On J. Cole
A partial defense against critics. Over on the Ringer it was decided, that J. Cole, is in fact, not a good rapper. What!
If J. Cole is not good, than how do you classify all those other guys? they don’t even count… they would be unworthy of ‘bad.’
Announcing: Cole dropped a new album yesterday, 4 Your Eyez Only. And the hipster rap blogs (not mine) are aflame with debate and politicking.
Just as a disclaimer, and to be honest from the start, I probably won’t listen to it. Not because I don’t like J. Cole, but because I don’t really listen to too much rap anymore. Like, not on the scale that I would listen to a whole album. But, once upon a time, (i.e. last year) I was still a huge rap nerd, and hadn’t yet discovered all the other beautiful forms of music out there. I mostly listen to weird punk, jazz, or gaudy, disgusting 80’s r&b. I’m going through something in life.
But I can still talk rap with the best of them. I used to be a monster at freestyling and I’ve listened to most of the canon, most of it. I know who KRS-One and Big Daddy Kane and Rakim are. My favorite rappers are Andre 3000, Mos Def, and Lupe Fiasco. But J. Cole holds a special place in my inner-rap-fantasy death matches- he was one of the first rappers (probably one of the first artists) who I can remember purposely trying to listen to their whole album. So I owe him at least a blog article, right?
Shit, I think this critique of him is fair, well thought-out, and honest. But I think another perspective is needed to really capture what it is about Cole that makes him a significant artist-the critique is okay in its focus on him as an individual, but what is missing is the social dimension of his music. And this is where and how he’s surpassed his rivals (Wale, Mac Miller, Drake). His function in the bigger picture of pop culture is where his significance comes from. This is what you guys forgot. His awareness of this is the key to his success.
Something that surprises me is how many fucking rappers there are now. There’s probably like 15 really big names, maybe 20 or so coming up, and thousands just below the threshold, running in the indie scenes and making names for themselves. So where in all of this lies J. Cole? How does he stay afloat at the very top? How is it that he is respected in many of the deeper layers of fandom while still occasionally taking over the radio waves? Moreover, how does he survive with Kendrick Lamar around?
The critics mistake his ‘uniqueness as an artist’ and confuse it for his unique position, and wonder how the hell this guy is so prominent. Cole occupies a very special place in the rap-world, in this rap-moment… Witness his complexity: he is half-black and half-white, he has a college degree but grew up in hardship, he’s good hearted but tempted, he’s intelligent and sensitive but also calloused, experienced, and tough. He’s postmodern and millennial but he’s also classic, authentic, rooted. He’s a complicated guy. That’s why I’m writing about him.
I think the fact that he has a degree in communications and business is a major aspect of his fate as a rapper. He knows the insides of the industry, he understands America, he understands marketing and appeal like any good communications major… He knows he has a remarkable story and he knows how to make it relatable. In other words, J. Cole is obviously very aware of what he is doing. This fact can explain most of his music and the way it appeals to some and annoys others.
This awareness explains the critic’s argument that his albums ‘show their seams,’ and have this kind of contrived, premeditated mark on them, in the way the content of the lyrics and the feelings of the songs are arranged in the album. Like “this is the song about how hard I had it” and next comes “this is the song about partying” and after that, of course, the quintessential “I’m deeply questioning my life and career as a celebrity” song, the “I hate fame but I love fame but I hate capitalism but I love money but its not my fault” song. It gets tiring, they argue. You can feel him lurking behind the tracks, his persona isn’t immersed in the music, his fingerprints and handling are all over; you can’t fall into it and totally believe, like with Kendrick Lamar.
Cole, in contrast, is hopelessly contrived and conscious of his art. He’s aware. I would say that in his very best moments, Cole is rapping unconsciously, with just pure feeling, not giving a fuck. But that’s pretty rare for any artist. Except Kendrick, who does that always and uncompromisingly.
Cole can survive with Kendrick in the room, because they have slightly different core audiences. I feel like Cole is a little more popular with white people, women, and casual rap fans, whereas Kendrick is bringing hip hop back to a place of Blackness. Kendrick is a rapper’s rapper, a damn specialist, a purist’s dream in a time of white-infiltration into Hip Hop music (another reason why I turned away from hip hop).
Whereas Cole is more accessible, but maybe not quite as substantial. Their content is in a lot of ways similar but not totally from the same perspective. This accessibility is what allows him to survive but what simultaneously holds him back. yupp. It’s a doubled-edged sword.
It should also be mentioned that Cole is a rebel. He’s political. Socially and historically conscious. He’s pretty fucking real. or ‘woke.’ So his commercial debuts and his accessibility/‘relatability’ is a contrived plan, a fabricated attempt to win over listeners who would otherwise be stuck with G-Eazy or Drake. All of his mainstream dumbness is a calculated part of his mission to spread the Message far and wide. He wants to ‘enlighten the masses,’ bring to the casual radio-listener the content which normally gets stuck underground, in mixtape and indie circles. (‘the Single’s only the look to sell these brotha’s the book, I only hope that one day you read into it’). So when Cole waters down his intensity with shitty punchlines (no pun intended) he’s trying to be the ‘grimy, hard, raw’ rapper he thinks people expect. It makes his gems more digestible. He swims to the shallows to lead us to deeper waters.
In this light I am willing to overlook his shit-talk and his posturing as standard attention-getting filler and read it as an attempt at seduction, to sprinkle some sugar on the broccoli. Know what I mean?
Except that sometimes that shit just ruins the whole meal, the whole proverbial product. I stopped listening to Cole because his stupid punchlines would turn me away.
In terms of craftwork, Cole is undoubtedly talented, undoubtedly a deep thinker, but he’s just always holding back in his attempt to be appealing, to be liked. That’s his fatal flaw. He ruins his potential in order to be more mainstream, a sacrifice of depth for a gain in reach. He’s loyal to his vision of changing pop culture and not to glory. So in one stroke he’s garbage and greatness.
Like the critics noted, Cole is not really an innovator when it comes to flows. But it doesn’t matter, he’s musically proficient enough to easily adopt anyone else’s style and do it better. He takes classic styles and improves them to a technical perfection no one could possibly fuck with. He’s so much smarter and more experienced than other rappers, it’s almost not fair.
But he does have some fierce contenders who would be taking his spot if he wasn’t already there. I think there are more-underground cats who are possibly better than him, more daring and hungry. But they don’t have that special relatable factor. They don’t have the message either.
Cole’s significance as an artist of this generation is not in his extraordinary talent or hard work or good heart, it’s in his social function as a role model, a figure, something he talks about quite a lot. He’s a sell-out, but he does it for good reasons. He has successfully changed the conversation in pop music and made the main circles of hip hop more conscious and substantial. He kept his soul in the commercial shark tank and he’s inspirational for your kids. Give the man his due (: