J. Cole, "Just Playin" & Facing the Firing Squad Without Fear

With just two words on "Fire Squad" J. Cole showed fear and taught us how to be our own leaders.

[Image via Lenuardo]

Fear can be found in hospital bedrooms, prison bathrooms, war zones, courtrooms, poverty-stricken neighborhoods and burning buildings. Fear can be found in the hearts of small children, teenagers and old adults. Fear can be found everywhere, even in the form of inspiration. Fear has fueled artists to create masterpieces. Yet, there’s another kind of fear that is completely unacceptable in art. The kind of fear that scares an artist into conforming, fear of scrutiny, fear of backlash, fear of having hordes of people with pitchforks upset because of your message. I know about this kind of fear, I face it when typing articles and foresee a comment section filled with burning torches and executioners wanting my head. Knowing all my good points will be ignored, that it will be hailed as clickbait, and I’ll be called everything but one of my many aliases. Writing about Eminem, Illmatic, Jaden Smith, each unpopular opinion comes with an aching awareness of unacceptance. My honesty has meant backlash from readers, fellow writers, even artists that I once acclaimed have responded with antipathy. “Be safe with your life, don’t be safe with your art,” is the mantra I've adopted, reminding me that I’m not writing for their praise, their acceptance, but to achieve a level of honesty that I seek in others. A reminder to never write lines with fear.

When I think of J. Cole the words boring, dull, or dry never come to mind. Instead I think of words like passionate, honest and candid. There’s a genuine energy that surrounds him, someone that doesn’t tuck away his normalcy to appear as a rap superstar. He’ll admit to being a signed rapper that’s struggling to pay back student loans. There’s no big, flossy chain to admire, no rented palace in Buckhead to envy, he’s a regular guy that happens to be rapper. It’s not an image he created but his natural personality. I think that’s what keeps him grounded, he’s aware of the world, not removed in some fantasy land. It’s apparent in a song like “Be Free.” You can hear it in his voice, a blend of emotions that range from sorrow and rage to desperation. You feel the lyrics on a deeper level, as if he was reading a scripture from the holy book. It’s not even a song but an outcry, the feelings that J. Cole poured from his heart resonating with an entire race of people. It didn’t seem like a Roc Nation orchestrated publicity stunt to promote an album or single. He didn’t wedge the issues as a punchline in a song about money or women, but a true, heartfelt dedication. Not only did he further raise awareness that was surrounding the Mike Brown and Eric Garner tragedies with a song but also joined the protesters as they marched for justice. Watching him was witnessing the power of one fearless voice that perfectly articulated what needed to be said and a compassionate artist that wanted better for the world.

I remember watching him perform “Be Free” on David Letterman, a song that wasn’t a single, wasn’t included on his upcoming album, he even added an extended verse that didn’t appear on the SoundCloud release. I was astounded, he'd rather promote social injustice than his forthcoming, fairly secret project. He was singing for deceased black boys and girls, black women and men that lost their lives to law enforcement on national television. I don’t expect every artist to speak out, especially if you aren’t aware or updated on the problems that’s unraveling around the world, but I felt proud that Cole used that stage as a platform to say something meaningful.

It’s this same admiration that later left me disappointed when I finally gave 2014 Forest Hill Drive a listen. There was one song that acquired instant attention from the public, “Fire Squad.” As I listened, I once again felt that feeling of respect rising as he floated viciously through the third verse, rapping about cultural appropriation while using Eminem, Macklemore, Justin Timberlake, and even Elvis as examples. This was a moment, this was a mainstream artist preaching about an issue that’s plaguing the culture, and then he mentions Iggy and I swell up with pride. The line is perfect, “This year I’ll prolly go to the awards dappered down, watch Iggy win a Grammy as I try to crack a smile.”



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If the song ended there it would’ve been perfect, encompassing exactly how how hip-hop felt, a true testament of her eclipsing presence, but the next line, “I’m just playin” left me cringing. It completely diminished the jaw breaking honesty. I heard fear. Nathan summed it up perfectly in his 1 Listen review of Forest Hill Drive:

Come on man, you said some real powerful shit, stand behind it. Don't hide behind a "just playing." You’re not playing, that was some very non-playing shit to say, don’t qualify it, don't excuse it.

It could’ve been pressure from the label or an attempt to keep a bridge from burning, but all the respect that built up for the message he preached immediately depleted. I saw him speak on Angie Martinez show, explaining the verse, digging into black culture’s appropriation, it was everything the song could have been, which only made me more dissapointed by those two little words on "Fire Squad." I play Forest Hills Drive nearly continuosly, but I can’t play that song, it’s the only one I skip on his album, it makes me feel worse than the second verse on “Apparently.” In that one small moment he showed an obvious, naked fear when he needed to be fearless, he was safe, sugarcoating, and it stung.

I don’t look at rappers or celebrities to be leaders, to be vessels for the voiceless, but I greatly appreciate the ones that do. Vince Staples didn’t have to use the video for his "Senorita" to illustrate a cultural issue, but he did, and it was powerful. I didn’t fault Young Thug when he told the reporter that he wasn’t going to bring social issues into his music. Young Thug is a young man that lives in the studio, on the road, focused on money, lean, beef and fellatio. I don’t look at him to be a figure in the community, to be a voice for my generation, unless that’s a role he desires to accept. I want artists speaking not out of guilt or obligation but out of a genuine passion for the problems plaguing places like Baltimore and Ferguson. When I watch Killer Mike on CNN, that’s someone I believe should be speaking on the issues. He has a great grasp on the present and the past and is able to speak his mind in a way that’s refreshing and enlightening. Mike can articulate his point with historians, journalists, Republicans, put him in any room and he’ll rumble in a way that you have to respect. I see that passion in Kendrick, J. Cole, Joey Bada$$, artists that want to be leaders for the new generation of hip-hop listeners, for my generation, for me.

I praise J. Cole for speaking on the subjects that continue to be overlooked. We are living in a time where black people are murdered and put on trial by the media, their character analyzed, their lives disrespected, disgraced, everyday I witness the news desecrate black graves. Black people are dying and resurrected as hashtags that are motivating dialogue, their stories shared to truth seekers that didn’t believe police reports over camera phone footage. The deceased are inspiring marches, marches that show places in America that does not resemble a land of the free, but a bar-less prison, and those hired to protect and serve are nothing but tyrants and cowards. Through social media we are witnessing dark days and bleak nights, images of unity and perseverance, the birth and death of hope. The world is literally on fire and there’s not enough genuine music reflecting the times. We still turning up and turning out, it’s bad, it makes you realize who cares and who doesn't. J. Cole cares. When I hear that line, the “just kidding,” it feels like fear, a fear I recognize in myself, a fear I'm working to completely kill. Honesty is necessary. Artists aren’t here to make anyone feel comfortable, babysit, listeners need a punch that will rattle them. An album of this caliber, of this acclaim, it needs a little controversy. A fire starter that inspires others to speak out. Having a song make such a statement will do much more than a tweet war that will be forgotten in a few hours. I’m looking for an artist that’s fearless because we have enough cowards. I want Cole to be that artist.

But it’s not just J. Cole's responsibility to be perfectly brave, the fans also have to be conscious of our role in these times. We have to be fearless with our support, sharing and spreading the message. A song like “Fire Squad” shouldn’t make headlines for being a diss record but for beginning conversations about cultural appropriation and how to prevent it from spreading. That kind of backing will only encourage more people to speak candidly and inspire less “just playing” disclaimers. We have to grow into a community built on bravery, unafraid to be honest without hesitation. I want to see honesty become a giant part in the progression of hip-hop. More writers and journalists speaking their truth instead of following line leaders. More rappers tackling topics outside of their comfort zones. More fans getting behind the ones that are promoting their message instead of citing who isn’t speaking. We can be the change. Let’s be brave together, not following J. Cole but marching alongside him into battle, perfectly fearless.   

[By Yoh, aka G.O.Yoh's.D., aka @Yoh31]


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