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J. Cole's chance meeting with JAY-Z sounds like a lyricist's fever dream. He stood outside Roc The Mic studios for hours with a CD specifically for the 48-year-old rapper, determined to glean opportunity from Jay's career. It didn't work. Jay shot the kid down with ease, possibly indignant at yet another rapper tossing music in his face, looking for opportunity. It didn't work like that in his day. Chance brings us the biggest stars, but that's another story. A year later, JAY was the one booking the meet, desperate to bring a new angle to his label, Roc Nation. "Lights Please" was the Cole track that painted him as a different breed from the 2009 rap populace—slower, introspective, articulate.
Bas didn't have to deal with this turn of events to establish a relationship with J. Cole because their connection was much more organic. Cole attended school with Bas' brother at St. John's University. His brother's friends became his friends. When Cole was rising, Bas and company supported him. Then came time for Bas, who had taken a liking to rap, to elevate in the same manner. So he played Cole a song—again, something slow, introspective, and articulate—that he listened to. Cole told him, "I can't wait to see where you're gonna be in a year or two years or three years," Bas said in an interview with HipHopDX.
Years later, Bas is J. Cole's esteemed protégé. It's 2018 now; Bas is on his third studio album, Milky Way, under Cole's Dreamville Records imprint, pedaling a fast, but tight, rendition of the style that J. Cole himself patented, which itself is a bevy of 90s rap foibles covered with a fresh set of paint. Bas uses Milky Way as a public way to showcase just how different he is from J. Cole. Instead of stumbling, he flies. Bas has had enough time in Cole's enormous shadow. With the passage of time comes understanding, maturity, and restlessness. That necessary trifecta has created a project that's the strongest of his discography so far. To properly consume Milky Way, you must think of J. Cole's evolution from snappy douchebag to grizzled scholar. Once you envision this stalwart, then consciously compare his sound to Bas' constantly changing sound on Milky Way. You'll be surprised.
Artists of a similar ilk always cape for each other. Famous Dex and Rich The Kid are related through social circles and business (Dex was signed to Rich The Kid's Rich Forever label). Back when Lil Wayne was the crowned king of pop music, he supported Drake, another lyricist that placed a priority on punchlines instead of crafting complex narratives. Birds of a feather flock together. In this guise, J. Cole and Bas are both a similar type of Avian. Listen to Bas without focusing on what he's saying and you'll hear faint traces of Cole's chilly bark through the latter's rapidly twisting flow. Early Bas was famous for this; "Clouds Never Get Old," released in 2017, was suspiciously Colean with its pseudo-soul reaches and rapid-fire staccato rhymes. "Night Job," from 2015, sounds as if its production was ripped from the latter half of Born Sinner. The rhymes, straight from the lips of Cole.
Luckily, time is the ultimate teacher. Bas extrapolated Cole's best qualities and picked up his own through two bodies of work; Milky Way benefits from this exploration and discovery of self. The album's at once looser than anything he's ever done, in terms of mood and thematic content. "Icarus" opens the album on a grandiose note, with a barebones beat to juxtapose with Bas' grating delivery. He's shed the sentimentality that comes with his Beretta-like flow. He raps with a cold shoulder to the past, and the present. His writing's gotten cleaner in his absence. Punchlines have been given a pay cut, drawing out the power in simple connections, extrapolating a theme instead of shock value. It's a marriage of beat and lyric that acts as the first indicator that Bas is on the verge of figuring himself out and finding a unique avenue. His message isn't to pound life lessons over the head, a la J. Cole. Instead, he's rapping about what's genuine to him.
As piercing as it is, "Icarus" initially feels like a weird choice for an opener. But Milky Way quickly establishes that the track is an introduction to sounds that grow breezier, steamier, and much spookier, if such a combination of sounds exists. "Tribe" and "Boca Raton" are two early oddities, making use of unfamiliar song structures with bass in guess-worthy places. "Tribe" especially takes the air out of the room. Bas' growing penchant for barebones beats is an interesting choice; one shown to be at odds with Cole's more embellished and lavish creations. Speaking of the devil, Cole appears on this track for a feature that's not quite in his element. Bas outshines him; something that hasn't existed before in their previous collaborations. But now Bas knows his stomping grounds so expect him to return to this.
In terms of mechanics, Bas has got it. His verses sound like water spilling out of an eight-ounce glass into the sink, words tumbling over each other inducing a pressing sense of calm. Not many rappers, outside of Dreamville's camp that is, are pushing forward solely on skill alone. Even inside of Dreamville, no one's prioritizing the rhymes like he is. From front to back, everything sounds technically smooth. He wraps up rhymes pursuing female conquests with the same gusto that he approaches reflecting on the events that have made him into the artist that he is today. The downside to refraining from punchlines is that quotables are hard to come by—but maybe that's the thing. "Infinity+2" comes on the heel of a preceding skit that allows the album to slow down a bit for a break. When it does start back up, energy runs high and the push for consumable lines manifests itself. The cannon fodder lines that aren't meant to be taken at much more than face value begin to leave a nice-sized hole in the appetite for something a little more.
Fourteen tracks may be the Goldilocks bed of songs in an album tracklist. Milky Way benefits from being long enough to explore the creative avenues that Bas chooses to explore, yet short enough to be repetitive since he's not shooting for a complex narrative. Seven tracks would have felt stunted due to cuts like the worldly "Sanufa" and the boldly confident "PDA"; they're balanced by the Bas of old, exuding copious amounts of Cole influence on cuts like "Designer" and the trap ambience of "Purge." Bas never stays in one lane for too long. He's mastered the art of versatility while remaining true to the lane that he's created.
It's here that the true level of his ability comes into play. In certain ways, he's surpassed Cole—primarily in adventurousness and emotions evident in his lyrics. Bas has a lane now that Milky Way mines, showcasing just how different the pair have become on the sole track that they share together. To step from out of his mentor's shadow is what he needs to truly take his career to the next level. There's always been shades of JAY in Cole's creative process, even still to this day. Bas' bold step into the limelight means that he's comfortable with his lane now and not afraid to switch things up. Milky Way is far from slow and introspective, but is also one of the most articulate, brilliant albums of the year.
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