The son of an African-American war veteran and a European American mother - J. Cole was sat in-between two sides growing up that don't necessarily play well together in the US. But it's this unique perspective that shaped his artistic output.
J. Cole abundantly holds many traits that are absent in the current music industry - especially rap. He's modest, self-reflective and holds a perspective that's unremittingly balanced. He seems to view his life from a birds-eye view - watching things unfold on every side, played out by all colours. He seems older and wider than his 33 years.
The ending of his track Immortal from 2016's 4 Your Eyez Only album is a powerful reminder that we have more agency than we think - we are infinitely capable as long as we have the right role-models offering us the proper guidance. He raps the mantra "Real niggas don't die" until he reaches the crescendo:
"They tellin' niggas sell dope, rap or go to NBA, in that order.It's that sort of thinkin' that been keepin' niggas chained at the bottom and hanged
As much a critique of America's socio-cultural relations as it is a stab at rap music itself. The genre glorifies drug-dealers - the life of crime is portrayed as the way out of poverty. Granted, it's one way - but Cole wants us to know it's not the only one. He's taken one of his option, becoming a rapper - but why not aim higher, play basketball at the highest level - or beyond.
His upbringing between a white mum and black dad meant that he experienced what one life could offer, yet remained firmly in the other. He saw what life was like to be white in America - the ups and the downs. But he looks black, taking his father's features - so that's still the life he had to live. Cole's output lacks aggression, a defining feature of the genre - the railing against conditions imposed by one ethnicity onto another.
Just as the majority of black people in these social conditions don't sell drugs, the majority of white people are distressed by their country's racist past. Cole tackles the issues more tenderly, yet doesn't lose the power of his more firebrand contemporaries. America's race problems are complex - although it can seem simple and clearly defined if that's the only life you know. Remember, Cole has the gift of perspective from both sides - allow him to be your guide.
His criticism is more constructive, his understanding more nuanced, playing instead on the everyday anxieties of America's black population. In Neighbours he introduces the track repeating "I guess the neighbours think I'm selling dope". He's a young successful black man - that's often treated with suspicion. It's not hard to imagine people assuming where his cash came from. He goes on:
"Some things you can't escapeDeath, taxes, NRA
No matter how big you get, you can't outgrow the conditions that you grew up in. The conditions that condition the way you think, feel and act. J. Cole breaks stereotypes in many ways. He's happy to open up about youthful misadventures, feeling inadequate and his conflicting thoughts on fame.
At the beginning of this year a conversation between Cole and radio host Angie Martinez dropped on YouTube over an instrumental beat. The track The Disease of More (Reflection) is an elaboration on Cole's personal philosophy and thoughts on materialism. In the track he muses on the idea of chasing 'things'. The idea that reaching a goal, when based on material possessions, is an ever moving goalpost. If you reach 5 million dollars, you'll want 10. If you get a certain car, you'll want another one. "We're placing our importance on the wrong things. We've let the system and the world tell us that these things are important." It might sound easy to say if you're rich, but he approaches that too.
He talks about the expensive jewellery that he owns, the lifestyle that he can lead. But also realises that when he first bought these things that it was for the wrong reasons, that no matter what you have, it'll never be enough. It took him to have those things to discover that deeper truth.
J. Cole is a rapper like no other. With his new album, KOD, releasing today we will find out if he can step up to the plate - if he can go beyond the rapper we want and become the one that America needs. Since his last outing in 2016, much has changed. There has been a plethora of artistic responses to various social and political situations, yet they fall short - they delve into cliche and stereotype and end up missing the heart of the problem. If anyone is capable of using his balanced view to restore order - it's J. Cole. It's what he was born to do.
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