Photo: Isaac Brekken

J. Cole: The Coronation of a Hip-Hop Underdog

J. Cole is like King David, Kanye West is like King Saul. So goes the biblical story...

J. Cole is coming to symbolize and epitomize what it means to be “woke” today as a rap artist.

There’s an age-old story in Biblical history. It’s the Old Testament story of King Saul and King David.

The story occurs following the mass exodus of the children of Israel out of Egypt after God decides to make good on his promise to their ancestor, Abraham. At the time, the people of Israel make a request of God to give them a king. Sure they had great leaders like Moses and Joshua, but they wanted something more. They wanted a figurehead to represent them as a nation as they had witnessed with other people groups.

According to the story, God is reluctant at first because He understands the implications but eventually decides to grant them their wish. Enter King Saul. Saul is the guy who, at the time, finds enough favor in the sight of God to be appointed to the task. The interesting thing about Saul is that he starts out with the best of intentions; leading God’s people into conquest after conquest. But over time he begins to lose his way. Meanwhile, there

s another guy waiting in the wings == a humble shepherd by the name of David, who unassumingly assumes Saul’s position and eclipses him in both stature and legacy.

Life can be funny sometimes. It’s crazy how, through missteps or random occurrences, someone can be here today and gone tomorrow. There’s usually an instance where public attention shifts from someone who’s seemingly at the top of their game to a lesser known, more authentic upstart. There’s something about that underdog story. Whether it’s Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in 2008 or Tony Romo and Dak Prescott in 2016, this happens in nearly every arena — from sports to politics to entertainment.

Malcolm Gladwell’s recent book, the aptly-titled David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giant (Backbay, 2016), illustrates this exact phenomenon. This shift typically culminates into a subtle coronation effect that marks the end of one era and the beginning of another. A changing of the guard if you will — with transpiring events that intersect the fading of one bright light with the rising stature of another. Think about it. Who would have thought in a million years that a young Jay-Z would have even come close to the career milestones of the late, great Notorious B.I.G. after his untimely death? And who would have imagined a backup quarterback named Tom Brady would become arguably the greatest quarterback of all time after defeating the Greatest Show on Turf? You get the point.

Several months ago, hip-hop wordsmith J. Cole released a song entitled “False Prophets”, which was followed by his critically-acclaimed fourth album, 4 Your Eyez Only. On the surface, the song appears to lament the current state of affairs in hip-hop, making reference to what could be a number of artists. But what stood out in is a verse in the song in which Cole expresses his concern about one of his former influences who has lost his way and is now crying out for help through his actions. He doesn’t name names, but there’s widespread speculation and presumptions that he appeared to be making reference to Kanye West, the ultra-talented, super-influential music icon. Despite his storied career and numerous accolades, many have been questioning the direction of West for some time. From his Yeezus album to his obsession over perceived slights by the fashion industry to his insertion into the Kardashian brand, fans have been left to wonder exactly where Yeezy was headed with all this. But because he’s one of the most prolific artists of his generation who has a penchant for coming through when underestimated, few dare to question his genius or criticize him publicly. For the most part, we take it as Kanye just being Kanye. His infamous rants (e.g., “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”, and “Taylor I’mma let you finish but…”) have simply become a part of popular culture.

Although as of late, these rants appear to be becoming more bizarre. His most recent episode involved him abruptly ending the last leg of his US tour after going onstage to express, among other things, his support for Donald Trump. He went on to accuse Beyoncé of politicizing award show appearances and even implied that her husband and his friend Jay-Z would cause him physical harm as a result of these statements. This was the tipping point for many, which left the world to wonder if West was in need of medical attention (he later checked himself into a hospital, citing physical exhaustion). This is where J. Cole picks up in his song, which is not an attempt to disparage his anonymous mentor, but rather serve as a more somber and pensive reflection. In a game where there can be no hold barred in terms of verbal chastising, Cole simply wants to know what went wrong.

Coming from anyone else it might not have made much of a difference or, conversely, could have been blown into a much bigger deal. But because it is J. Cole, this provides the context for something far greater. Cole is hip-hop’s David – an artist who has risen from obscurity and has managed to make his way into the forefront of the “who’s the best MC?” conversation so prevalent in hip-hop culture. Many would argue that he’s one-third of the trifecta, which includes Drake and Kendrick Lamar, who could easily lay claim to the top spot. But now that he’s in this position, he’s slowly evolving into something else. Through his music, interviews and public appearances, J. Cole has managed to become one of this generation’s new voices of social consciousness by speaking on a number of issues including racial injustice, economic inequality, cultural appropriation and police brutality. He’s coming to symbolize and epitomize what it means to be “woke” today as a rap artist.

Interestingly enough, this used to be the spot occupied by Kanye West. You may remember when songs like “All Falls Down” and “Jesus Walks” dropped and were so counterculture to where hip-hop was at the time. Many considered West to be a revolutionary. Well today, with songs like “Fire Squad” and “Love Yourz”, those attributes are now being ascribed to J. Cole. There are other similarities — and differences. Kanye West dubbed himself The College Dropout while J. Cole boasts of almost graduating from college summa cum laude. Both are rapper/producers. Both are protégés of Jay-Z, who have had to deal with massive expectations of developing a career in his shadow. Kanye seems to have had more to overcome in this regard, however, as J. Cole seems more grounded and well-adjusted.

So there’s an intersectionality that exists with both artists that places them on seemingly divergent paths. Because he has earned enough cache and credibility, J. Cole may be in the best position to offer a bold yet solemn critique of someone arguably considered to be one of the greatest hip-hop artists of all time — a title J. Cole himself could one day inherit.

In the summer of 2013, Kanye West released his highly-anticipated album Yeezus to mixed reviews. Coincidentally, J. Cole also released his second album, Born Sinner, on the same day. Like the story of Saul and David, this is a fact that is often overlooked. Kanye was coming off arguably as his best album, 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and much to the surprise of everyone, Born Sinner outsold Yeezus in its first week and rose to the top of the Billboard charts. Could this have been the beginning of what was to come? A coronation of sorts? Only God knows… and only time will tell.

Leonard Moore is an avid consumer of pop culture — from sports to entertainment to politics — and a constituent of all things ’90s. As a career professional and scholarly practitioner, he seeks to examine and understand the delicate balance that exists between gainful employment and self-confidence. A native Charlestonian, he enjoys an occasional theoretical debate and is most passionate about the idea of hip-hop as modern-day theology.

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