Jermaine Lamarr Cole was born on January 28, 1985 in Frankfurt, Germany. His mother was a European woman and his father was an African American man. Unfortunately, his father left, he and his mother soon moved to Fayetteville, North Carolina. It was here he grew up and his love of rap began to form. He soon was put into the rap game at a very young age and this is where he began to learn the ropes of rapping from his cousin. He eventually spent his teen years posting his music on the internet under the name the “Therapist”. From here he hoped for a better chance in life and pursued that chance by moving to New York where he attended St. John’s University. After graduating with a major in communication and a minor in business, he began working as a tax collector. After recording his first mix-tape he hoped to have Jay-Z listen to it but was soon denied and his hopes of a career in hip-hop seemed to fade. It wasn’t until Jay-Z heard Cole’s song “Lights Please” that he decided to contact Cole and set up a meeting. J Cole was then officially signed by Jay-Z to his Roc Nation where he got his first record deal. J Cole has went on to write several albums each topping his previous one on the charts.
I don’t know what exactly it was in Cole’s life that has made him a very radical rapper, to be honest I don’t think you can say it was just one thing. Whether it was his struggle as a child in a bad neighborhood or even the fact that he is an African American man in a country that still discriminates based on skin color. No matter what reason he is pulling on in his songs, he finds a way to voice his opinion and views on a controversial topic in America today. In order to see the full progression of J Cole’s radicalism we have to look back at some of his earlier works.
One of his first radical works was a single named “Problems” (listen to song below) where he talks about racial profiling/injustice and even about black fear of the police. In this song we hear at the beginning of verse 2, Cole talking about being pulled over by a police officer and how the relationship between a black man and the police is so poor in today society. In the lyrics we see Cole talking about how the police are supposed to keep the peace right? Well, maybe not because in today’s society it seems like they are only out to catch black men doing something wrong. This section of his lyrics show how he was driving “pretty peaceful”, but is still getting pulled over and the only reason he can think of is his skin color. He continues with talking about how he is nervous simply when a cop car is behind him and it makes him feel like a criminal. The most radical part of this song comes next when he is asking what the cop sees when he looks at him. He is questioning the racial profiling that is so prevalent in today’s society and spins this on its head when he says all the black men in the car aren’t criminals, in fact they all have college degrees. It is lyrics like this that take shots at the injustice and discrimination that has taken over the criminal justice system. Cole even talks about how African American men are being killed in the streets everyday but, don’t make the news. Instead we hear about some irrelevant story about some famous person being unfaithful. During this entire song he is questioning the whole system and how it’s crazy that we sit here and judge people because of things like the color of the skin. In the end we all have problems and I think this is radical and something my African American studies class has talked a lot about. He isn’t just attacking cops and how they are prejudice but how the whole system is flawed, making people judge each other when in reality no one is perfect.
J Cole is not even close to being done, he dropped another radical verse on the song “Fire Squad” (see song below), where he drops names of white artist like Eminem and Iggy Azalea. The verse starts at minute 2:57 and goes till 3:30. In this verse we hear what sounds like Cole attacking white artist, but in reality he is attacking what is happening to black culture. Cole said this observation came when he was browsing the jazz page of iTunes and 99% of the artist were white. He talks about how Jazz is a black form of music and was rebellious back in its day and sees Hip-Hop as the jazz of today’s society. He then recognizes how it is being taken over by white artists because it is easier for the system to realize they can sell white hip-hop so much easier than a black artist. The line, “Same rope you climb up on, they’ll hang you with”, is the perfect way to help the listener visualize how Cole sees this white takeover of a black form of rebellion. Cole says he by no means discredits white artist in this genre but, is simply noticing how yet again white privilege takes over a piece of black culture.
One of J Coles most radical pieces entitled “Be Free” (listen below), was released in light of the killing of Michael Brown. In the song we hear a very emotional Cole; in the hook we hear his voice waver as he says “all we wanna do is be free”. It is here Cole says black people want nothing more than to be free, than to take the chains off. This idea that blacks are still chained is so strong and radical because no white person wants to think that slavery still exist. This song is about so much more than just one man dying, it is the soul of all African Americans crying out for this injustice to stop. Cole as a black man sees Michael Brown as a reflection of himself and states that there is no gun that can kill his soul. This strong claim unites the black community in one single lyric to never give in to this oppression. The most impactful part of this song is the eyewitness account from one of Browns friends. Cole ensures by adding this that the injustice in this crime can never be hidden because it will always be remembered when this song is played.
J Cole just recently released his biggest project yet in his album “4 Your Eyez Only”. In this album Cole speaks out on social wrongs, black lives, and doing the right thing in a world full of wrongs. The songs are filled with moments of jazz sounds bringing his music back to the first form of black radicalism in the music industry. Cole has even refused to comment on this album stating he wants the music to speak for itself. One of his most radical songs on this record is a song named “Neighbors” (listen below), where he talks about how he, a black man, is racially profiled by his white neighbors. The song actually depicts a true story that happened to J Cole and a house he owned in a rich white neighborhood in North Carolina. He had bought the house to act as a studio/safe house for the members of his team at Dreamville, his record label. In the song he talks about how the neighbors see black guys outside smoking weed and all of a sudden they hear the police at their door. Cole goes on to say its only because his neighbors think they are selling dope, off only the fact that the house is full of black men in a rich, white neighborhood. Cole even voices his opinion of how black men feel in today’s society saying they all feel like a candidate for the fate that Trayvon Martin received, death at the hands of a racist man. He again like in past songs tries to shed light on how he is paranoid at the thought of cops and how the police simply assume they are criminal’s due to their complexion. He even ends the song on a sad note as saying he gives up on the hope of integration into white communities and even society. This song is so radical to me because the fact the song is based on a true story, proves injustice can happen to any black man no matter his status. That no matter your status in society if you are a minority, you will be subject to prejudice and racism. Throughout this whole album Cole is writing from many different perspectives and is hoping to target black youth and stop the pattern so many fall into today. He is radically trying to change a problem but not stop racism because at this point he feels like it is a lost cause, he instead wants to teach these kids they have to save themselves because the system won’t help them. Cole ends his last song on a hopeful note that maybe, just maybe, kids will understand the true message of this album that they have to rely on themselves and no one else to stop this oppression.
The last song I would like to explore is J Cole’s latest single “High For Hours” (listen below), which is brimming with radical lyrics that question even past president Barrack Obama’s character as a black man with political power. Cole starts his radicalism by attacking religion and how religion is overtaken by ego today and how they justify taking a life though their religion. He says this is why ISIS is a problem and even has a problem with how when Bin Laden was killed he say people were so happy. He even relates this to the commandment, thou shall not kill, but yet cops are still killing black men in his hometown. He then talks about a conversation he had with Obama at the White-House last year where he basically asked why he doesn’t do anything about the racial injustice since he has all the power. He says the president said he was well aware of the injustices and wanted to help but couldn’t due to politics. That being said Obama tells him to not stop fighting and that change will happen it’s just slow, but Cole is done with the gradual change and says he will keeping fighting his fight until they kill him. He ends this song with a different view on revolution and says that he used to think it was the best form of radicalism but now he sees it differently. He says it is simply a vicious cycle that gives the oppressed power that they then use to oppress someone else. Cole believes that the only true revolution happens right inside yourself, which is definitely a radical way of seeing things.
No, matter what album you are listening to of J Cole’s you are bound to hear his views on the world. You may not agree with all that he says but, there is no way you can say he is not radical whether it is his music, countless attempts to help his community, or even his recent movie that was just released on HBO,”4 Your Eyez Only.” Cole is sure to push the boundaries of American comfort in all his works and is not afraid to call anyone out for their ignorance. I think it is easy to say, “Well, yeah J Cole is radical and yes he risks a lot rapping about the radical things he raps about.” That being said J Cole doesn’t want to only be one radical rapper speaking up for the injustice of the minority population. He wants to be the powder keg that can explode due to the up rise of the minority population. In my African American studies class we have discussed that radicalism doesn’t have to be selling a radical album to millions of people. It can be as simple as listening to a radical record and making sure the message of that radical message is spread truthfully and justly. Just as J Cole says, “The only real revolution happens right inside of you.”