face at Dreamville Fest killed any positive motion I had for his project, and I’m a devout fan.

Jason Lipshutz: The Central Cee team-up on “H.Y.B.” is intriguing, and my ’00s hip-hop-loving heart was overjoyed to hear both Cam’ron (!) and Young Duo (!!!) on this project. But the most interesting moment on Might Delete Later was “7 Minute Drill,” as well as how Cole handled the song following its release. We’ll see how calling an audible on the diss track affects his artistic perspective moving forward, but the move will define Might Delete Later, even though the song itself no longer exists on the project.

Andrew Unterberger: The collabs are good! I’ve never heard Cole sounding this versatile, meeting collaborators as wide-ranging as Cam’Ron, Central Cee and Ab-Soul mostly on their home terrain, without ever sounding like he’s stretching too far outside his own lane. I truly cannot remember the last time I’ve advocated for a rapper to take on MORE name guests on their album, but for the Patron Saint of Platinum With No Features, maybe the switch-up could help keep things a little fresh for him on The Fall Off.

5. Cole has taken a near-unanimous L in general debate and on social media for “7 Minute Drill” and his subsequent Dreamville apology. Do you think it will actually affect perception and/or reception for Cole on future projects, or will this all become yesterday’s news for him and his fanbase pretty quickly? 

Kyle Denis: Both. And that’s the exact reason why this “beef” will have no verifiable victor. Cole’s fans already decided that they were rocking with him through thick and thin back in 2011, if not earlier. They survived the Noname battle and other controversies; this is not going to substantially shift the mindset of his fanbase. When it comes to those outside of Cole World, however, Cole’s exit and apology have blown up the once-solidified “Big Three” of the blog era. Like Drake and Lamar, reception for Cole’s projects have always had a built-in sheen because of how he’s revered in hip-hop circles. Based on the varied reception to his “Red Leather” verse, that’s already started to change a little bit. Ultimately, I think Cole will be just fine – but he should probably prepare himself for The Fall Off to be his most meticulously analyzed and critiqued album yet.  

Angel Diaz: I think this has already negatively affected his career. Fans will eventually forgive and forget, but for now he’s basically Switzerland as a band of American rappers clique up to take down the behemoth in the North. He had to stand 10 toes down after this song dropped because, like I said earlier, the Internet is forever. The disses weren’t even that personal and he’s rapped too many slick lines about being the best for too many years. His biggest mistake was dedicating a track to Kendrick, when Dot just sent a couple subs his way, while taking direct aim at Drake.

I understand his sentiments, but I wonder if he feels like he’s missing out on the history being made right now. The Fall Off most definitely needs to be a unanimous classic or at least close to it for borderline fans such as myself to take him seriously again. He put himself in a hole for absolutely no reason. I don’t think his career is over, but the convo about him being the best rapper in the game is over for now. 

Jason Lipshutz: Depending on how this genre-encompassing diss parade plays out, Cole releasing “7 Minute Drill,” pulling a “whoopsie” and bowing out of the contest altogether… might have been the best thing for him. For better or worse, we now know where he stands on this matter, and now he can view the fracas from afar while moving on to his next projects. Cole already released The Sideline Story more than a decade ago, and maybe it’s best that that’s where he’ll be during this free-for-all.

Andrew Unterberger: I think the folks who are calling Cole “finished” are on an altogether different planet, but could it have a residual long-term effect? Not impossible, but considering all the “rap is a competitive sport” takes that have surrounded hip-hop discourse lately, folks would do well to remember that in rap, as in pro sports, fans have short memories. Joel Embiid had an embarrassing playoff showing last year against the Celtics, but if he leads the Sixers past Boston and to the finals this year, most people will forget about 2023 real quick. Same thing with Cole — at least, if his next album is as good as he’s hyping it to be.

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