Suffering From Success: J. Cole's Dark Days During Bright Times

Cole's career is at a peak, but he seems to be more tortured by his success and the world than ever before.
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Cole's career is at a peak, but he seems to be more tortured by his success and the world than ever before.

There was no warning of what awaited before I pressed play - no disclaimer of the swirl of feelings that would be summoned once the song started. The surprise is why I can recall the ache in my heart, the chills down my arm, the emotions beating against my chest like a series of massive waves before forming into one big tsunami of feelings. I wasn’t prepared to hear J. Cole bare his pain on my first listen of “Be Free,” or my second, or my third.

Pain, it hangs on to his every word, it’s tattooed on his raw vocals, and branded on the melancholy piano loop. The pain feels familiar, the kind you see in the eyes of your mother after reading an article about another black man or woman murdered by the hands of a police officer, the pain you see in the eyes of marchers who sing in the streets for justice time and time again, you see it so often it feels almost normal, Cole channeled that feeling, that hurt. Two years have gone by since the release of “Be Free," since Cole took to his Twitter and said “Stop Fuckin Killin Us,” and two years since the murder of Mike Brown.

Jack Kerouac once wrote, “One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.” Cole’s words were right, they were simple, yet full of power and meaning. More than just hearing the words, you felt the deep empathy that inspired them. In my eyes he was never the rapper who wore his heart in his notebook - he’s been personal and deeply introspective, but rarely overwhelmed and overflowing with raw emotion. I thought of “Be Free” this weekend as “Jermaine's Interlude” played, listening to the lyrics, but really tuning in to the tone of his voice. There’s an apparent touch of sorrow that can be heard from the first, “Oh, I had so many days of crying” to the last shocking line confessing his contemplation of retirement. The short, stream of conscious verse revealed that while it may appear that Cole is in the best phase of his career - married, double platinum (with no features), a Forbes list earner - he seems to be battling with something internally. It’s like having this gorgeous, luxurious swimming pool that you worked your entire life for, but instead of swimming you sink to the very bottom as if you you were wearing cement shoes. It’s Cole, not Khaled, who appears to be suffering from success.

The brooding introspection at the beginning surrounds advice - he’s telling future artists what labels and companies offer isn’t worth the selling of their soul. In the figurative sense, your art is your soul. It’s about control, signing a deal can be beneficial, but it can be full of consequences. The artist 6lack may be doing huge streaming numbers today, but a few years ago he was caged into a record contract that seemed more like a prison than the road to prosperity.

Cole’s deal with Roc Nation changed his life, his Dreamville label has distribution through Interscope, but on a deeper level he’s promoting creating art without the risk of compromise. When the song moves deeper into his own personal thoughts, about his mother, and how buying her house didn’t cease her tears it starts to become clear what’s eating at him - the issues with police brutality, black on black crime, guilt, almost like a survivor's remorse. He’s full of the same empathy that made him cry out after Mike Brown, that inspired him to march in Ferguson, that brought him to the protest for Eric Garner, the kind of empathy that makes it hard to enjoy the hard earned fruits of his labor because his success doesn’t change the world’s bleakness.

J. Cole is the perfect example of a celebrity that isn’t able to buy his happiness, or find fullness in fame. There’s no drink strong enough to numb his grief, no Range Rover nice enough to fill the void that comes with police harassment, no dancing diamonds worth bragging about when the world is slowly burning. He can’t even find pleasure in buying his mom a house, something that rappers have desired to do since the beginning of time, most have accomplished it, but Cole is the first in recent memory that didn’t talk about the accomplishment joyously.  

“Jermaine's Interlude” is the opposite of stunting from an artist that has plenty to brag about. It makes you wonder if all artists are simply tortured? That even during your best of times, your brightest days, there’s some inescapable darkness that will set your sun and overwhelm your light? In a world full of daily crisis, there’s no telling what triggered these feelings from Cole. No way of knowing when he decided to pen the verse, when it was laid down. He could be in a different, more happier place by now. But the reality is the song is real, his emotions are engraved on Hollywood JB’s hypnotic sample loop of Piero Piccioni “It’s Possible.” The song features EarthGang, an up-and-coming duo from Atlanta, who sing with a mesmerizing melody about not coming from deep pockets and who likely look at Cole’s position as a place high on the mountaintop. And yet, their first song with him is one full of unhappy feelings. “Jermaine's Interlude” is like a sequel to the song “Love Yourz,” another example of the cracks in his armor starting to show.

I believe that if the words he rapped came from an honest place, J. Cole could retire. He’s not attracted to the glamour, not focused on living life in the lights, money doesn’t seem to be an issue, there’s a chance he could walk away from being the center-of-attention into a background face in the shadows. He’ll always be famous, but much like he is now, his presence is that of a ghost. He’s away from our eyes so often that when there’s a J. Cole sighting people react as if they seen some mythical creature. He has a label, so he’ll be in the music industry. I believe music is therapeutic for him, so he’ll always be driven to make songs. Only time will tell if he truly said all that he needed to say in three albums; retirement is something rappers always publicly toy with, but are more mouth than action.

Oh, I had so many days of crying / Oh, I had so many days of pain

Have you ever been as sad as I am? / Lord, I ask if anything would change?

I can see the future that we're heading / I would say it's better not to tell

If it's anything like this in Heaven / Maybe I'd be better off in hell

It’s not his threat of retirement that I’m transfixed on, it’s how open Cole's become on an emotional level. He seems to be on the same wavelength with the people and the feelings about world issues. He’s not a celebrity that’s too disconnected to know the difference between #BlackLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter, he’s not just marching for photo opportunities, or because it’s good press to show he’s still in the community. No, this is someone who cares. The same way regular people are seeking some form of peace in these trying times, so is J. Cole. It’s comforting to know there’s a rapper who feels as we do, and also deeply saddening. J. Cole is the artist who knows too much, who is well aware, and struggles to find any solace despite living in a castle built for the rich and famous.

Happiness is an elusive, fleeting feeling that we are constantly chasing after. It may seem like he's ahead, but really, J. Cole is running after happiness too, running right alongside us.

By Yoh, aka Yohville, aka @Yoh31

Photo Credit: Jeffery Paige