Not too long ago, anyone associating themselves with rap or hip hop in general was seen as rebellious, without morals, black, or trying to be black. However, times have changed and what used to be considered a “subculture” or “counterculture” is now, popular mainstream music. And like every era of hip hop, there are always MC’s who reign over the rest.
This particular generation of rappers has (debatably) 3 kings of rap. Kendrick Lamar, Drake, and J. Cole. While the other two artists are practically loved by most hip hop fans, not many are fond of J. Cole’s music, including his newly released album titled K.O.D.
Jermaine Lamarr Cole was born on January 28th 1985 and raised in Fayetteville, North Carolina. While he grew up lacking a lot of things, two things he didn’t lack were talent and hardship, which most of us know, are recipes for a great MC. He’s regarded as the Nas of this generation. Nick Genovese of America Magazine went as far as to call him the “Modern-day St. Augustine“. Now, we know he’s got what it takes to be at the top but he just raps about women, money, and drugs like everybody else in the rap game, right? Not quite.
Most rappers early in their careers (Cole included) rap about these things in a derogatory term. It’s just how it’s been for so long with people being less sensitive towards certain social issues. Social justice warriors, the feminist movement and gender equality weren’t a big thing at the time.
When it comes to women, Cole talks about finding “the one” or first loves and staying faithful. He also talks quite a bit about his experiences growing up with a single mother in tracks like “Apparently” from his 3rd album and “Once an Addict (Interlude)” from the latest one.
He doesn’t flaunt his own cash either. Instead, he talks about black people unable to earn a living or reach their highest potential due to the education system. In his track “BRACKETS”, he touches on how we don’t know if money donated these days actually reach their intended destination. And in “ATM”, he says
“Count it up, count it. Can’t take it when you die, but you can’t live without it”.
Paired with the visuals of his video, he claims that people are willing to sacrifice anything in return for bigger cheques. The majority of his music speaks about the experiences in his life be it with relationships, the black community or drugs. He’s known for being the rapper to go “multi-platinum without any features”. So why then, do people still not pick up what he’s putting down?
If you scroll through social media, online threads and the like, you’d see that the most common critique he gets is that he’s “boring”. But how can that be? A multi-platinum album selling artist… boring? If you’ve ever listened to a J. Cole song (subjectively), you’d know why people say that.
Unlike Kung Fu Kenny (Kendrick) and Drizzy (Drake) who have distinct voices, Cole has a more laid back and chill tone. He’s not as lyrically skilled as Kendrick, nor does he have catchy punchlines like Drake. But does that mean he’s not as good? Well, to be frank, every king has his own way of ruling over the rap game.
Murs from HipHopDX came up with a theory called the “3 Lane Theory”. In contemporary hip hop, there is the “Pop” lane, dominated by Drake, the “Hip pop” lane, dominated by Kendrick, and finally the “Hip hop” lane by the man in question, J. Cole.
He explains that the “Pop” lane is for selling records targeted to the mass where it’s catchy and people will bump in the clubs. The “Hip pop” lane has the same intent as the “Pop” lane but also has a message the MC’s trying to push out. Lastly, the “Hip hop” lane is for MC’s trying to deliver a message without caring whether it sells. And that’s exactly what Cole does.
Yes, his voice may not be the most recognized, yes maybe his beats aren’t the most iconic, and yes maybe his lyrics aren’t as deep as Kendrick’s but what he excels at is storytelling. He even said on “False Prophets”
“My highest moments come from tellin’ all the saddest stories I’ve seen in my life, I be fiendin’ to write Songs that raise the hair on my arms.”
Essentially, what he’s doing is weaving truth into his music. Those who’ve been through the same struggles will resonate with his music. With his immaculate songwriting, he’s able to paint a picture with sound and still be capable of writing “fire” lines like
“so ahead of my time, even when I rhyme about the future I be reminiscing”
“The problem with this game is this weak sea of rappers. I’m the answer on the low, I’m a cheat sheet for rappers.”
“I recognize that life is a dream, and I dream lucid.”
In his song “1985 (Intro to “The Fall Off”)”, he targets the younger generation of rappers typically known as “Mumble Rappers”. He gives them advice from the standpoint of someone who’s considered one of the greats. However, these “Mumble Rappers” didn’t like what he had to say. So, in line with Cole’s message of spreading positivity and love, he sat down with Lil Pump, one of the “Mumblers” who had beef with him, to talk it out. At the end of it all, both rappers had a mutual respect for each other.
The main objective of this album is to break the “small town mentality” and to bring to light certain issues he sees in the community. Sure, a lot of the things Cole says may be considered preachy, but love him or hate him, you can’t deny that he stands atop this current generation of rappers. One thing’s for certain, Cole looks hungry for more and this album, is only the beginning.