[caption id=”attachment_2053” align=”aligncenter” width=”630”] (Photo provided by Flickr-Brandon Shigeta)[/caption]
I’ve never been to a J. Cole concert, but this is what I’ve heard. J. Cole wears jeans, a tee-shirt, and sneakers for his concerts. Here are two dissenting conclusions I’ve heard about his ensemble: (1) J. Cole is basic and (2) J. Cole is an everyman.
Are the two conclusions mutually exclusive?
No, of course not.
So the discussion is more about style than it is about who J. Cole is trying to represent. Do you prefer style or do you prefer the absence of style? And isn’t the absence of style really the presence of a particular type of style? Isn’t this particular type of style called basic? Sure, right, whatever.
J. Cole has released a promotional video for his upcoming album 2014 Forest Hills Drive, which was released on Dec. 9. The video depicts 29-year-old J. Cole’s return home to Fayetteville, North Carolina. J. Cole’s homecoming is bound to his desire for honesty. He is tired of Hollywood artificiality, of hip-hop’s deceitful side, and of Disney World simulacrum of all kinds. He is hyping his new album to be an opposition to those things. He did not produce a single off his new album; he is not subjecting himself to the whims of marketing techniques.
J. Cole explicitly states his intention for his new album. He wants to wipe away the lies that are created by artificial things. The happiness found in Hollywood and Young Money success does not last. It is unsustainable. There is, however, a constant to be found among our relationships with the people we love. J. Cole wants to make a home there, and invite us in.
What remains when you accidentally wash your shirt in hot water and the Nike symbol fades away? White, basically.
[caption id=”attachment_2054” align=”aligncenter” width=”630”] (Photo provided by Flickr-H D)[/caption]
Telling us where they came from is commonplace for any hip-hop artist we listen to. There may not be a more regional musical genre than rap music, nor an artistic movement so subjective as hip-hop, and for any creative person working in these fields, the process of (a) where you’ve been and (b) how it got you there is essential to being heard — to being authentic.
The complicated explanation for why rappers spell out where they are from, who they came up with and what has influenced them is that the entire medium is based on a trust between the audience and the emcee. The listener pays attention, bar for bar, only if they believe the lyrics are coming from a genuine point of view. The careers of hip-hop artists function much more like that of poets and journalists — authenticity matters. When’s the last time you looked up what neighborhood a guitarist or saxophonist or actor is from? For a lyricist, however, _where _the words come from are just as important — possibly _more _important — than the words themselves.
The process of how an artist earns the trust of its audience has become more complicated in 2014. The music industry, across all genres, has become saturated with the disingenuous and, quite literally, the blurred lines between the real and the fake are becoming more difficult to discern. In no other genre is this more evident than in rap music, where the commercialization of the genre has flooded the industry with wannabe-emcees attempting to make quick cash. “Rap artists” such as Flo Rida and Pitbull have made millions serving a watered-down product to the masses behind a dance-beat with lyrics just passable for Top 40 radio. (The role these two recording artists, and many others, represent in the historic and present racial tensions of this country go without saying.)
This point is related, however different, to the present whiteness in mainstream popular music. Macklemore winning the Grammy for Best Rap album last year is a marker in the history of music, and not because Macklemore is unfit to make his music — while I would argue Macklemore makes music that has more in common with Katy Perry than Kendrick Lamar, it is nevertheless pleasant, thoughtful and spirited — or because the award has any intellectual value. What the Grammys created, though, was a public forum to discuss what has actually happened to hip-hop and rap music over the past decade: white people snatched the sound.
While some interpret the J Cole lyric above as a diss at artists such as Eminem and Macklemore, the issue goes so much deeper than that, and J Cole, it seems, is intentionally trying to take the conversation there. There is no questioning Eminem as both a man of hip-hop and one of the all-time emcees — his entire career has been built off establishing authenticity, with both his fans and his peers. J Cole isn’t saying Eminem is part of the problem, just that Eminem, like Elvis before him, has become a symbol for big business motives playing out in the music industry. (Eminem has both acknowledged that same idea, as well as made fun of it and himself.)
Presumably, nobody hates being “the first successful white rapper” more than Slim Shady; that his prophecy of “20 million other white rappers” emerging appears to have come true must either make him laugh or cry or both.
Even with the controversy that recording artists Macklemore and Iggy Azalea bring to the table, how much of that is out of their control? Azalea has gone out of her way to tell her come up story, one of struggle and not of affluence, while remaining loyal to the veteran artists, notably T.I., who have put her on the map. What Ryan Lewis and Macklemore are doing is a red-hot popular music master plan — I don’t think they put out The Heist for the sake of stealing Best Rap Album at the Grammys. (Though there is some figurative meaning to be found in the album’s title.) Just because Macklemore and Azalea are white does not mean they are out to pervert hip-hop music into something as mainstream as the Disney Channel — even if they are, incidentally, what the music industry has been praying for the past decade.
J Cole has noticed that while white people have snatched the sound, the direction of hip-hop amongst black recording artists has grown ugly. There is an expectation that a black rapper must make music about excerpting one’s dominance over his peers — typically other black rappers. These same expectations are not held to Macklemore and Azalea, who in turn have made a much more universal and beloved product amongst, well, white people, and, in turn, the suburbs have made these two artists, and many others like them, very rich.
But, instead of having to put on a thug’s costume and devaluing peers with obscenities and empty threats, why can’t a black artist be just as successful for making music about loving oneself and others?
When my buddy Asif Kuma and I were discussing the state of hip-hop in 2014 and heading into 2015 last week, regretfully J Cole never came up. Part of that is because, truthfully, I have not listened to much of his music: Born Sinner wasn’t the album I bought on June 18, 2013. While I knew he was a young recording artist signed to the ROC, and that he was so inclined to tell us how he let Nas down, I didn’t know much about him. In fact, most of my association with J Cole before this month was that Kendrick Lamar begins his infamous list of peer rappers he wants to extinguish on “Control” with “and that goes for Jermaine Cole.”
And while it’s been nearly a year-and-a-half since that K-Dot verse — essentially Kendrick’s placeholder for new material in 2013 — shook up the entire industry, you could feel the reverb of that bomb all over 2014 Forest Hills Drive, J Cole’s first album since. The meaning of Kendrick Lamar’s verse is largely debated and, in some ways, severely misunderstood. But it appears that, consciously or not, J Cole and Kendrick have arrived in a similar place philosophically, as J Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive and Kendrick’s “i” seem to be deriving from the same meaning.
On 2014 Forest Hills Drive, J Cole asks us over and over again on his intro track who we want to be, and if we want to be happy, and by the album’s end, with “Love Yourz” and within his monologue on “Notes to Self,” J Cole stresses to us that loving yourself is the key to happiness. Filling in the center of this album is the chronological tale of his own journey to loving himself and performing for happiness and not fame. He tells stories of his youth, like his first time having sex, when he pretended he wasn’t a virgin to impress his girl only to find out that she was a virgin herself.
He comes in and out of characters he has met along the way, like his friend who had the balls to call him out on being a screw up, or a young man who robs in order to shine. This album is less about where he is from (Fayetteville, North Carolina) and more about every person being from somewhere. In other words, J Cole has put out one of the most ambitious hip-hop albums of the year.
Asif and I had a hard time placing our finger on a best album of the year in hip-hop before spending some time talking about Logic’s Under Pressure and acknowledging the success of Azalea’s _The New Classic. _But throughout the entire year, and specifically the past six months of heavy tension out of Ferguson, New York City and around the country, there was a dearth of music that adequately addressed what we were reading about in and watching every night on the news. Somewhere on the scale between Bobby Shmurda and “Fight the Power,” there had to be someone who was willing to say something critical and intelligent. (Or is it Talib Kweli’s job to speak about everything?)
2014 Forest Hills Drive has the emotion of Ferguson and Staten Island baked into it. The choice for J Cole at this point in his career to make an autobiographical album, at first, seemed oddly timed. But what better way to say “we’re all the same because we all came from somewhere” then to take his audience back to the beginning, and to show them he isn’t perfect and that chasing fame can’t make you perfect. J Cole asks why do all rich black men have to be famous, and all poor black men have to be brainless — a question that has never been so timely when the first black President of the United States is getting booed out of office and poor young blacks are arriving dead on the news every night.
And at the same time, this album is refreshing because it isn’t asking the listener to pick a side or point a finger. While our country’s media coverage of these tragedies is sensational, damning and poisoning the minds of its audience, demanding its viewers to take a side, J Cole and Kendrick Lamar are asking us to look inside for answers. Their music is asking us to love ourselves, first and foremost, so that we can better understand the source of anger or hatred coming at us. J Cole addresses Kendrick and Drake personally by the album’s conclusion, saying that there is “love at the top” of the game. Perhaps there was never any loss of love between the giants of hip-hop to begin with.
If you consider the real point of “Control” and Kendrick Lamar’s wake-up call in 2013 — that it was a reaction to the socially ambivalent state of hip-hop: the era of Flo Rida and Pitbull but also 2 Chains — perhaps K-Dot’s lyrics about silencing his peers were intended to be an opposite force. He was calling out the strongest and most willing participants to make stronger and more willing music. Roughly 18 months later and at a time of absolute social unrest, Kendrick and J Cole are putting out music that demands the listener take stock in their own self worth and to refuse to be treated as anything less. It’s a message that we can all use — black or white, male or female, rapper or late night talk show host, etc.
We aren’t that different. We all came from somewhere. And no matter what you are told to think or feel, or who you are supposed to be, do not forget that you are free to love yourself without hating the other.