Hey all; hope you’ve been well,
Today’s hip hop inspired post is the result of an off-topic, yet interesting, conversation I had with one of my students during class. We had broken up into groups and they were analyzing the rhetoric in Al Pacino’s “Inch By Inch” speech. Several students were making up a test and there were about four groups of five students each.
In a brief moment of “off-topicness” two of my girls began quoting Meek Mill’s “Intro” (“Hold Up Wait A Minute; Y’all thought I was finished?”) to which I responded, you’re not Philly enough to quote Meek in this class. The kids were slightly baffled (but I spent too much time in Philly for these lil’ homestead jawns to be quoting Meek Mill in my class), and one responded, so I can’t quote J. Cole since I’m not from NC?
Eventually, that comment turned into a micro-conversation about how J. Cole, especially now, hasn’t really put NC on his back. While he is unapologetic about where he’s from, few would consider him an NC rapper…he’s definitely more of a rapper from NC.
The difference is major though it’s expressed through minor nuance. My student’s first defense of Cole was how much he shouts out the Ville. His label is called Dreamville Records. He often shouts out Fayetnam. He’s definitely from NC. But that’s about it. Literally that’s about it.
J. Cole’s recipe for success wasn’t to put his city on his back. Nor does he really put his city on the map. J. Cole’s ethos throughout his entire discography can be boiled down to, I’m the best that my city has to offer by proxy, because he’s the best in the game. (Paraphrasing his ethos). You can trace his progression through some songs where he discusses ripping the older kids in freestyles at a younger age. But in order to make it, he felt the need to leave his city. He needed opportunity, and the southern city Fayetnam just didn’t have it.
His traction, first with college students, then to most thirteen to thirty-year-olds, stems from a passion to make it. He’s about to blow up. He’s got to make it. No matter what. Even if that means leaving the sound that your state began building up in the late 90s and early 00s. Even if that means looking within and focusing on the universal traumas of insecurity, relationship issues, perfectionism, money, and power. None of that is explicitly shaded in a regional brush.
Cole’s occasional shout out to his hometown and his roots is much like Big Sean’s. Yes, he’s from the D, but the D doesn’t dominate or provide a stable musical foundation for his flow, his subject matter, or his persona. Cole is much the same way. Cole can get off on a beat, but he’s not reaching back into the southern canon or presenting those southern vibes. He was raised in NC yes, but Cole became a man in NYC, the melting pot of melting pots. And not racially, but regionally.
Going to college in a city very far removed from your hometown will change the way you reflect on your world and create. While, without a doubt, Cole is a rapper from NC, his swagger and his worldview has been shaped by his travels and extended stays elsewhere.
Much like Jay Electronica, Cole’s southern accent (he claims he had one) vanished after traveling and spending extended time in a variety of locales around a variety of people. He’s a rapper from NC. He’s not an NC rapper. And that’s not a bad thing.
Cole’s strength is in his ability to come off as relatable to so many: He’s biracial, an athlete, a thinker, a rapper, a producer, he “smashes hos” yet is seeking a stable relationship, he’s been poor, he’s been middle class, he went to college, he’s from the hood, etc. Without that regionalism, Cole is even more of an every person’s rapper. He may not read as NC as Meek reads as Philly, or Kendrick reads as Compton, but for him, that is in fact a strength. Not a weakness.
Gotta thank my student for pushing back. Lol. Made me think about this quite a bit.