Home Arts & Culture How J. Cole disappointed the culture, explained

How J. Cole disappointed the culture, explained

by cashonbank.com
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Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

On Sunday, Fayetteville, N.C., rapper Jermaine Cole took to the stage at his Dreamville Festival to express regret for disparaging K-Dot’s catalog in “7 Minute Drill,” where Cole raps:  

Your first shit was classic, your last shit was tragic
Your second shit put n*ggas to sleep, but they gassed it
Your third shit was massive and that was your prime
I was trailin’ right behind and I just now hit mine

J. Cole “7 Minute Drill”

“It’s one part of that shit that makes me feel like, man that’s the lamest shit I did in my fuckin’ life,” Cole told the audience. “So I felt conflicted ’cause I’m like, bruh I don’t even feel no way. And I know this is not what a lot of people want to hear.”

Cole’s heartfelt public apology sent Black Twitter into a frenzy with memes, jokes and even a discourse about mental health and self-care. While a mea culpa for doing something that “don’t sit right with [his] spirit” and “disrupts [his] peace” was an admirable act of contrition and self-reflection, Cole was right about one thing: It was not what many people wanted to hear.

One of the privileges of writing for Black audiences is that I don’t need to explain what I mean when I say that my youngest sister was always “tender-headed.” I’ve never really heard the definition of feeling “some type of way,” but I know what it means. Every Black child is born with the ability to distinguish between “white folks’ business” and “grown folks’ business.” And for many people, Cole’s actions didn’t just undermine one of the fundamental precepts of hip-hop, it broke one of the unwritten rules that govern the disparate Black communities throughout America:

You gotta get your lick back. 

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Getting your lick back is a God-given right. It is as as important as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Getting one’s lick back has little to do with violence or revenge; it’s about competition, fairness and, most of all, refusing to back down. This foundational principle is one of the pillars upon which Black culture and art are built. Roasting or “playing the dozens” is just a verbal form of getting one’s lick back. The improvisational guitar and saxophone solos that define American music evolved from “cutting contests” — when Black jazz and blues musicians would battle each other during a performance. Even moving one’s body to a rhythm can become competitive. You couldn’t just tap dance in Bill Bojangles Robinson’s face or do an Alpha Train at a Que party and expect no response. They have the right to get their lick back. 

Perhaps nothing embodies this doctrine like the culture that combines every previously existing form of Black art and Black creativity. Whether it is breakdancing, emceeing, deejaying or graffiti, every element of hip-hop involves some form of competitive response. Positioning oneself as the best is a foundational prerequisite of hip-hop culture. The art form is built on the concept of opposition, whether real or imagined. It’s why “I am great at rapping” was the thesis of 86.4% of early rap music. It’s why there are no hit songs about dependable cars, moderately strong marijuana and reasonably priced jewelry. It’s why Drake invited J. Cole to appear on the single “First Person Shooter” to answer the question: “Who is the GOAT? … It’s just [Drake] and Cole.” This cultural need for competitive excellence is also why Cole proclaimed:

Love when they argue the hardest MC.
Is it K-Dot? Is it Aubrey? Or me?
We the big three like we started a league,
but right now, I feel like Muhammad Ali

J. Cole on “First Person Shooter”

This is not what Kendrick Lamar wanted to hear. 

Like Cole, Kendrick Lamar is known for making emotionally vulnerable, unapologetically Black rap music that addresses politics, spirituality and mental health. But, in spite of the Grammys, Pulitzers and the other Caucasian kudos that have been showered upon Lamar from outside the culture, every now and then, he will transform into “Kung Fu Kenny,” the undisputed champion of verbal combat. He has already said that he has nothing but love and respect for his peers, but he “thinks hip-hop is a sport.”The only difference between the more contemplative poet and his drop-kicking alter ego is that Kung Fu Kenny refuses to even tolerate the insinuation that someone exists in the same rarified atmosphere as he does. 

To Lamar, Drake and Jermaine choosing to put him on their level was a diss. The light-skinned duo’s intent was inconsequential. He was just following the rules. So, Kendrick Lamar had no choice but to fulfill his obligation to hip-hop by adhering to the standards and practices of the culture in which he is firmly entrenched. Lamar chose a feature on Future and Metro Boomin’s “Like That,” to address the issue. 

“These n*ggas talkin’ out of they necks,” he began. “Don’t pull no coffin out of your mouth, I’m way too paranoid for a threat.” What followed was a verse filled with slightly obscure references that true hip-hop fans immediately recognized. He cited rap pioneer Melle Mel, Andre 3000’s flute and The Click members E-40 and B-Legit. After dissing the song and the album titles, Lamar’s conclusion left no ambiguity: “Motherf–k the Big Three. N*gga, it’s just me.”

He got his lick back.

In an era where rap music is often indistinguishable from pop music, true hip-hop fans were delighted to see this back-and-forth between the respected practitioners of their beloved art. It was like LeBron challenging Giannis to a game of one-on-one at Rucker Park. Not since Nas vs. Jay-Z has the culture seen two artists at the vanguard of the culture engage in the most fundamental form. And like “Ether” vs. “Takeover,” the debate about who won was less important than the artistic competition. While no one doubts the excellence of either artist, this entire “beef” was about nothing more than who was the best. 

It was hip-hop at its finest. 

But there is a difference between rap music and hip-hop. One is a product of a capitalist music industry built by white people with the specific purpose of commodifying Black art. The other is a culture, with rules that govern the standards and practices of those who participate. An artist who creates murals might paint over another artist’s work. But in hip-hop, X-ing out another graffiti writer’s tag is considered an offense. While Beyoncé fans love her reinterpretation of “Jolene,” if a hip-hop artist did the same thing, she might be accused of “biting” Dolly Parton. Even worse, they might saddle Bey with one of the most insulting labels of all — a sucker MC. 

While some, including my colleague Touré, rightly applaud J. Cole for prioritizing his mental health and adhering to his personal ethical standard, hip-hop purists are not wrong for wondering: “What part of the game is this?” Contrary to people whose Spotify playlist include Post Malone and Ice Spice would have you believe, I haven’t encountered a single soul who was mad at J. Cole. They were simply disappointed to see a rivalry that promised to be a tentpole moment in hip-hop dissipate into thin air. They are no different from people who want to return to the era where NFL players could decapitate their opponents on the field. They just want some old-school elements sprinkled into all the songs about taking Percocet and attending weekly therapy sessions. The disappointment partly comes from the realization that hip-hop is evolving, perhaps for the good. 

Still, what kind of rapper doesn’t want his lick back?

Perhaps the only loser in all of this is the hip-hop purist. We “heads” feel the same as boxing fans who watched Tyson bite Evander Holyfield’s ear. No one wanted an actual beef (there was very little chance that this conflict would result in bloodshed); they wanted to watch two champions duke it out for the title. J. Cole has the right to apologize. His fans also have the right to feel slighted that he essentially conceded to his opponent. 

If there’s one bright side to this entire controversy, it’s that J. Cole only apologized to Kendrick Lamar. While he may have disappointed the hip-hop heads who love to see friendly competition, people who occasionally like a good rap song are free to enjoy the rest of his music that doesn’t make him “spiritually feel bad.” His apology may seem to have broken one of the foundational tenets of his craft, but that doesn’t make him a coward or a traitor. Those who doubt Cole’s dedication to the culture can rest assured that his spirit is not disturbed when he bravely raps about violence and Black women. After all, it is hip-hop.

So much drama on the street, feel like the beef is random
Murder galore, turn into Thor, I gotta keep a hammer
Case weather get inclement, shots rain on the innocent,
the neighbors still don’t know who sent them shits, it’s like a secret Santa
Me, I’m out here reachin’ for a higher frequency, I plan to
Rest my feet in presidential suites or sleep in beach cabanas
Skeetin’ on thousand-count sheets, I’m hittin’ freaks in tandems
Bust ’em down, then throw ’em in the cab like they from East Atlanta
How it feel to see the flyest bitch and know that he can land ’em?
Every word I speak on beats, it’s guaranteed to feed the fandom.

— J. Cole on “Stickz N Stonez “

While some people (Mos Def, for instance) doubt that Drake is even a part of hip-hop, for the culture’s sake, I hope he will get his lick back. Even if he doesn’t, there is one thing that we can all be sure of:

Drake always feels some type of way.

Michael Harriot is a writer, cultural critic and championship-level Spades player. His NY Times bestseller  Black AF History: The Unwhitewashed Story of America is available in bookstores everywhere.

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