J. Cole is polarizing. His career began with a Jay-Z co-sign, and he’s released a string of mixtapes that were better than some emcee’s albums. Ratings-wise, Cole earned a 3.5 rating from DX (readers rated the album a 4.4), but even if you factor in competing ratings such as those from Metacritic (74), Pitchfork (6.1), XXL and The Source (with a four out of five rating from both being translated to its mathematical equivalent of an 80), you’re left with an average rating of 74.6.
During the time since he was introduced on “A Star Is Born,” Cole has cultivated a rabid, supportive fan base. Despite the lukewarm critical reception, J. Cole fans voiced their displeasure at anything less than a near-classic rating and opened their wallets wide enough to give Cole a number one debut. The thing about passionate fans is, they’re not always loyal. If this story sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Remember when Lupe Fiasco’s fans would attack anything less than a classic rating with such fervor?
Bearing the above in mind, we gathered two J. Cole fans for a civil debate about if Cole can sustain his popularity with a typically fickle Hip Hop audience. One believes Cole laid the foundation for a long, successful career and his fan base will only grow. The other thinks the album is the first chapter in a story that ends with Hip Hop’s historically disloyal Stans turning their back on Cole once he becomes more successful.
The Appeal Of J. Cole
“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 far away life / Just to make it in these Broadway lights…” –J. Cole, “A Star Is Born” by Jay-Z.
Lakeia: I think J. Cole is refreshing. In a landscape full of extremes (Louis Vuitton shopping, counting blood money or spouting political rhetoric), he steers clear away from gimmicks on his debut album, Cole World: The Sideline Story and latches on to something most rappers have forgotten about, reality. While reality is relative, there are a few common themes that we all contemplate and struggle with when left alone with our thoughts. Cole takes us to those places, and he does it without being corny.
J. Cole is not the first to do this. Most recently, there was Drake, who had the “feelings game” on lock but then went too far—sometimes losing the male (and even female, sheesh) audience with an overkill of emotions. Before him, Kanye shared pillow talk on wax. But somewhere along the road, probably on his way to the Hermes store in Beverly Hills, Kanye went a little left. His vulnerability is now often sandwiched between arrogance and superiority. He’ll give fans a little candor and take it right back, sort of like saying, “I’m vulnerable and conflicted, but dammit I’m rich so I’m still better than you.”
In the past two weeks, I’ve listened to Cole World: The Sideline Story countless times from top to bottom. On occasion, I skip a track (i.e. “Mr. Nice Watch” ) or play a few on repeat (“Rise and Shine” and “Sideline Story” are favorites). But I understand where Cole is coming from on each song. On each song he’s perfectly human. Perfectly flawed. Perfectly brilliant. I guess sometimes being on the sidelines ain’t so bad. You get to see the big picture.
Omar: In my opinion, some of his skills were showcased much better on his mixtapes than his album. In terms of raw talent, he possesses everything you look for in a superior emcee. I agree that Cole has managed to connect to a lot of his fans on a very personal level, which is much easier said than done. Would you agree or disagree that a lot of core members of Lauryn Hill’s, Lupe Fiasco’s and Kanye West’s audience felt just as emotionally connected before turning on those artists? I can see the same thing potentially happening with J. Cole.
When Stars And Fans Disconnect
“Just as Christ was a superstar / You stupid star / They’ll hail you then nail you / No matter who you are / They’ll make you now then take you down / And make you face it / If you slip the bag open put your pinky in it then taste it…” –Lauryn Hill “Superstar.”
Lakeia: No, I think Lauryn, Lupe and Kanye turned on their fans, not the other way around. Like Coca Cola in the 80’s, they made the mistake of switching the formula. All three artists completely shifted gears (but less so with Kanye) and ultimately left fans in neutral. Lauryn began as a funky, cool and socially conscious emcee, but by the time her “MTV Unplugged” performance aired, she had morphed into a one-string guitar, Country singer in a great deal of pain. Fans were confused and disappointed. On Lupe’s recent project, Lasers, he lacked direction. The emcee that once motivated us (to do something...anything) had traded in his backpack for a soapbox and produced music that seemed disjointed. Kanye veered off with 808’s & Heartbreak (though it seemed intentional), with an Auto-tune overkill and a different sound.
But I don’t think Kanye’s true fans ran away. And it’s for the same reason that J. Cole’s won’t either. Kanye’s talent is undeniable. There’s something special about him. He made such an impression early on that fans decided to hold their breath and wait for the old artist to resurface. If Cole continues with honest, clever and introspective music, fans will continue to support. And even if he switches up his style, Cole World has proven his artistry and separated him from the rest. Like the soft drink company, J. Cole will likely be able to regain the consumer’s trust.
Omar: In all of the above situations, I think we’re dealing with a problem of fans not being able to separate an artist from their art. Musicians shouldn’t totally expect us to, because they often exploit their personal narratives to add to their appeal. And this isn’t just limited to Hip Hop. Would Rock fans like Exile On Main Street as much without knowing about the Rolling Stones’ wars with the taxman? After hearing about John Coltrane’s struggles with substance abuse and his subsequent religious conversion, can a Jazz aficionado look at A Love Supreme objectively?
Ain’t No Love
“Y’all can keep your weak beats from your corny producers / There’s a new king in the streets you’re gonna get used to / I was the old king in the streets that y’all once hated / But now I reinvented myself and y’all all waited…” –Nas, “The Cross.”
Omar: People liked Lupe’s soapbox politics on songs like “American Terrorist” and “Conflict Diamonds.” They only became a problem when he put President Obama in his crosshairs. Listeners also gravitated towards Lauryn Hill’s personal struggles, as long as they added up to a happy ending on wax. “I Used To” is a perfect example of her venting about being dogged by a no-good man, only to later turn that painful experience into a positive. But what happens when Brother Anthony and her husband, Rohan Marley, are those no-good men? Uh-oh…shit just got real. And real life is way too messy to fix within a four-minute song—even if Mary J. Blige is lending a hand. When L-Boogie’s personal issues spilled over into her art, fans were far less sympathetic. Fans had already turned their back on her, but breaking down during a subpar “Unplugged” performance made it a hell of a lot easier.
And I would agree with you that Kanye’s backlash was less severe than Lauryn’s or Lupe’s. While ‘Ye does occasionally suffer from foot-in-mouth syndrome, his biggest misstep was either intentionally or unintentionally attempting to crossover to the rich, white fan that only occasionally likes Hip Hop. That works fine when you’re channeling Daft Punk and Takashi Murakami on Graduation. But there are a lot of rich, white occasional Hip Hop fans that like Taylor Swift too. Unapologetically bumrush her on stage, and see how long it takes for some of them to start calling you a nigger on Twitter—3, 2, 1…
As it concerns one Jermaine Cole, I think we got a brief glimpse of what’s to come with the singles “Work Out” and “Can’t Get Enough.” Friday Night Lights had the type of introspective, emotionally driven rhymes that make Cole a fan favorite, but it lacked a single. When the suits forced Cole into an uncomfortable, hollow Trey Songz collaboration, some backpackers cried foul. It’s a testament to Cole’s fans that the album has still done well despite neither of those songs being a “hit single” in the traditional sense of the term. “Can’t Get Enough” has appealed to the Pop charts, peaking at the number 48 spot on Billboard’s Hot 100, while “Work Out” cracked the top 20 on the R&B/Hip Hop chart. Suppose Cole World: The Sideline Story goes platinum and J. Cole makes a lot of money touring. I can’t see him still rhyming about being too shy to approach unattainably attractive women while being a poor bill collector (“Dreams”). Fans in search of the next new artist with an intriguing back-story could easily turn on Cole once he starts rhyming about the trappings of his newfound success.
The Next Chapter
“Now take a look at how my lifestyle changed up / I’m on now goddammit / I done came up…” –50 Cent, “Poppin’ Them Thangs” by G-Unit.
Omar: Jay-Z’s career, style and approach to making single-driven albums completely changed after what many consider a classic debut with Reasonable Doubt. He lost some fans, but he gained way more than enough to offset the losses. Does the fact that Jay essentially groomed J. Cole benefit him in that regard?
Lakeia: That’s hard to say because I’m not privy to the personal or professional advice Jay has given Cole on the industry. And while I think Jay-Z is one of the best to ever do it, I’m not convinced that he knows how to groom artists—Rihanna excluded—or at least groom them into super star status. I love State Property as much as the next, but they’re not exactly selling out arenas.
Omar: Much like West and Hill, Cole aspires to be multi-dimensional. A big part of Cole’s success lies in his storytelling skills. Just because he graduates to a higher tax bracket than his initial fan base, do you think he’ll still be able to articulate their struggles through his third-person rhymes? Let’s assume the worst possible case scenario: J. Cole actually does run out of good things to rhyme about. I don’t think that will happen, but he’s hinted at a desire to do more work behind the boards as a producer. Judging from his work with Kendrick Lamar on “Hiii Powered,” would a second career as a successful emcee turned full-time producer like Kwame be a bad thing?
Lakeia: It’s a little early to tell, but I think Cole can win on both fronts. Again, Cole's authenticity and honesty is largely his appeal. Sure, his tune could literally change after a few private jet rides, some dealings with Ms. New Booty and a few overpriced dinners at Philippe’s. But if he remains sincere about those very experiences and what they really mean, we’ll still listen. We’ll still be able to relate. Just as we have done with other great artists with humble beginnings.
As far as Cole’s future as strictly a producer, Kanye did this too but just the other way around. In the end, all fans really want is talent, creativity and realness. Whichever way Cole decides to be all these things, whether behind the boards or on the mic, I think a large number of fans will remain. Though I must admit, I’d prefer for him to both produce for others and rhyme just like RZA, Havoc, Q-Tip, Pete Rock, Large Professor and other greats have done.
Omar: Ultimately all of this is subjective. While it sounds really early to speculate on all of this, keep in mind that Lauryn’s audience turned on her before she could ever make a proper, second studio album as a soloist. And things got weird for West and Lupe on their third campaigns. Artists tend to release albums a lot more frequently now, as proven by the fact that Cole recently told Billboard magazine he plans to drop his sophomore album in roughly nine months. But none of the above is an indictment of the artists above or J. Cole for that matter. Maybe fans should just think twice before holding an artist up to such lofty, unreal expectations only to be disappointed when they fail to live up to a standard nobody possibly could.
Lakeia Brown is a freelance writer living in New York. Her work has appeared in publications and websites like Essence, The Atlanta-Journal Constitution, New York Newsday and Theroot.com.
Omar Burgess is a Long Beach, California native who has contributed to various magazines, newspapers and has been an editor at HipHopDX since 2008. Follow him on Twitter @FourFingerRings.