With Friday's (Dec. 9) release of his fourth studio album, 4 Your Eyez Only, J.Cole achieved what a vast majority of artists aspire to achieve throughout their careers: He got people talking. Here we all are, halfway through Monday afternoon, and the conversations still continue.
J.Cole lives up to his reputation as a conscious emcee on his latest project — for better or for worse. As the weekend unfolded, memes and commentary not-so-surprisingly flooded timelines across all social media networks.
Some of my peers didn't make it all the way through their first listen before sharing their potent opinions, while others expressed they were mind-blown at the seemingly spot-on fan theories that this album was actually his friend's story and not his own. Some called it fire, others called it trash. Some said J. Cole puts them to sleep, while others argue that's simply because they aren't woke. Needless to say, in the first 24 hours following his new release, things got pretty serious in the internet trenches, with memes like this one providing a perfect "lemme just leave this here" comment to lighten the mood.
Meanwhile, conversations in the media remain just as heated. Genius's Rob Markman recently made the observation: "If Nas dropped Illmatic today, Twitter would slander thee f**k out of it," a phenomenon we witnessed this past weekend with Cole's release. HipHopDX's Justin Hunte passionately argued that J. Cole IS Nas — without Illmatic. Complementing the discussion surrounding 4 Your Eyez Only was The Ringer's Shea Serrano and Justin Charity, who went shot-for-shot arguing whether or not J. Cole is even a good rapper in the first place. DJ Booth's Nathan S. did the project justice during his one listen review, a subjective and raw style of reviewing music that Cole himself unassumingly inspired years ago, while BET's music staff also shared a handful of our first impressions. We all made it through our first listen — and ran it back.
What it all comes down to is this: at the surface, the way J. Cole utilizes his platform and his creative expression ignites the age-old binary debates of good or bad. Real hip-hop or wack hip-hop. Old versus new. His art, his persona and his bigger picture all encourage these debates. As fans of hip-hop music, we have an intrinsic need to classify or categorize or comment on whatever he is doing. These conversations are important or they wouldn’t be ignited with every new release he offers. J. Cole gets compared to Nas in a way that a vast majority of rappers in 2016 will never inspire. Is that fair? Did Cole ask to be held at such a high standard of quality? Or is he just simply making music that a generation of people taking the bus to work can relate to?
A millennial rapper like Lil Yachty can stand on a roof with a megaphone yelling that he does not care about golden-era icons Tupac or Biggie while Periscoping the whole thing on Twitter. People may sigh, shrug or argue, but regardless, they believe him. Many say hip-hop isn’t what it used to be and look to Lil Yachty as supporting evidence. All J. Cole has to do is low-key release a 10-track album proving Lil Yachty does not represent the view of every millennial fan and creator of rap music and he becomes a hero. That subtle reassurance that people still create and consume conscious rap music comes as a huge relief for many, especially to those particularly territorial of the culture’s historic roots and concerned about hip-hop’s overall well-being today, four decades later.
Debates about J. Cole have become the most non-evil, necessary evil of contemporary rap. As an emcee, he earns the title, finding a way to pull at our heartstrings and stir up the masses at the same time. He makes taking the unpopular route seem less difficult to take. He casually drops lyrical bombs and chooses to watch the dust settle from the sidelines instead of in the spotlight. He raps over top-tier production and finds a way to weave in almond milk, folding clothes and the struggle of the Black American male all into one narrative pulled directly from real life. After 2014 Forest Hills Drive, we expect this from him, and as exemplified on 4 Your Eyez Only, he complies.
While other rappers may find more commercial success through their dab-worthy singles in radio rotation, J. Cole can proudly and humbly add another successful concept album to his collection. As he mysteriously retreats back into his world, leaving us to digest — and debate — his album bar for bar and beat for beat, it proves that the younger generation still does care about the state of hip-hop in 2016. We care about J. Cole. Just look at the comments section.
(Photo: Jim Bennett/FilmMagic)