“Everyday I step outside I see my people die,” J. Cole sings to the ears of David Letterman’s studio audience, to the ears of onlookers watching from the comfort of their homes, and to all the ears who would later watch the performance on YouTube. The words resonated with a nation that was still grieving the murder of Mike Brown, and they would continue to resonate as unarmed men and women continued to lose their lives at the hands of police officers.
He didn’t have to perform “Be Free”—a song that isn’t on the album he was on the show to promote—but he made the choice to say something powerful while the spotlight provided him with a massive amount of undivided attention.
"You get to this height, this level in your career in terms of platform, whose to say the next one might go down? It could go up? You’re never guaranteed to be this high again. While I’m here, let me use this opportunity to say the realist shit I’ve ever said. In case the next time it’s down here, when I got to the top of the mountain, this is what I had to say. That intention been there, that feeling has been there." - J. Cole, 'Eyez'
Attention is what you have plenty of when you're standing on a mountain’s highest peak. J. Cole has received plenty since the climax of his popularity—without question, he is a rapper whose feet are dangling from the very top. Everyone is aiming to reach this height, but very few will sit above the clouds. Of course, no one wants to fall once they get there, to end up back on the ground looking up again. Artists can become safe, worried about protecting their brand, protecting their position, and not doing anything to jeopardize all that they’ve achieved.
J. Cole is aware that this might be the peak of his popularity, the highest he’ll ever climb in his career. He admits this in his new documentary, but he doesn’t fear the fall. He knows that it could come at any second, but while he’s at the top, while he’s under the brightest spotlight, he wants to say something real.
I remember when Kendrick released “Control” and how name-dropping rappers caused a huge commotion. Some called it a diss, others cited his words as friendly competition, but it was the fact that one verse could cause so many ripples in the rap world that was rather incredible. Jay Z said it best on "Imaginary Player": "It's funny how one verse can fuck up the game."
This isn't the first time Kendrick directed his sights on his fellow rappers, he committed a similar assault a few years prior on his version of Kanye’s “Monster,”—he was more vehement, claiming to be the best rapper alive; he told Wayne to swallow his pride and that Jay Z should've stayed retired. Kendrick was a beast at the necks of legends, but in society, he was no bigger than a SoundCloud rapper at the time. It's not just the message, but the messenger, and how many eyes are on him or her. The world would melt down if Kendrick dropped a "Monster" verse today.
J. Cole started to see the power of his popularity with the release of “Fire Squad,” and how quickly headlines went up about him dissing Iggy, Eminem, and Macklemore. Cole understands that he’s on a platform where everything he says is under a microscope, and I believe he wouldn’t have it any other way. When he talks about cultural appropriation, people will listen. When he talks about the fall of his idol, people will dissect every word. If he decides to take shots at “Lil” rappers, social media explodes. These are calculated thoughts, Cole isn’t wasting his time in the sun.
The importance of “Be Free” comes from another part in the documentary, a conversation where Cole talks about how easy it is to be disconnected from the world. He’s a family man, who either lives in the studio or is spending time with his loved ones. He isn’t on social media, he isn’t browsing through the headlines, it’s very easy for him to enter a space of seclusion—sequestered from the world. Plenty of artists, especially those of the more popular and acclaimed variety, can easily enter that place and stay there. The reason why J. Cole is able to still draw inspiration from world events is because he makes himself leave the comfort of his studio and the warmth of his family to really see what’s happening in the world. Without knowing, he’s keeping himself from being warped.
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J. Cole is an artist that people truly feel touched by, the worst thing he could do is lose himself. Not only will that push him from the top, he’ll lose the very fans that assisted with his climb.
“I’m not putting myself in positions that keep me feeling like that. I’m living my life like a nigga that’s very detached. I’m not on social media, I’m not in the news, I don’t click the headlines, I’m just family and fucking music. So if i’m not allowing myself to go to feel what people are feeling then of course i’m going to lose sight of that original inspiration." - J. Cole, 'Eyez'
The Black Album was a moment where Jay Z felt like, "this is my height, and I want to leave on top." The Black Album still feels like a celebration and a goodbye message; Hov said all he had to say and drifted into the darkness never to look back. I wonder if that’s what J. Cole is setting himself up for: retirement. He’s contemplating the thought. It makes me wonder if “Jermaine’s Interlude” was recorded after 4 Your Eyez Only, and this album represents, “Said all that I could say.”
Jay wasn’t able to stay away from rap, and I’m sure Cole won’t be able to step away completely, but I enjoy the idea of a rapper with his popularity approaching an album as if he has nothing to lose—burning bridges, taking risks, caring less about results and more about creating something that will have a true meaning. The first verse on “False Prophets” is a testament, and if it’s truly about Kanye, that’s some tough love no one else in the mainstream would ever utter on wax.
You always want to strive to ascend, climb higher, and go further. It’s also necessary not to be shackled by success; cemented in place due to a fear of falling. Maybe that’s why it’s best not to get caught up in where you are, not if that compromises who you are.
J. Cole won’t let being in this class of celebrated rappers affect what he rhymes about, or what he wants to rhyme about. The way he sees it, he'll never get this chance again, and he won’t waste it. Saying what’s real means more to him than saying what will extend his 15 minutes, and for that, I will forever commend him.
You'll be more famous when you die, so why not say something real while you're alive?
By Yoh, aka False Yohphets, aka @Yoh31.
Art Credit: Moon High