Have y'all noticed that J. Cole is looking a little extra regular these days? He doesn't move, dress, or act like a rap superstar, but he certainly is in the throes of superstardom. Interesting, isn't it? So interesting, we asked our Managing Editor Donna-Claire Chesman and Senior Writer Yoh to discuss how regular J. Cole looks, and what that actually means for his artistry. Apparently, a good deal.
Their conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
yoh [11:21 AM]
Hello, Donna. Good morning to the First Lady.
donnacwrites [11:22 AM]
Good morning, Yohsipher. Ready for our chat?
yoh [11:25 AM]
Yes, I just got home. I was thinking about J. Cole as I drove. Do you find him oddly regular? Looking back on his NBA All-Star Game performance, it's been years since Cole really seemed to be flashy or appeared to carry himself like a conventional rap star. Even Drake wears every single chain, even when he's in the house...But not Cole.
donnacwrites [11:27 AM]
Yeah, he's regular from head to toe. You mentioned to me that at the ROTD3 sessions, he always made time to chat with you and didn't come off as assuming. When I saw him on tour for 4 Your Eyez Only, he performed in a prison jumper with his hair just starting to get as wild as it is now. All of this must be on purpose. After Cole World, he slowly started shying away from what a rap star "looks like," and at the same time, his fans got closer and closer to him. So my thesis is: J. Cole is purposefully regular to connect with his fans. They see J. Cole, they believe in J. Cole, and hell, if he looks like that, maybe they can even be J. Cole, too.
yoh [11:35 AM]
Spot on. Often times, branding can feel disingenuous. But rap is the art of selling. Rappers are at their best when you feel they're convincing. Cole knows himself well enough to sell the person that he is. It's interesting how well his personality and brand translates to fans. There's a hyperawareness about him that's very honest and it helps to make fans feel as if he's easy to trust. Going back to my piece about belief in rap artists, Cole is an artist who has built his following on a simplistic concept: I'm not that different from you. I have mixed feelings about his new single, "Middle Child," but my favorite bar is, "What good is the bread if my niggas is broke? What good is first class if my niggas can't sit?" Even as someone who has accumulated wealth, Cole has these lyrics that resonate with anyone who wishes to assist their friends.
Oh yeah, and shout to King Mez on his directorial debut!
donnacwrites [11:39 AM]
Certainly, the J. Cole brand has become a lack of brand. He simply is, which is the best way to be and something we should all strive for. I think back to your piece on access. J. Cole might be one of the most accessible artists in the industry to fans because he appears so unassuming. At the show, I could feel that J. Cole truly was an everyman, and all the same, he knew he had power over his fans in the sense that they looked up to him. Yet, he never once abused that power. The concert was communal, he was sharing with us and feeding off of our energy, standing there in his prison jumper. J. Cole is for the people because he realizes he is nothing without the people. J. Cole cares not for clout because he knows that fans last longer than headlines.
yoh [11:45 AM]
Reminds me of the mantra Lil Wayne recites at his shows: "I'm nothing without you." Cole doesn't say this explicitly, but he embodies it. People react to that energy, they return it tenfold. I agree he is the most accessible artist in the industry—to fans and his industry peers. His feature run is genius in terms of spreading his voice, but the many verses he rapped last year also showed that he was open to collaborating. The Revenge of the Dreamers sessions further solidified this. He's like a caveman in a mansion inviting everyone over to view the Picasso in his bathroom. Is there a downside being an everyman? Does it place him in a box that could potentially close in upon him?
donnacwrites [11:48 AM]
Of course, because when everyone feels that they have access to you, it implicitly limits your movements. It's not so much that Cole has boxed himself in, but that he may have made himself too precious to fans, who will react in a panic at the first sign of change because we are not built for change in any capacity. I don't see Cole's character drastically changing, but when people feel so close to you, it's difficult to try new things. So far, the music he's making and his messaging are working for his fans, but if he tries something new or feels the need to step outside of himself, I'm sure there will be an uproar. Not that I imagine Cole wants to make pop records and wear chains, but let's pretend he did. His movements would be restricted, no?
yoh [11:54 AM]
I see your point, he becomes like a teen star that the world isn't ready to watch grow up. Obviously, it isn't the same, Cole is grown, but his brand is solid and any drastic changes will definitely create friction. It's interesting how we, as fans, project an idea on individuals. A version of you that's unique to me. With Cole, there's very little room to create an identity. He is one hundred percent him, but the lack of ambiguity doesn't give him much room for natural shifts. I hope the music to come places him outside his comfort zone, to see how people will react.
donnacwrites [11:56 AM]
In the nicest way possible, I would like for J. Cole to be uncomfortable, because as I often quote from Mac: "We only grow from anguish."