I’m always running. It, as well as admiring farce, are my greatest qualities. I can disappear right in front of you and you wouldn’t know it. I could be telling you a story, looking you right in the eye and you’d never know that I was somewhere else, entirely. And I don’t mean mundane shit like wondering about what to eat or what my girl is doing. I’m talking hitherto all-the-way not there stuff like staring down at myself from locked inside a cold, black tower. Am I even the one doing the talking? It’s hard to say.
Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive is an album I described as generally fine with being mundane, but that it was also always present. There J. Cole is, right in front of you, losing his virginity, dissing his old-lady, coming back home, and you never doubt him, not even for a second. He’s not Kendrick, who switches back and forth between times and persons to weave a broken-mirror narrative of himself. The Kendrick you see is not who is really there, is what he’s telling you over and over again. It’s compelling stuff. Drake, on the other hand, began as the ex-Degrassi star who went from being good at rap to being the ubiquitous, pop genius of rap. But here’s the thing, this, the Drake we’re seeing now, was always Drake. We’ve had him wrong up until right now. This very second. He’s probably already gone from this spot, and we’ll have him wrong again until things catch up a few years from now. But not Cole. Cole is old-faithful. Cole is what you see is what you get. And his career mirrors all of our careers. His controlled ascension is like you, me, us going from High School to college (maybe, because student loans) and then into the job world trying to make a name for yourself. For us, worrying about our careers and apartments and picking up wine after work, every day is our Friday Night Lights. For this, Cole might be the most relatable artist working in Hip Hop right now. I mean, what do you want to be free from?
There was a shot of Cole, him driving in his SUV where he paraphrases what could only essentially be called a Buddhist philosophy. He says, “The reason why we dream is because you’re not content with reality. [When] you’re so attached with the idea of the dream, I think that’s when misery comes and suffering.” He goes on to ruminate, “My dream is to have this car, my dream is to have this girl, my dream is to have this success, and when you don’t have it that shit brings stress.” It does bring stress. Everybody knows that, but nobody says it, right? Wrong. Artists are saying it all the time. So they usually make an album or two about it. Kanye’s 808’s and Heartbreak; Drake’s Take Care; Nicki’s Pinkprint; Kendrick’s To Pimp A Butterfly; Earl’s I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, De La’s De La Soul Is Dead. They’re all ‘this is stressful albums.’ They all ask the question: Do I really want this? But Mr. Cole curved all that and made an album that described the journey as it was. This is the draw of J. Cole. He’ll simply state what’s happening and let your mind fill in the rest. His decision has already been made. He’s taking his ball, and he’s going home to that rickety old house in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
So many of us wish we could do the same. We are all disillusioned with something or the other. All of our lives are, seemingly, falling apart. And, he’s right. Hollywood is funny. Everyone is entirely too chill yet very few are really chill. Everyone is entirely too beautiful yet there’s no water in the whole damn town. You have to ask yourself then, is this even real? What’s real? For Cole, it’s the moments in life that are open to everyone. The one’s that don’t need access or need you to sit and think deeply about the human condition. The one’s that don’t even require a lot of money. Sitting with your friends and listening to an album is one. Protecting yourself against the onslaught of dealing with other humans is another. One dollar for a concert with a superstar who’d rather hang out with his friends than be caught at fashion week is yet another. J. Cole’s magic is that he’s completely and utterly obsessed with being himself. And, somehow, he makes it feel like it’s okay for you to be yourself, too. Not your best self. Not your fanciest self.
Maybe L.A. isn’t just a city of shadows, old-quiet houses, gangs and apartments that don’t come with a fridge, then. Maybe it’s not Hollywood, either. Maybe I can be myself in there, somewhere, too.
Andre Grant is an NYC native turned L.A. transplant that has contributed to a few different properties on the web and is now the Features Editor for HipHopDX. He’s also trying to live it to the limit and love it a lot. Follow him on Twitter @drejones.