“Love is divine only and difficult always. If you think it is easy, you are a fool. If you think it is natural, you are blind... You do not deserve love regardless of the suffering you have endured. You do not deserve love because somebody did you wrong. You do not deserve love just because you want it. You can only earn… the right to express it and you have to learn how to accept it.” —Toni Morrison, Paradise
According to Ancient Greek philosophy, there are four words to describe love: agape, eros, philia, and storge.
Love is the underlying theme in J. Cole’s discography. Cole’s themes of love develop from myopic, primarily sexual takes on the subject and broaden out to more in-depth, empathetic affections for the world at large. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see how Cole has re-interpreted the meaning of love continuously over the past decade. With this framework in mind, let‘s consider his discography in a new light.
Eros: A Hip-Hop Love
“I know you wanna change the world / But for the night, please / Just reach over and hit the lights please” —J. Cole, “Lights Please”
Eros is unfettered desire; love at first sight. Too little of it and life loses its excitement. Too much of it and life spirals out of control.
J. Cole’s love for hip-hop resembles the love we all have for a genre inching closer to its fifth decade. It’s a love that is innocent, naïve, and a bit possessive. It’s a love for something that may not necessarily love us back. It’s a love that can inspire us to greatness or usher us to our downfall.
This is the struggle J. Cole deals with throughout the first half of his discography. From 2009’s The Warm Up to 2013’s Born Sinner, the central question haunting Cole is the one he prophesied about on his first guest appearance:
“And could I be a star? / Does fame in this game have to change who you are? / Or could I be the same one who came from a faraway life / Just to make it in these Broadway lights?” —J. Cole, “A Star Is Born”
On “Lights Please,” we find Cole trying to stay true to himself and hip-hop not wanting to hear it. On “Premeditated Murder,” we see Cole acknowledging the ways hip-hop is changing him. On “Power Trip,” we see Cole slowly lose himself by writing love songs he thinks hip-hop will like.
The female personification of hip-hop is nothing new, but Cole is one of the few artists who depicts his relationship with hip-hop over an extended period. With his third studio album 2014 Forest Hills Drive, Cole brings that conversation to a close, admitting that hip-hop can no longer be the main love of his life:
“I ran from Fayetteville to New York, from New York to everywhere, ultimately looking for what? For love—respect and love from my peers, love from the fans, love from the critics. I’ve learned that none of that shit is real. I appreciate it, it’s extra love, but it can and should only help and add to the real pot of love. It should not substitute.” —J. Cole, Complex Interview (2014)
After five years in the game, Cole begins to search for a love that is more reciprocal, more substantive, and more real. In his quest to find this love, Cole finds himself back at a place he always held dear to his heart: Home.
Storge: Family Over Everything
“Something’s got a hold on me / I can’t let go / Out of fear I won’t be free” —J. Cole, “Once An Addict (Interlude)”
Storge is the love that exists within a family. It’s the love between a parent and their child and vice versa. The problem with storge is the assumption this type of love comes easily. It ignores the reality that love, regardless of its form, is hard work.
Family will hurt you; family will betray you; family has a hold over you that’s almost impossible to break. On songs like “Breakdown” and “Show Me Something,” we get a sense of J. Cole’s family: An absentee father, an abusive stepfather, a brother in jail, and a mother recovering from alcohol and drug addiction.
Similar to his 2013 sophomore album Born Sinner, KOD finds Cole confronting his vices and the vices of those around him. Cole comes to grips with the trauma of his upbringing and demonstrates his understanding by giving a voice to the silent pain of his loved ones. The problem with this approach, however, is there are instances on KOD where Cole’s attempts at empathy are heavy-handed.
As highlighted by DJBooth managing editor Donna-Claire Chesman, Cole’s passionate plea for meditation instead of medication on the standout song “FRIENDS” falls flat for those who know that ignoring their medication is not an option. But the counterpoint, as illustrated by Bansky Gonzalez, is that moments like these are imperfect acts of compassion:
“When Cole sends a heartfelt letter to his friends, it’s more than just an anti-drug PSA… it’s the extension of an olive branch. KOD is an invitation to his friends, something black and brown men rarely know how to offer. He’s letting them know he’ll be there for them, even if that means struggling to find the right words.” —Bansky Gonzalez, J. Cole’s “FRIENDS” Are My Friends
To love someone is to be real with them. It’s telling them the truth even if it hurts. By tackling the familial roots of his sorrow, Cole put himself in a better position to build a family of his own and proved that while love can be hard work, sometimes, it’s worth the effort.
Agape: Love Thy Neighbor
“And so I’m leaving you this record, for your eyes only / Don’t you ever scratch or disrespect it / This perspective is a real one, another lost ‘Ville son / I dedicate these words to you and all the other children”—J. Cole, “4 Your Eyez Only”
Agape is unconditional love. It is a love that requires patience, bravery, and sacrifice. It is a love that is transcendent, a love that reaches into the divine.
The act of storytelling is an act of love. Depending on the story being told, it can be one of the most selfless things a person can do.
During an interview with The New York Times, J. Cole said he created 2016‘s 4 Your Eyez Only “to humanize the people that have been villainized in the media.” Cole used the moment when he shone brightest to combat stereotypes usually arising after a black person has been killed.
Throughout his career, Cole has consistently given up his platform to those who needed it most. However, with 4 Your Eyez Only, Cole went a step further by completely disappearing in the process:
“There is another perspective that [Cole] is speaking from on [4 Your Eyez Only], and that’s what he wanted to make clear… the album is largely from a perspective that is not J. Cole.” —Elite, Complex Interview (2016)
When Cole released 4 Your Eyez Only, there was little promotion behind it. There was no performance on national television, no interview with Angie Martinez, nothing to spread the word about the album other than a tweet and a behind-the-scenes documentary.
In 45 minutes, Cole made us mourn the loss of a man that would barely get a mention in the local news. He forced us to confront the effects of mass incarceration and institutionalized racism through an audio love letter from a father to his daughter.
By ceding the spotlight, Cole exhibited a brief moment of agape and confirmed why some people call him the voice of our generation. He focused our attention on those that still find beauty in the struggle and reminded us that the fight for justice and equality is far from over.
Philia: Friend In Me
“Listen, you everything I wanna be that’s why I fucks with you / So how you looking up to me when I look up to you?”—J. Cole, “03’ Adolescence”
Philia is love between friends. It’s the meeting of kindred spirits. A brotherhood without blood. One of the rare moments when the old saying “you’re born alone, you die alone” feels like a lie.
Rap is filled with such friendships: Biggie and JAY-Z, Raekwon and Ghostface, J. Cole and Wale. With the song “False Prophets,” J. Cole put the latter bond to the test by making a private conversation public.
If we skip past the initial shock value of the song, we can see “False Prophets” coming from a loving place. Within each verse, Cole criticizes an unnamed rapper for flaws that Cole himself has been guilty of in the past. As a result, the song is as much a reality check for Cole as it is for Kanye and Wale.
This display of empathy and sincerity is probably one reason Wale ended up praising Cole for making the record. As he acknowledged during a livestream of his fifth album SHINE, “False Prophets” succeeded where therapy failed:
“The funny thing about that whole thing is that shit brought me and J. Cole way closer. I got a song that didn’t make the album. I said ‘I called my therapist, then called Cole, guess who handled it better?/You guessed it, you guessed it/My label want a verse, but I’m just thankful for friendship.’ And that’s where I’m at right now with me and him.” —Wale Opens Up About J. Cole’s Verse On “False Prophets,” Genius
Friendships are a reflection of self. They reveal our underlying values and beliefs. Some friendships last a season, some friendships last a lifetime. However, the most important friendship is the one you have with yourself.
Over the past ten years, we have seen Cole fall in and out of love with a dream he chased for over half of his life. We have seen him reach the mountaintop only to say it’s not as glorious as it once seemed. We have seen him live up to the promise of being a “man of the people, not above but equal.”
The Philip Larkin poem “An Arundel Tomb” ends with the line “what will survive of us is love.” Sometimes it’s hard to believe that’s true, especially in an era when it feels like love is in short supply. But to quote one of Cole’s best verses: “To never try is the ultimate fail.”
With a decade of music, J. Cole has repeatedly shown us the best thing we can do is give love when it counts. We may not get it right every time, but the attempt is what matters, and, in the right circumstances, it can end up becoming the most loving act of all.