Seems like I always had crushes on chicks I couldn't have
And then I end up fucking with someone I shouldn't have
See, in my mind, it's like I'm perfect for her, I gotta show her
But sadly, in reality, dog, I don't even know her
The first time I heard it, I stopped dead in my tracks. J. Cole knew me. I was attending Thirsty University and when I wasn't exploring my budding love of hip-hop, I was crushing on ever single girl I came across on campus. I was falling in love with hip-hop at the same time I was falling in love with the girl in my Philosophy of Education class, but I had yet to come across an emcee who I really related to. Instantly I identified with this borderline stalker. He understood me, he was a common man, not just a rapper. He was instantly relatable. He was a normal human being in a world where they didn't exist.
As Jesse Pinkman rolled pantsless off the roof, I knew I liked him. Hell, I knew I was like him. Sure, I didn't sell or smoke meth but he was goofy, he sucked at school and he liked drugs. I could get down with him. With every "Bitch" I only became more enamored with his regularness. With every "bitch" I began to realize that he was the most likeable, most "normal" character on the show. He was a criminal with a big heart. He was relateable.
Somewhere along the way though, both Jesse and J. Cole lost their way. For Cole it came on Sideline Story. After three successful mixtapes it was time for Cole to step up his game, join the big time. We all thought he was ready to run with the big dogs, but as we found out, Cole just wasn't, not yet. Sideline Story had its moments, but ultimately it fit the stereotype of what happens when you sign a major label deal. He went from being the departure form the norm to the norm. Still, maybe even more heartbreaking, it never felt like it was his doing. If he had chosen to sell his soul it would have been one thing, but it felt more like he lost his way. He got swept up in the cars, clothes, girls and money and didn't realize it wasn't him before it was too late. It seemed like he was the victim of forces bigger than himself; he was swallowed up by the game.
Jesse too was swallowed up by his game. Sure, he hands weren't clean (neither are Cole's), but we saw time and time again instances where Jesse was a victim. He was a small-time punk who stumbled into a million dollar empire and didn't have the muscle or smarts to hang onto himself. After Hank kicked his ass, we saw how broken he was. Still, that was just the beginning. Five episodes later we stared him in the face as he took a "full measure." He pointed that pistol, pulled the trigger and a piece of Jesse died right along with all of Gale. This wasn't him and you could see it in his eyes. If it was Walt, Gus, Mike, or hell, even Skinny Pete, it wouldn't have been a big deal, but Jesse wasn't like the rest of 'em. He had a soul. Killing Gale was his Sideline Story. Shit got to heavy for him. He didn't want to be there, he didn't want to pull the trigger, but he had so many people in his ear, pushing him, that he couldn't stand up for himself. There was always something separating him from the others - he had never killed someone - but not anymore. He was brought to a level we didn't know he could reach by forces bigger than he was. Jesse didn't stand a chance and neither did Cole.
I can actually picture Cole and Jesse wallowing in self-hate together, passing a bottle around and drowning themselves in excess as they struggled to cope with their new identities. How did they get to this point? This wasn't them. What happened?! They were both tragic figures, victims of circumstance and forces out of their control, but they didn't stay that way for very long.
Considering how broken he was it's amazing Jesse recovered at all, but boy did he recover. He went from passing out next to Badger to flying to Mexico and meeting the head of the cartel. Shit, he did more than "meet" with 'em. After creating a batch of blue even Heisenberg himself would approve of, Jesse singlehandedly saved two of the toughest, most ruthless guys in the show. His excursion to Mexico, his acceptance into the Fring syndicate, was his Born Sinner. Though it looked good on paper, though he made some big steps to change his identity, he was ultimately a day late and a dollar short. Gus took him under his wing, but it all felt very artificial. Gus didn't care about Jesse, he didn't value him as an asset, instead he used him as a pawn to get to the Cartel and to whip Walt into shape. Gus gave Jesse the Roc Nation Pollos Hermanos chain - he made him feel like he was one of the greats - but deep down he never really belonged. You knew it, I knew it, Gus knew it, and I think, deep down Jesse did too. Like Cole, no matter how hard he tried to become something he wasn't, Jesse never became a major player. It wasn't in his DNA.
Though Cole by no means embraced his "bust" status, he certainly owned it, soaked it in, reflected on it. On Born Sinner, he showed us he was well aware of the transformation he had undergone (see "Let Nas Down"). Born Sinner was in a large part the way Cole tried to reconcile Sideline Story. Once he had wallowed enough, he got back on the horse and attacked his failings head on. He didn't embrace it the same way Jesse did, but he moved forward with the mission of taking back his identity. While it was an impressive attempt, it wasn't enough. He walked the walk and talked the talk, but something was still missing. It fell short. Like Jesse, no matter how hard he tried, no matter how much it looked like he belonged, he still seemed out of place amongst the rap kingpins. He could never command and captivate on the scale that the greatest of the greats do because he hadn't found his identity. Like Jesse playing a mobster, Cole was still trying to fit the mold of something he wasn't. They booth looked to others to help define their identity when it had to come from inside.
It's interesting that Cole's career-changing album was called Forest Hills Drive, because when we last saw Jesse, he was quite literally driving away from the madness, driving away from the world that chewed him up and spit him out. He was bruised and beaten but he had survived. In a dark, depressing series where pain and aguish were served up like breakfast, Jesse was a beacon of hope. Seeing him drive away, tears welling up (this time it was tears of joy) and a smile on his face gave me the impression he was going to be fine. Jesse had played the game and won, taken his shots but emerged intact. It seemed right for him to drive away because didn't deserve the fate of a Gus, Tuco or Walt. After all he wasn't one of them, why should he go out like them?
On Forest Hills Drive, Cole put it all together. He found his voice, a different voice from all the other rappers he was trying to emulate before. Like Jesse, he was free to go where ever he wants. I don't see him on fashion shows, but I do see him maneuvering through the rest of his career with a newfound freedom. He's broken the mold, and as result the world is his oyster. His old identity is in the rearview and now, free of what haunted him for so long, he can almost start a new.
J. Cole is the rap game Jesse Pinkman...Bitch!
[Lucas Garrison is a writer for DJBooth.net. His favorite album is “College Dropout,” but you can also tweet him your favorite Migos songs at @LucasDJBooth]