“You’d be surprised how many truths you can hide in flows” –J. Cole, “Lit”
During a 2019 interview with Ibrahim “IB” Hamad to commemorate the 10th anniversary of J. Cole’s sophomore mixtape, The Warm Up, I heard for the first time one of my favorite hip-hop come-up stories.
IB, who is Cole’s friend, business partner, and manager, has known Cole since 2005. For the first two years of their friendship, IB was unaware Cole made music. Besides seeing him freestyle a few times at St John’s University Queens Campus, nothing told him that Jermaine, who he knew for playing basketball, had ambitions to be the next big rapper.
“I found out when I got in his car, and he had a freestyle on The Come Up over [Kanye’s] the ‘Grammy Family’ beat... He was playing it and then quickly tried to turn it off,” IB told me, remembering the day like it just happened.
“I asked him, ‘Who is that?’ and he said, ‘My shit.’ I was like, ‘Oh? You record rap? You don’t rap on some bullshit?’ That’s still one of my favorite freestyles he has ever done... I was blown away.” –Ibrahim “IB” Hamad
From J. Cole’s perspective, why tell anyone he was serious about becoming a professional rapper? A record deal would make his dream job a real profession. Until then, it was no one’s business. Omission was part of Cole’s come-up. As he told IB, “I don’t need to tell people until I get signed, and then they’ll see.” For Cole, being a rapper wasn’t a title you chose; it was a title you earned. He wanted to move in silence and secrecy.
In the social media age, a time of endless opinions, artists have access to their positive audience and their negative critics. Secrecy does not feel like an option, not for the fan nor the artist. All artists have to do is search their names on Twitter or Instagram, and they see a wall of commentary. Although these platforms provide an effective direct-to-consumer relationship, their access creates a path for conversation between those who create and those who critique. These paths aren’t direct to an artist’s intentions.
On June 4, J. Cole released “Snow on tha Bluff,” his first song of 2020. A thunderstorm of criticism followed. Twitter erupted with commentary based on lyrics perceived to be about fellow rapper Noname.
The core of criticism for the 35-year-old, multi-Platinum rapper was founded on his mention of the unnamed woman’s tone. How her sharp words “bothered” him. Hundreds of thousands of tweets began dissecting the lyrics, various think pieces were written, and Noname even made a response song: “Song 33.”
Lately, I have been thinking about the title, “Snow on tha Bluff,” and how it shares the same title as Damon Russell’s 2012 film. What’s interesting about these two works in parallel is how they both received attention based on the audience’s perception.
Back in 2013, two years after the movie premiered at Slamdance Film Festival, Snow on tha Bluff’s producer Chris Knittel wrote “Irregular Warfare: Marketing Snow On Tha Bluff.” The article explains how social media and guerilla marketing tactics were intentionally employed to create interest and controversy around the film’s portrayal of drug dealer Curtis Snow and his Atlanta neighborhood, The Bluff.
“The most controversial element of our film is that some of the footage is real while other scenes are staged,” Knittel writes in the opening paragraph. How Snow on tha Bluff purposely blurred the lines between reality and fiction, intending to obscure how we’d view the film, is further explained in the third paragraph:
“After our film was complete, we burned 3,000 copies of the first 30 minutes to blank DVD’s. No explanation was given. It was raw—a small segment of the film that followed Curtis as he ambushed rivals and, at the end, took a bullet. Most people who watched this sliver of the film thought it was a hood snuff tape. They didn’t know that Curtis survived the gunshot and that this shocking video was actually part of a larger film. After dropping the DVDs off at a flea market in Atlanta, we let it simmer and marinate. Copies of the DVD were created, multiplied, sold as bootlegs, and after a few months, we started hearing urban legends surrounding the footage.”
Some might say it’s twisted for the creators to seed a section of such a realistic film without giving a proper explanation. Their process reminds me of what the late author, novelist, and journalist Ernest Hemingway believed about omitting: You can omit anything if, as the artist, you know that the omitted part will strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.
On “Snow on da Bluff,” J. Cole never tells the audience who he is talking about. The omission makes the song. Even on Twitter, when he responded to the backlash, the rapper from Fayetteville, North Carolina, never claimed Noname’s tweets inspired the song. That is what Twitter decided, not the artist. The commentary claimed it was about her, creating a conversation without confirmation—a discussion based on hearsay. In the end, the commentary outlived the message of “Snow on tha Bluff,” and our inability to pinpoint a subject keeps us from Cole’s absolute truth.
This isn’t the first time J. Cole has been the center of a false narrative. In December 2016, XXL published an article following the release of Cole’s fourth studio album, 4 Your Eyez Only, stating that he and his wife secretly had a child, a baby girl, to be specific. The publication “confirmed” this revelation by someone close to the famous rapper and used lyrics from the track “She’s Mine, Pt. 2” to validate the claim.
Although “She’s Mine, Pt. 2” is rapped from the perspective of J. Cole speaking to his daughter, in 2018, on Royce da 5’9”’s “Boblo Boat,” he raps about fathering a son. On “Sacrifices,” the song that closes Dreamville’s Revenge of The Dreamers III compilation album, Cole reiterates that he is the father of a son with another child on the way. So what happened to his daughter that XXL confirmed?
Rap is a genre based on authenticity, and so listeners will receive any song written from a personal perspective as autobiographical. Yet, when Cole wrote and released “Dreams” in 2010, no one accused him of being a murderer because the song is obviously fictional. “Snow on tha Bluff” isn’t the first time J. Cole referenced being on social media and gaining inspiration from what he saw, either. “Allow me to use this feature to shout out one of the first fans that a nigga ever had named Felicia,” Cole raps on Big K.R.I.T.’s “Prove It,” citing Felicia Nadine, one of his earliest fans, by name.
One could argue that his verse on “Prove It” documents how J. Cole is inconsistent. He chooses when to name names and when to hide his hand. One could say he’s insecure when it comes to being criticized by women, becoming the kind of rapper he criticized on “False Prophets.” It’s interesting how his song shares its title with a movie with consideration for hip-hop and the kind of audience rappers build around themselves.
As Chris Knittel wrote:
“Rappers often paint a glamorous view of drug-dealing and violence; our film peels back that facade to reveal the true reality. I wanted to hit the music industry—more specifically, the hip-hop audience.” –Chris Knittel
In watching Snow on tha Bluff, I was reminded realistic stories don’t always need to be based on reality. The perception of a story doesn’t always need to match the storyteller’s truth. We only know what is explained, but the artist doesn’t owe the audience an explanation. It’s okay for art to be uncomfortable. Let artists keep their secrets.