Idols and Rivals
J.Cole's talks about every artist's struggle with building a music career of consciousness!
I'm relatively late to the J.Cole party and that has a lot to do with the fact that I have a comfort zone when it comes to hip hop; and that comfort zone is firmly rooted in the 80s and early 90s. Since Kendrick Lamar's release of good kid, m.A.A.d city, I have been highly skeptical that there will be other revolutionary records that would captivate my attention, the way K Dot has. Kanye, though brilliant, had failed to rouse my interests with Yeezus, with the exception of Black Skinhead and New Slave; tracks that are smothered with consciousness but still mostly borrows materials from other artist (You may want to check out Saul Williams, for instance). And then there was Jay Z's attempt at a come back…we'll save that chat for another time. Wale didn't quite do it either with his album Gifted; and so on and so forth.
So, you can understand my resistance at giving J.Cole's album Born Sinner any more than a review of "grand title, disappointing entrance". However, after listening to the tracks Let Nas Down, Born Sinner, and Crooked Smile I had to admit that I may have been wrong, at least in part. The most striking revelation for this born-again Cole listener came in the third stanza of Let Nas Down. Just shy of three weeks ago, I had a similar conversation with a friend about her musical goals during our insightful drive through Oakland; J.Cole's lyrics seemed to mirror our perspective on the role of musicians in the pop industry. What is the role of an artist in the grander scheme of music creation and art-activism? This is a philosophical debate that many artist struggle with as they determine which road to take in developing their career as musicians.
I'm grateful to be exposed to so many talented, yet relatively unknown, artists who work traditional jobs most days of the week in order to create and self-produce wonderful pieces for public consumption. Unlike household names, who boast records deals and access to well-equipped studios, these local and growing hub of musicians create alchemy in tiny kitchens and micro-spaces. Their final creation is a true testament to the will and ingenuity of the youth of my generation. However, with this hustle comes the big question of whether to remain underground, building only for those who seek them out and understand the movement or to travel the well worn path into the ominous "music industry". This is no small decision! It is a choice that can and has had a grand impact on careers and on the strength of musicians' fan-base; even more intimately, it has impacted relationships with family and friends who have their own strong opinions about this issue.
For me, I believe J. Cole really addressed the challenges eloquently in Let Nas Down. His intention in putting out what was deemed a "mainstream" record, was to attract the listeners outside "[his] core" towards his other less mainstream tracks; that is the music they would otherwise have not explored had he not put out that single. Cole's intention was to "reintroduce 'em to honesty, show 'em that they need more/ the difference between the pretenders and the Kendrick Lamars." This is a very powerful message and I know at least for some of my friends in music, this is the attraction of entering the music industry. It is an opportunity to revolutionize the musical and lyrical landscape as have been done by the Nas's, Tupacs, Run DMCs, Dillas, and Flying Lotus's of the world. For others who prefer to remain in obscurity, the thought of cooperating with established music institutions is seen as a betrayal of art-activism. This argument holds strong also. We've seen many young artist who churn out 1-minute hits that are all but forgotten post-hangover. These two paths have created rivalry; the cool kids versus the sellout. It has become a black and white world for most.
At some point an artist will stand on the cross roads between mass popularity and musical obscurity. In some cases there isn't much of a choice, as an artist becomes more and more popular, receiving acclaims from diverse media sources and celebrity endorsements; they have unwittingly entered into the pop culture they worked so hard to avoid. J.Cole saw the writing on the wall and took the opportunity to transform a hard situation into missionary work for conscious music. He believes in the bigger picture. Let Nas Down's lyrics became messianic as Cole depicted himself as a divine sacrifice in the "greater purpose" of bringing the fans home to better music. Cole sees himself as a "man of the people, not above but equal/ And for the greater good [he must] walk amongst the evil". For those who see their role as artist, whose work is rooted in activism and education, this perspective resonates with them. Their every step and every purpose works towards the liberation of fans from "fake shit." A worthy cause one would say; however, walking this path is no easy feat. There is always the greatest fear of losing oneself, one's identity (also recognized by J.Cole); something not many artist will be successful at avoiding. The solution to that is another article waiting to be written but for now we look to Idols to set the standards. Music will always be divisive and it will always have its rivals.