WORDS BY BEN FREEMAN
Over the past five years J. Cole has firmly cemented himself as one of this generation’s defining artists. He’s someone who has continued to deliver, whose albums have time-after-time received critical acclaim – and understandably so. If he persists at this rate, he truly will be remembered as one of music’s greats.
The Fayeteville native is masterful in picking up a topic on one song – or even one verse – and having smoothly transitioned into another polar opposite topic before you even peel back the layers of the first topic he was rapping about. It’s a skill. It’s an art.
I’d be lying if I said I was a day one fan of the thirty-one year old; in fact it’s quite the opposite. When I first heard him, I heard Work Out and remember thinking he was a radio rapper, nothing more – and remember what they say about first impressions. I heard a couple of other songs upon my friend’s persistence, but it still wasn’t happening – I couldn’t work out how people dared mention him in the same breath as Kendrick. I’ve since learnt that, yes Work Out is probably one of his weakest, most generic songs, but it is by no means reflective of what the artist has to offer.
Here I expand on some of his greatest lyrics:
No Role Modelz –
Prophecies that I made way back in the Ville, fulfilled
Listen even back when we was broke my team ill
Martin Luther King would have been on Dreamville
It’s 2014. Cole’s hot off of a world tour and he’s at the pinnacle of his career. It has reached the stage where a collective “damn.” can be heard from all his hometown haters who never had faith in him – even though Cole had a dream that he never doubted would come true; just like Dr. King (MLK – I have a dream). The comparison between the two runs so deep that Cole feels he can ally himself with the late civil rights activist; even claiming Martin Luther King would have signed to his record label Dreamville.
It’s like Sony signed Basquiat
He gave it all he got, and now a n***a don’t paint the same, damn
Being one of my favourite J. Cole tracks, the inclusion of lyrics from Rich N****z was a certainty; the only debate was which lyrics to include. The lyrical excellence in the song, all whilst telling an incredible story, is something to behold. Basquiat, for anyone unsure, was a New York artist active during the late 70s and 80s prior to his premature death.
In this hypothetical lyric, Cole analogises what he’s afraid of happening to him. He’s scared that now he’s broken through to become a mainstream artist, the money will change him; he’s scared his music simply won’t be the same. Cole gave it everything to get to the position he’s in now and being signed to Jay-Z’s label is symbolic of this, but he’s beginning to question whether this position is going to help his character grow, or just help his pockets grow. Much like if Basquiat were to be signed to a major agency, and then no longer be able to reproduce the same level of art.
Sometimes she hate the way she raised me but she love what she raised
Can’t wait to hand her these house keys with nothing to say
Cole is no stranger to dropping references to his mother, Kay Cole, on a real personal level – here is no exception. Having grown up relatively poor, seeing his mum addicted to drugs and without a biological father, Cole’s younger days were pretty difficult. His mum despises that she put him through that – but it’s all contributed to Jermaine becoming the person he is today.
The way Cole finds strength to talk about such personal family events displays his ability as a storyteller and his ability to fluctuate his subject matter with ease – and this is why he is looked upon as one of the realist musicians in the game. A lot of artists attempt to cover a broad spectrum of concepts in their work, and often it feels very forced; with Cole, no such can be said.
We so elated, we celebrated like Obama waited until his last day in office to tell the nation, brothers is getting their reparations, hey
A man can dream, can’t he?
No disrespect, in terms of change I haven’t seen any
Maybe he had good intentions but was stifled by the system
And was sad to learn that he actually couldn’t bring any
That’s what I get for thinking, this world is fair
They let a brother steer the ship
And never told him that the ship was sinkin’
This is an example of the lines between Hip-Hop and poetry becoming extremely blurred; this is spoken word. This part of the verse particularly alludes to comparisons to Tupac Shakur. ‘Pac became famed as a proponent for political progression through his music – J. Cole mirrors that here by also using music as a platform to advocate for change.
This is arguably one of Cole’s greatest lyrical displays. He so accurately metaphorizes a concept that is far from simple, being the American political system and how it has inhibited Obama from really bringing change to the people he represents.
Nothing Lasts Forever
Holler whenever, cause you always got a friend in me
And nothin’ lasts forever, least we got these memories
This track unveils another facet of his artistry. In today’s mainstream hip-hop, virtually anything that isn’t drugs/guns/cars/b*tches can seem alien. For Cole to consistently lay out verses on love, loyalty and pain and still be respected for it certainly doesn’t follow the braggadocio agenda. And plus, this track hits me on a personal level; the mantra ‘nothing lasts forever, so create memories and enjoy it whilst you still can’ is something that just resonates with me.
Made me reflect on the times when we was three-fifths of them
In chains and powerless, brave souls reduced to cowardice
Slaving in the baking sun for hours just
To see the master creep into the shack where your lady at
Nine months later got a baby, that’s
Not quite what you expected, but you
Refuse to neglect it, cause you
Know your wifey loves you, thus you refuse to accept it
That’s the type of shit that turned my granny light-skinned
This entire segment of Cole’s 3rd verse is in reference to slavery and the repercussions of it. I had heard this track countless times before I really listened to it and heard the true meaning. But when I did, it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up – and that’s no exaggeration.
I’d argue that this is one of the most personal verses Cole drops, addressing a shameful, deep-rooted stain on American, and for that matter also White, history. Even in spite of this, Jermaine approaches the topic which, it goes without saying, has hugely altered the course of his life with diplomacy and finesse.
To begin with “when we was three fifths of them” refers to the three-fifths compromise. When the Constitution was first published in 1787, this clause limited a Black person to being three-fifths of a human being. This meant when the populations of cities or states etc were taken, a Black slave was counted as three-fifths of a person. This clause stood for over 100 years and even after it was abolished with the Reconstruction amendments, Jim Crow laws were introduced which still limited the rights of Blacks in America.
Having set the scene, Cole proceeds to tell a story that is honestly enough to make you shiver. He speaks of a slave master raping a slave who then gives birth to his baby. When the baby is born mixed-race, the husband of the slave who was raped is understandably confused and torn; but this isn’t enough for him to neglect the baby and his wife, therefore raising the child as if it were his own. As if this narrative isn’t heart-rendering enough, Cole drops one last piece of information; an act like this is what turned his grandmother light-skinned. When I realised the deeper meaning of this verse, I was kind of left speechless by the harsh history and reality of the story, but I was also left in awe of J. Cole’s excellence in telling it.
J. Cole is one of the most multi-dimensional rappers of
our generation all time. Period. His, at times, complex context and illustrative lyricism is balanced by his ability to go to work on a track that people can vibe out to under any social scenario.