There’s this new post about J. Cole circulating on Facebook that I thought I’d make light of, to illustrate a couple of points. The basic point of the post is to champion the lifestyle that Cole lives, which has it that “no one bothers him” and “he’s not stuntin” (sic) and “he sows positive energy, peace and charity.” Now, you might say, this last tidbit comes across as slightly ironic, seeing as J. Cole never smiles, under any circumstances whatsoever, and in the featured photo he’s actually wearing a t shirt depicting an angry black man with the words “I’ll be back” on it. Perhaps they’re perceiving some nuance in his disposition which is currently escaping me.
I mean, look: the basic “elephant in the room” is that everyone, apparently, other than me, hears something in this guy’s music that’s of value. I’ve always found it to really fail to glean canonical influence. Just last night, in another attempt to get into this dude, I turned on “No Role Modelz,” his most-streamed song, which boasts over a billion plays on Spotify. He spends the whole verses complaining about how he’s never had role models (apparently industry connections don’t qualify as “role models” in his book), for the chorus then to dissolve into this nauseating ad-absurdam repetition of the words “Don’t save her / She don’t wanna be saved”.
Aside from the fact, then, that the song doesn’t seem to be about anything, what I’m observing with J. Cole is a sort of capitalistic self-branding. It’s like he’s trying to build a resume and present it to us for our tribunal consideration: everything is meant to self-aggrandize, self-promote and idealize, to the point where the whole discourse is just ridiculously faceless. None of what he’s spouting amounts to his own, original ideas: all of these concepts, from underdog status in the world, to sexual conquest, to friendship, are ridiculously hackneyed themes in hip-hop. He’s attaching them to himself in order to wield a sort of theoretical, left-brain appeal, as if he’s running for office or attempting to gain some sort of occult popularity.
What’s lost in this endeavor are, well, a lot: character, bona fide, unique storytelling techniques, semantic coherence, original ideas and, as I observe before, the ability to absorb attributes of hip-hop music of the past and use them by improving on them for one original, symbiotic musical development. The chorus to “No Role Modelz” is basically a fast food jingle, repeated so many times you’ll think he’s having a seizure, and it doesn’t smack of any classics of yore, besides, of course, blatantly ripping off Drake’s aw-shucks, good-ol’-boy vocal style.
Drake came around and was honest and guileless and, through this knack, disarming and unbelievable. J. Cole basically came around and has done the exact same thing, replacing stories and intimate life episodes with general, banal, sleazy hip-hop “values” like blank quests for general adversity and antipathy, and, of course, boning. But nothing is real. None of the characters are developed, like Drake’s “wedding planner” wife, and neurotic, lonely and sycophantic mother. When it’s all said and done, we’re supposed to, as listeners, embrace J. Cole and his theoretical, a priori achievements in life. This young generation now is craving a “hero,” or “god,” in hip-hop, apparently, and J. Cole long, beautiful dreadlocks just possess an undeniably messianic quality, perhaps. But if the guy would ever actually say anything original, or succeed on his own terms in life and not ours and the industry’s, he might actually ever crack a smile, or indeed “sow positive energy” with a tie-dyed or “Good Vibes” shirt. When I met Black Thought of The Roots at their mural unveiling in Philadelphia in 2013 the guy was just this boisterous, unadulterated beam of pure happiness, smiling at me and not, apparently, manifesting a single non-judgmental bone in his body. Granted, he had the best band on the planet behind him, and he was pretty much just a battle rapper, with rubber-tongued Malik B. his right-hand man. Zeitgeists can certainly come in handly for an artist, sometimes, I suppose.
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