The most infamous debates about music in the Black community are the top five rappers and albums of all time. When discussed in good company, we learn how music shapes our perception of the world and is associated with our fondest memories. Unfortunately, the conversation is rarely productive with consensus and decorum never being reached.
Debates about a rapper’s ability are equally as frustrating. Assessing an artist’s talent requires examining things that casual conversations do not afford. Everyone has artists they like and dislike more than the general public, but we rarely have the freedom to describe those feelings. It often begins with one person claiming an artist is good and another taking the opposite position, with neither mentioning why the artist does or does not connect with them.
For me, this conversation usually involves J. Cole. The North Carolina rapper is one of the most popular of his generation, yet my relationship with his music and artistry is at best distant.
I was in high school the first time I heard J. Cole. Mixtapes like The Warm Up and Friday Night Lights caught the attention of my friend group because they met us where we were. Early in his career, Cole developed a loyal fan base by understanding their desires and giving voice to their concerns.
For an upper-middle-class Black kid, Cole’s music was especially easy to grasp. He passionately rapped about reaching for the stars, but with an awareness that he may fall short. I aimlessly went through high school unsure of my purpose, hoping another school wouldn’t reject me after seeing my unspectacular SAT scores. He spoke to moments like these and other situations I knew firsthand, like being the only Black kid in the classroom and being afraid to talk to the girl you meet at the mall. Despite the proximity to his lyrical content, I was hesitant to embrace Cole. Instead, I sought the rap of Curren$y and Wiz Khalifa, whose music exposed me to weed culture while bringing a relaxed ethos.
By the time I was in college, Cole was well on his path to stardom. He was no longer fighting for relevancy and was considered the future of rap. Albums like 2014 Forest Hills Drive and 4 Your Eyez Only elevated his standing and made us broaden the conversation to consider his place amongst the greats.
J. Cole’s latest album, The Off-Season, was released last week to a heightened level of fanfare. While I recognize his music has impacted so many, I have accepted it won’t connect with me on that level. My feelings towards J. Cole are influenced by how others see him, which initially framed my understanding and expectation of him.
You cannot discuss J. Cole without mentioning Kendrick Lamar. The two distinguished themselves a decade ago with styles that showcased their ability as storytellers. This approach was well-received by hip-hop purists as it contrasted rap’s growing adoration for catchy hooks and one-liners.
Lamar’s 2015 album, To Pimp a Butterfly, finds the Compton native playing the role of narrator as he assesses the state of America and his place in it. Lamar organizes the songs like chapters, which unveils the wide-ranging experiences of Black life, effortlessly moving between despair, anger, and joy. His role as narrator, his creative use of character, and his competing motives only complicate the narrative.
Meanwhile, J. Cole’s storytelling feels more declarative than poetry. Early in his career, he had an affinity with proclaiming his superiority, often referring to himself as the “shit.” With time, the wild swinging metaphors were less frequent — and absurd — as he shifted his focus towards societal problems.
On KOD, he targets younger rappers for their obsession with drugs and material things, which drew praise for its willingness to address heavy topics. Throughout his career, J. Cole has featured a seriousness that I find works against him. While I admire his tackling of cultural issues, I cannot ignore the method he takes to discuss them.
What frustrates me about J. Cole is that his lyrics about drugs or greed give us a partial view. To Pimp a Butterfly’s brilliance lies in its ability to be as comical as it is serious. One moment Lamar is drinking his pain away only to celebrate himself and those around him for the sake of survival. It presents the Black experience by omitting nothing, displaying the totality of our lives. J. Cole deals in absolutes by covering nuance. His matter-of-fact delivery takes the enjoyment out and feels like a TED Talk.
These moments make his music feel like a chore. That is not to say music cannot be political or artists cannot use their platform to spark needed conversations. J. Cole underwhelms in the way he approaches the topic. There’s a thin line between self-aware and self-righteous. J. Cole seems hell-bent on being right and rarely leaves the listener room to consider another opinion. It’s like Keenan Ivory Wayans directly looking at the camera and yelling “MESSAGE” making you overtly aware of what to take away.
With every album, J. Cole’s stature in rap grows while his time runs out. At 36, he is holding on to relevancy in a genre that is unforgiving to older artists. Seasoned rappers often fall victim to their worst impulses that don’t recognize their newfound status. J. Cole succumbs to out-of-touch luxury raps on “amari.” “If you broke, clownin’ a millionaire the joke is on you”, he passionately says. For many veteran rappers, their perceived “grievance” unlocks their best self, even if it now comes from a place of privilege.
Despite these shortcomings, J. Cole’s words have touched millions who welcome his music as an outlet. There is power in an artist tapping into the mind of their listeners. Cole makes his audience feel seen arguably better than anyone. Assessing his quality as an artist belittles his impact and contributes to conversations that too often end in a war of words. While his intention cannot be questioned, I accept that I need a different messenger.
Despite my distance from his music, I sometimes look at J. Cole and see myself. As an aspiring writer and co-host of a podcast, I worry about becoming yet another music snob or political junkie who doesn’t actually know anything. I fear becoming the next person whose words and opinions are received with rolled eyes and long sighs.
I share J. Cole’s tendency of being inside my head and overanalyzing everything. Writing this article has caused me to question myself. Am I choosing to write nearly 1,200 words about J. Cole to examine his artistry or convince the majority that he is overrated? Maybe I don’t like J. Cole because I feel he represents the worst of my habits. Or perhaps I am just like him, fighting for a pocket of space to be heard and feel like my words have meaning.