“How the f*ck do I look/When I brag to you about some diamond?/Said all that I could say/Now I play with thoughts of retirement” – J Cole
Say what? J Cole can’t be thinking of retirement now, could he? (I mean, we are still anticipating that Kendrick Lamar joint project) “Jermaine’s Interlude”, the track off of DJ Khaled‘s newest album, Major Key raised a few eyebrows with the last words of his verse. Could the North Carolina born rapper be thinking of putting the mic down for a while? The whole interlude speaks of the traps of the music industry and cautions artists to not follow that path.
Cole’s latest album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive told the story of an artist finding peace within himself after finding what means the most to him. It’s only right that the album was Cole’s most acclaimed to date – further accentuating the notion that you go the farthest being yourself.
Like every superhero, they follow a character arc. There’s the rise to prominence, the fall from grace, and then the return to the top of the mountain. Some may argue that J Cole has followed the same trajectory within his music. This got me to thinking – if this is could be the end, what would J Cole’s story arc be? If you’ve listened closely to his catalog, it’s very honest about the places he’s been and the places he’s planning to go. You can point to specific songs and tell a story. A kid from Fayetteville, North Carolina worked to get to the spotlight, got knocked down and got back up again.
The Come Up– “Simba”- 2007’s The Come Up was Cole at his most raw and hungry. Imagine any young rapper trying to fight through adversity to make their mark where many others are doing the same thing. Producing 14 of the 21 tracks on the mix tape, Cole was eager to show his lyrical prowess. What better than with the song that prompted a three song series across multiple projects. “Simba” is the apex of artist on the cusp of being signed. A “young lion” who is willing to work his way to get the torch passed to him.
The Warm Up – “Lights Please” – This was the song that finally got Cole noticed by Jay-Z. The 2009 song that features smooth piano keys throughout could be interpreted as a double entendre. Cole could be talking about a woman with bad intentions, but also uses that as a metaphor for hip-hop. It’s only right that the rapper who often utilizes the double meaning art form to take notice of Cole and sign him to Roc Nation. Little did we know, this was a precursor to Cole’s standout verse on Jay-Z’s Blueprint 3 track, “A Star Is Born”. It was indeed.
Friday Night Lights – “Blow Up” – As it builds with claps, piano keys, and a declaration of victory over the haters. “Blow Up” is Cole’s first championship belt. At this point in Cole’s career, fans were anxiously anticipating his first album. In many ways, Friday Night Lights was so polished that it could be considered an “album quality” project. Unfortunately, the label did not agree, but we got a look ahead into what Cole could become. 2010’s “Blow Up” is an anthem and held everything that Cole worked for to this point. There were many reasons to celebrate and this track is the perfect ” I finally made it” statement.
The Sideline Story – “Work Out”: With every artist, there are some growing pains. You have to navigate new territory when you get signed to a major label. 2011’s The Sideline Story, which was Cole’s debut album on Roc Nation, found the artist trying to balance his mix-tape roots against the urge to have radio songs to entice the masses. “Work Out” sampled Kanye West‘s “The New Workout Plan” and Paula Abdul‘s “Straight Up” to what would be one of the most mainstream friendly songs.
Born Sinner– “Let Nas Down”: This song is the embodiment of the frustration J Cole was feeling during the recording of The Sideline Story and the so-so response. Specifically, it recalls a story of Nas‘ thoughts on “Work Out” and the disappointment of what looked like the abandonment of Cole’s roots. 2013’s Born Sinner saw a better understanding of how the music industry works. This was not before Cole shared a personal story of what one of his favorite rapper’s said about his first major single.
“Told me Nas heard your single and he hate that shit/Said you the one, yo why you make that shit” Ouch.
2014 Forest Hills Drive – “Love Yourz”: You can call this the victory lap. Well, hopefully not – let’s just say a champion’s welcome home. No radio singles this time around, Forest Hills Drive proved to be J Cole’s defining statement in finding the happiness within himself. There’s a line in “Love Yourz” that personifies Cole’s journey to this point:
“For what’s money without happiness?/Or hard times without the people you love”
Listening to interviews that took place during the time of the album release, there was a new air of confidence and peace around Cole. He got in touch of what mattered the most – it was not the money or even the accolades that were deserving with this album – it was the pure love that surrounded him from friends and family.