It’s no secret that Jermaine “J. Cole” Cole is one of the most polarizing artists in hip-hop. Possibly ever. He’s got a legion of fans who believe that Light-Skinned Jermaine is the second coming of rap Jesus, and that his super-relatable persona, plus his above-average lyrical content, makes him one of this generation’s greatest artists. On the other hand, the rest of us think that his music is boring as THE fuck, and we can’t understand why anybody would think he’s a great artist.
As I implied above, I’m in the latter camp. I don’t hate Cole. In fact, I like the person a lot, from what I’ve seen. I’ve watched both the Forest Hills Drive: Homecoming documentary and the 4 Your Eyez Only documentary, and frankly, I think he’s fascinating as a human being. The more I’ve talked to people and listened to interviews by lots of artists, I think many, many are way more interesting than the music they create. I’m looking at you, 21 Savage and Nipsey Hussle. And J. Cole.
Now, this isn’t to say that I don’t think J. Cole has bangers. While I think most of his albums are Ambien for the soul, I can think of specific songs of his that were brilliantly executed. I still listen to “False Prophets” today. No, it’s not his beat. But what he did to that Joey Bada$$ record? Murder. He took the game to task.
He does that on his latest release, KOD. The song “1985” (intro to “The Fall Off”) is another song that takes the younger generation to task, especially those talking shit about him, for the music they’re making and the messages they’re putting out. It’s J. Cole at his best: Brilliantly analyzing the industry and those in it, and taking aim at anybody who comes for him when he didn’t send for them.
The album itself is as polarizing as Cole. For starters, it starts off boring as hell. Cole, who produces his own music, doesn’t always pick the best beats (put a pin in this). And the first quarter of the album sounds pretty .... uninspired, with regard to the music.
Cole as a rapper isn’t usually the issue. If anybody who doesn’t like him were to say he couldn’t spit (and/or extol the skills of, say, Drake or Kendrick), then they’d be full of shit.
Cole’s rap skills should never be in question. His ability to tap into the everyman, down-to-earth ethos is probably only really matched by the likes of Phonte Coleman, who, for my money, if he really wanted it, would go down as one of the all-time greats.
But the album picks up steam toward the end. The last four records, from “Once an Addict (Interlude)” to the last song, “1985,” are good, and the album becomes focused and pointed and really brings home the addiction narrative and concept that runs loosely through most of it.
Cole’s storytelling ramps up, his goals feel clear, and the music fits the lyrics to a tee. In a way, it reminds me of how I don’t necessarily love a lot of what Kendrick Lamar rhymes over, yet he manages to pick music that suits the mood and tone of his lyrics with precision.
Again, that’s not always the case. Hence what I think is the polarizing aspect of Cole’s career. His music and what he’s often talking about—life, and the minutiae of a lot of it—tends to be kind of boring. When you tell people you’re not a Cole fan and they ask why, the most common answer (I’m guessing) is, “He’s boring.”
It’s not untrue. He is. He’s not the best producer, even if he manages to crank out a banger here and there. To those of us who aren’t fans, his music can be very monotonous. And that isn’t exactly keeping us waiting for more off-key singing and solid lyricism over beats most of us don’t want to hear.
For his fans (and stans), that doesn’t matter. Cole speaks to them, almost personally, it seems. The rest of us just aren’t deep enough or aren’t really listening. Cole has reached them past the music and morphed into a person who gets them, and therefore, they get him.
His fan base reminds me of Logic’s in that Cole has been turned into a cultlike hero for whatever cause it is he represents to them. I have no idea what that is, but hell, he’s connected. KOD will reach his fans because the album is about “addiction,” and all many of his fans need is to know that fact. The execution will be solid no matter what, so they’ll view it in a positive light for what it’s supposed to represent, whereas others are going to be like, “Eh, the execution is flimsy.”
Which is how a lot of art works. If you like the artist, you’re typically going to like the art and say that others just don’t get it. If you don’t like something that has rabid fans and which you’ve also experienced, you want to know what the big damn deal is. Cole has tapped into that thing that has his fans (some of them anyway) shedding tears for him and others like, “Where’s the depth?”
I don’t know, man. I don’t get it and likely never will. I’ve listened to every Cole release both as art and as entertainment, and I’m rarely enthusiastic about multiple listens. But he got my spins, so he ain’t losing. His fans got his back until the end.
Basically, it’s another J. Cole album-release day in Dreamville, and water is still wet.