“But he did not understand the price. Mortals never do. They only see the prize, their heart's desire, their dream... But the price of getting what you want, is getting what you once wanted.” —Neil Gaiman
Fame is the inheritance of celebrity. Reaching world-renowned acknowledgment is to know the double-edged pairing, to know the benefits and consequences of notoriety.
Fame changed when television pivoted toward reality, when cell phones included cameras, and when being social was made possible from anywhere with a WiFi connection. Celebrities were still man-made deities, but their stature now came with the burden to remain relevant underneath the world’s watchful eye.
There’s an expectation of presence that celebrities abide by. We see their faces and hear their opinions through physical and social mediums. Witnessing how the millennial generation normalized this degree of accessibility is why J. Cole has long been an interesting case study in celebrity rejection rather than acceptance.
After the release and success of his 2013 sophomore album, Born Sinner, Cole was close to crossing over into the domain of mainstream rappers and entertainers. Even if there was no fortune, he had fame and could use his celebrity to leverage endorsement deals, red carpet appearances, and other opportunities to maximize visibility.
It was his time to be seen and heard as someone famous, no longer a rapper trying to come up. He had made it, and yet his reaction to this was social inactivity, long periods of silence, and retreating from the vibrant spotlight that glowed above him.
For the past four years, Cole has treated attention with the stealthy avoidance of an assassin. Albums were released without release dates, no famous artists appeared on said albums, and the dominating sounds conquering radio weren't found in his music.
Cole exchanged the Range Rover for a bicycle and chose life in a small town not far from his childhood home rather than a grandiose mansion in Los Angeles or a swanky loft in New York. He chose to pop up on fans directly rather than conducting interviews. If it weren't for the releases of 2014 Forest Hills Drive and 4 Your Eyez Only (and their accompanying tours), his intricate anonymity might've been compared to the vanishing Frank Ocean.
In an interview with The New York Times, Frank Ocean told Jon Caramanica: “If your house is on fire, you need to get out of the house.” The analogy is interesting in the context of the music industry, a business largely driven by acceptance, not choice. Artists must take actions for business purposes, not personal happiness. Ocean made a decision not to tolerate the business model of acceptance, not only with his former record label, Def Jam, but with his celebrity overall.
The same goes for Cole. You can hear the contemplation and confrontation on “False Prophets.” He's well aware how easy it is to lose your grip by following the curated path for artists and entertainers. The song shows there's no ignorance in Cole's perception of life as an artist; he could easily become the two people who inspired the first two verses.
If Frank Ocean spent years preparing to escape a burning home, Cole’s method of careful seclusion was his way of leaving before faulty wiring set ablaze all he built.
Listening to “Let Nas Down,” the song represents insecurity, desire for acceptance, and how much pressure was on Cole's shoulders to make others happy. He wanted to please the legends, to please his heroes, to please hip-hop. It's an interesting contrast to “Work Out”—the single that disappointed Nas—a song he made with the intent of pleasing the label, and pleasing radio.
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As corny as the song is, it’s true to the feeling of dismay that follows letting down someone you admire while doing what you thought was right. In his 2017 interview with the The New York Times, Cole touches on how those years were mentally rough despite the success. Paul Cantor, who recently wrote a profile on Cole for Vulture, does an excellent job of highlighting how Cole’s Born Sinner era represents when he followed the rules.
In Paul’s words:
"He thought he needed to do things the way they’d always been done."
That thinking led to a three-year bout of depression. He couldn't be the man of the people, the man of hip-hop, the man for the label, and still find happiness in himself. What changed J. Cole was gaining back control without the weight of living up to the standards and expectations of others. In a sense, the context of the song "Love Yourz."
“I didn’t like how I felt about my life,” he says. “I’d been depressed for like three years. And I realized I was putting too much importance on what other people thought about me." —"J. Cole Just Wants to Be Himself"
When J. Cole performed “Work Out” in front of 60,000 people at Rolling Loud last Friday, it didn’t sound like a song he apologized for. Everyone sang along as if the record was a fan favorite, and not the song criticized seven years earlier for being "too pop," a song made to sell out. The crowd's reaction to "Work Out" is because the song is a hit, but also due to Cole’s newfound confidence, no longer embarrassed by his creation or apologizing for making music with the intention of it being enjoyed by the masses.
J. Cole is finally comfortable because he took the time to find solace within, rather than waiting to discover happiness in the madness. Watching him perform “KOD,” ATM,” and “Motiv8” last weekend gave fans a glimpse of an artist who was ready to reemerge from the shadows. Each song hit like one on the verge of being a summer smash, ready to take over radio waves, cookouts, and club venues.
The modern touch that was missing from 4 Your Eyez Only has been strategically utilized with the intent of these songs becoming big. As we learned from Cole's Vulture interview, seeing the reaction Kendrick Lamar received by performing “HUMBLE.” and an album full of hits has renewed Cole’s interest in moving with, instead of resisting the current. In that way, KOD is Cole’s DAMN., an album rooted in the present, while 4 Your Eyez Only is better compared to the unconventional To Pimp a Butterfly, a jazz-influenced album that sold well but wasn't as easily digested by the masses.
As his music took a turn to fit with the times, Cole has returned to interviews and social media. His activity is still done with caution as to not overindulge, but he's making an effort to be present again. This awareness of stardom isn’t unique to Cole, but you can track a gradual understanding of the kind of star he wanted to be. You can’t become un-famous, but you can control the interaction between who you are, and the person you’re expected to be.
Cole’s comfort level is what every artist and entertainer should strive to discover. It’s easy to get swept into the idea of what you should be doing, and not what makes you comfortable. The transformation of his celebrity was a reaction to the change in who he cared to be. He chose the life that fit him; not what fits the industry.
Now, he’s ready to be famous, a star with a presence both on and offline, but on his own terms.
By Yoh, aka 4 Yoh's Eyez Only aka @Yoh31.