THE LORE OF J. COLE among J. Cole fans is potent. It goes something like this: talented, southern lyricist migrates up north, overcomes all obstacles to sign with Jay-Z—but corporate overlords force him to be something he’s not until he breaks free, as chronicled on 2013’s “Let Nas Down,”
a standout from his second album Born Sinner
(that put the rapper on the road to stardom).
It’s a neat narrative, tidy as to divide the roles cleanly. Cole, our innocent hero, versus “the label,” and all its capitalistic machinations. As tempting as that tale may be, it does a great disservice to J. Cole. It absolves him of agency in his own growth. The irony, also, is that it erases the missteps that truly mark his evolution.
A better demarcation point is Cole’s appearance at the 2013 BET Awards and the aftermath. Red carpet flicks captured Cole flossing in designer shades, a big gold chain and a Versace sweater. Rap star shit. The problem was DJ Drama and Brandon T. Jackson also wore the exact same top
to the same event. It’s a night Cole would later reference
when it came to his image overhaul. He went from the typical, idealized rapper outfit and a tight shape-up to sweats, jerseys and ‘locs. But the issue wasn’t the look, it was the lack of restraint toward the vision; his idea of stardom was gaudy and he drowned in the excess.
It’s not unlike his musical pursuits.
It isn’t a coincidence that J.Cole came to prominence amidst the Great Recession. Stripped of the need to impress upon fans how fly he was or how he partied due Wall Street’s woes, Cole instead used his considerable lyrical talents to tell smaller tales (with noble payoffs) across his trio of mixtapes from 2007 to 2010, highlighted by The Warm Up
’s “Losing My Balance
.” Case in point, in that song’s third verse, Cole documents falling hard for a young lady who he’s smitten by so much he makes sure to highlight her intellect in addition to her physical appearance. It’s a new feeling (and perspective) and he’s trying to reconcile the change it’s brought upon him. It’s a precursor to the domesticity he flashed on 4 Your Eyez Only
’s “Foldin Clothes,” a much discussed track in the Cole cannon.
Cole works hard throughout The-Off Season to revisit the hunger he had during his come-up, before his bank account had more commas than a college essay.
His sixth album, The Off-Season, released last Friday, also arrives during an economic downturn. Following a pair of concept albums, the aforementioned 4 Your Eyez Only and 2018’s KOD, where on the latter Cole flirted with being more KRS-One than Nas (a didactic downer vs. tryna kick knowledge), the new project is a return to austerity. His aim is tighter, his measure more refined.
On “applying.pressure,” he calls out rappers for ballin’ beyond their budget rather than minding the inspiration thats within their means:
These niggas’ whips hard, behind closed doors can’t pay the lease/
Ain’t nothin’ wrong with living check-to-check, cause most have to/
Instead of cappin’, why don’t you talk about being a broke rapper/
That’s a perspective I respect because it’s real/
What it’s like to be nice as fuck but got to stress to pay the bills.
He brings the track together honing in on envy and noting, despite his own millions, he’s worked to conquer measuring success and happiness by material standards. For good measure, he throws in a bar for neither the millionaire nor the hustler looking to improve their circumstances, but the complacent troll in the middle: Envy keep your pockets empty, so just focus on you.
His own focus on wealth on “100.mil” and “the.climb.back” during the country’s financial failings isn’t without pitfalls. Cole wants to provide a virtuous alternative to the One Percent (“It’s not about the money, it’s more about the time/Shit makes sense when you see how I spend mine,” he raps on the former.). It’s a line, however, that would likely unite Bernie Sanders and KRS in judgement.
Cole works hard throughout The-Off Season to revisit the hunger he had during his come-up, before his bank account had more commas than a college essay. On “my.life” he looks to shatter the mythology of the hustler turned rapper, noting his family tree is filled with users, so lessons on how to flip coins into cash were lost on him, resulting in empty pockets. The antidote to that adversity? Desire. Meanwhile, he serves up “close,” about a friend’s failed battle with drugs, as an allegoric examination of the choices we make and where they could take us. He’s been fostering this relatability since day one (see: Dreamville, Revenge of the Dreamers, A Dollar and a Dream tour, et. al) and it works most when he keeps things simple. His best work on this album is often songs that are merely one verse and one idea.
He wrestles with that idea, that the distance from his child’s innocence to his own experience isn’t as far as it seemed in his youth.
Where J.Cole truly soars, in this manner, is on “let.go.my.hand,” a breezy horn number with a boom bap drum backdrop. Blogs
and rap media
have excerpted Cole’s admission of tussling with Diddy as a headline, but that sells the song short. With its diary-like candidness, it’s not hard to envision the track as a sequel, of sorts, to “Losing My Balance.”
Some 12 years later, the young man who was looking for meaning in minutiae has matured into a man who can find symbols in moments. He begins by addressing religion, a light he recognizes but admits these days he doesn’t have the discipline to stick with it. A notion that’s not unlike many at home just trying to survive quarantine instead of striving for improvement. However, it’s the line that gives the song its title—recounting the first time his young son told him “Dad, let go of my hand,” that brings Cole’s genius to the forefront. His verse pivots to the lessons he’ll have to imbue on his progeny, equipping him with a toughness to survive, which forces Cole to reckon with what it means to be a Black man in America and raise one. He wrestles with that idea, that the distance from his child’s innocence to his own experience isn’t as far as it seemed in his youth. It’s a realization that cuts deep across a large portion of this country and connects more than any punchline Cole can offer.
It’s been asked many times: does man make the times or do the times make the man?
Perhaps that’s been the J.Cole lore all along.