Is J. Cole the Voice of Our Generation?
It's truly a blessing being a millennial, I hate that label for the record, and I used it only because it's fitting. I’m blessed not because of gifts like Amazon Prime, but more importantly because I grew up on hip-hop when it became a controversial yet powerful form of expression. Fortunately hip-hop, one of the many art forms we created, is still somewhat under our creative control. This control is displayed particularly in some of our current hip-hop leaders, Kendrick Lamar and J.Cole. Going against the norm these artists have built their career with a worldwide fan base without club records. Instead they use their voice to paint a picture with their personal stories and struggle, a struggle many of us can relate to. In his latest offering, 4 Your Eyez Only, J. Cole touches many topics like survival, love, death, success, parenthood, the drug game, racism and mass incarceration; heavy shit right? Will this project keep the multi-platinum North Carolina rapper on the pedestal as a leading hip-hop voice of our generation?
Coming off a double platinum plaque and world tour for his last album 2014 Forest Hills Drive, it’s safe to say Cole knew his next project had to be phenomenal. Similar to the FHD campaign however there wasn’t a lead radio single or interview to announce his new project. The new project wasn’t released as a total surprise however like FHD, this time around he dropped a documentary along with a couple of street singles, everybody dies and False Prophets. The latter had the streets buzzing with it suspected shots to Kanye West and Wale. Hip-hop is always inviting to a diss track unless it’s from Soulja Boy. The tracks definitely reminded us the emcee is a spitter as he eloquently reminded us bars still matter. Days after the tracks shook up the game, the track list was revealed and we saw the aforementioned tracks weren't on the album. So where was this album going? FHD was a very personal, project for Cole with tracks taking us on a trip from losing his virginity (Wet Dreamz), awakening to his blessings regardless of his hardships and slim pockets (03’ Adolescence) then closing out with my personal favorite, his ode for gratefulness and happiness (Love Yourz). Oddly enough even with his success and accomplishments on the lead track of the new album For Whom The Bells Tolls where Cole says “Tired of feeling low even when I’m high/Ain’t no way to live, do I wanna die?” The publicly discreet rapper never had a problem leaving his feelings in his music. It appears this album is going to give us another page of his life but as you dig deeper in the album we find out there is another tale being told on these tracks.
The beauty of Cole’s last two projects is the stories subtle cohesiveness. Unlike Kendrick’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City which plays out like a modern Boyz In Da Hood, the tracks on 4 Your Eyez Only stand strongly alone but are all tied together to set the foundation for the final 9 minute title track. With only 10 tracks, Cole paints his mental growth to manhood, the ills of being black in Amerikka while pursuing his dreams of success without succumbing to the streets. On the same tracks however we call tell Cole isn’t just rapping from personal experience, it’s like some Travolta/Cage Face-Off shit. He isn’t discussed directly except on Change but the album’s protagonist really is James. As Cole’s friend we see they share the same ambitions of success but the grip of the streets were too tight. James knows the likelihood of getting out is bleak with the path he is on so he has to choose “To die a young legend or live a long life unfulfilled.” The pessimistic mentality has James questioning if he will make it another day throughout the album but he finds great joy when his girl and daughter bring new purpose to his life on She’s Mine Pt.1 & 2. While we sonically travel with James struggles, Cole draws even more questions if integration was really beneficial on the track Neighbors. The album’s undertones and message are intense, regardless of your status and lifestyle, the black man is always at risk in Amerikkka. Even when we are trying to live the American dream legally or illegally, our expected destiny is to either be broke, in jail or dead.
Was James at fault for his untimely death? The odds appeared to be stacked against him but besides trying to dodge the pen there was another force working to steal his life, his peers. On Ville Mentality there are excerpts of a young girl reflecting on her father who was set up and murdered. This isn't art imitating life either, Elite longtime Dreamville producer said in an interview with Complex:
“I really love the little girl on “Ville Mentality.” She brings tears to my eyes when I hear her talk. That was a little girl in a school. Cole went to Fayetteville one day and just sat down with some kids and spoke to them and recorded it. And he got them to open up and say these really powerful things.
What she said, it hit me pretty hard, and I think other people are going to connect with what she was saying because it was just…talk about a window into what’s wrong with America. It’s right there. And it’s a little girl. If you can’t feel that, you’re not human.”
Why is the facade that death is a passage to being real? Your value is worth more than becoming a face on a t-shirt. We are all living the same struggle and we will never progress fighting one another when THEY are already destroying our families and locking us up. For progression and change to occur however we have to fix our damaged communities and love one another. As a unified force black folks can do anything, look how far we came already but the struggle still continues.
“I know you desperate for a change at the pen glide/But the only real change come from the inside”
Lastly there isn’t a required intellectual capacity to enjoy this or other Cole projects; you just weren’t into it. Granted music does not resonate the same with every set of ears it touches, that’s art. Our different taste in music does not alter the way the world sees us. Additionally, your tastes in music has and probably will change, at one point I thought Drag-On was the future of hip-hop. (I don't think I'm alone on that one either). So I rather not bicker online who is or isn’t hot in the game. We have more important, life threatening issues we need to tackle as a people. So you can stan for Cole, Kendrick and Drake. You can stan for Young Thug, Ugly God and 21 Savage. You can stan for today’s hot SoundCloud sensation. Let’s appreciate this art that started on the mean streets of NY. This platform that is now loved and appreciated worldwide has provided a voice of stories at one point no one would listen to. James story on 4YEO is nothing new to you or me. But plenty are unable to relate. This is a story they need to hear. So I'm extremely appreciative of artists like Cole who display more than “blunts, 40’s and bitches” in their music. 4 Your Eyez Only is music of our generation, music documenting the black experience in America.