J. Cole’s recent visit to San Quentin prison is a reminder that Cole is cut from a different cloth than some of the other rappers of this generation. Throughout his career, he’s continuously showed us that he’s not about the gimmicks, drama, or flexes, but genuinely does it for the music and message. In fact, back in 2009, Jay-Z did us all a favor in signing Fayetteville’s J. Cole to Roc Nation and bringing his talent to mainstream. Since then Cole has been an enormously positive influence, which is something that I look for in rap music.
Rap has gone through many iterations throughout the years, and somewhere along the line, a disconnect occurred between the music and its original purpose of telling real stories and “being the voice of revolution” as 9th Wonder recently mentioned in his The Open Mind interview. There are talented artists out there who have taken rap to another level creatively such as Travis Scott and ASAP Rocky, but very few artists represent the conscious “fight against the system,” and who aim to “teach the youth” in the millennial generation.
Of course, we have Kendrick Lamar, Chance The Rapper, and recently Vic Mensa addressed some of these issues with his new album The Autobiography — but someone that has continuously earned my respect on and off the stage is J. Cole.
What makes Cole so great is his ability to speak to everyone across different demographics, without compromising his voice as a black man in the United States. Plus, his music is engaged in real story-telling, like when he recalls losing his virginity in “Wet Dreamz” or the birth of his first child in “She’s Mine Pt 2.” Another example is on the song “Chaining Day,” which expresses how he felt when he bought his first expensive chain. It was a battle between using the money for something else — like a house for his mom — versus the “black man” in him that said: “You better buy this chain so you can flex.”
Cole has always been aware of his blackness and the assumptions that come with it. On the song “Chris Tucker” off his Truly Yours 2 mixtape he raps “she thinks I’m in the NBA, why a n**** can’t have his MBA,” and “Next time I’ma flip the script, you know, kick some sh*t that’s gon’ shock her/ ‘You’re so tall, what team do you play for?’ No b*tch, I’m a doctor.” These bars tackle the presumption that a black man can only be flying in first class if he plays basketball. More recently, a track off his latest album, “Neighbors,” questions why black people can not live in a nice neighborhood that’s “surrounded by the trees and Ivy leagues” without selling drugs. Cole’s discography is filled questions for the system — but that’s not the best part of his music.
The number one thing that makes J. Cole important to the millennial generation is his ability to encourage the youth. Cole has made it a point in his career to tell his fans that they can be whoever they want and that hard work is always met with success. He shares his financial hardships and setbacks to encourage the youth to no give up on their dreams. In songs such as “Sideline Story” from his first studio album, he expresses the struggle of waiting for you turn, but also believing in the reality that it will come. He advocates for people to love themselves in “Crooked Smile” and teaches us that things take time, and change can only come from within us in his song “Change” from 4 Your Eyes Only.
For millennials who love hip-hop, Cole is like that uncle whose lap you sit on as he tells wise stories that you can apply to your life. His music aims to teach, encourage, and instill confidence in the people who are listening. He carries himself throughout the industry as an adult by not allowing drama and scandals to taint his image, keeping the focus on his music and the message. For him it’s not even about the money, which is different from the rappers that have recently gained popularity.
In April, 16-year-old Lil Pump, who has a discography of nine songs, released a snippet of a song that says “f*ck J. Cole” eight times and then continues on call him a “b*tch” and “ugly” for the rest of it. I’m not sure if there’s more lyrics to come… but when his snippet was released Twitter went in a frenzy. Of course, given the confusion America is embroiled in under Trump’s presidency, and looming threats like nuclear war becoming more real every day, I’m sympathetic to fans of Lil Pump, whose aggression and nihilism is appealing right now.
But as for J. Cole, who has sold out stadiums for a tour that was barely promoted, and now has two platinum albums with zero features, his work speaks for itself. J. Cole is a true rap legend in the making and he’s using his power for good. His visit to San Quentin to hear real life stories of people who are on death row demonstrates the importance of connecting with those who inspire you. He takes those stories and experiences, adds an original beat, and delivers them to us in the form of quality music. He’s our rap uncle because he’s not here to poorly diss rappers for clout, flaunt money phones, or pose with guns for hype. Cole wants us to take advantage of knowledge in between his rhymes and use them as a lesson — whether it’s about injustices, money, or love — so we can grow to be who we dream to be.