Jermaine Lamarr Cole
By: Lauryn Hoard
In order to create this page, I had to first do a broad search on who the artist J. Cole was so I could get a general sense of the artist. I next went to the database linked to the Robert W. Woodruff library and picked Music Index. This was done so that I could retrieve scholarly articles on my artist. I focused on finding information about the elements of J. Cole’s music, the social and political activism that J. Cole has produced, and the implications of his four most popular albums: Born Sinner, Forest Hill Drive, For your Eyes Only, and K.O.D. I researched who influenced J. Cole and who encouraged him to view himself as the musical activist that he is today. In addition to research articles, I used interviews to utilize his opinion on himself and what he has been doing for the world as well. In the research I was able to find a multitude of different things that are presented below.
J Cole is a celebrated rapper, singer, song writer, and record producer who has been practicing music since the age of twelve. He started off producing music in Fayetteville, North Carolina when his mother brought him an ASR-X musical sampler. He began as a musician under the name of Therapist and collaborated with a local band named Bomm Sheltuh. Eventually, Cole would leave North Carolina to go to New York for better opportunities for his music. Here, he got signed to Jay Z’s label Roc Nation and debuted his first album Sideline Story which went Gold. After this, Cole’s fanbase grew tremendously with the push of the album’s Born Sinner, Forest Hills Drive, For your Eyez Only, and K.O.D. Because of J. Cole’s limited use of features on his albums, he has become known as a great in this generation for going platinum on multiple albums with no features. In this paper, the reader will be exposed to Cole’s background, his lyricism, and his social and political activism.
The come up
Jermaine Lamarr Cole was born on January 28th, 1985 in West Germany. His father was an African-American soldier, while his mother was a white German postal worker. Eventually, Cole’s father would leave the family while Cole was still a baby. His mother would then move Cole and his brother Zach Cole Fayetteville, North Carolina to start a new experience in a different place. Here, they faced many economic struggles and worked a plethora of jobs to make ends meet. Cole’s mother would find a new husband from the army who was abusive to the family and ended up being a factor that drove his mother to do crack. Here in Fayetteville, Cole found his passion for music, specifically when he joined the Terry Stanford Orchestra as a violinist. He would then teach himself how to rap and produce when his mother bought him a ASR-X musical sampler for Christmas. He began under the name Blaza, then Therapist (where he worked with a band named Bomm Sheltuh), and finally J. Cole. J. Cole decided that he had better opportunities in New York for his musical career, and left for a full scholarship to John Hopkins around the same time that his mother and family ended up losing their home in Fayetteville. In 2009, J. Cole signed to Jay Z’s label, Roc Nation. He began to and still today achieves phenomenal success over his production of music for other artists such as Kendrick Lamar and Janet Jackson, as well as producing and creating music for himself.
Sideline Story would be J. Cole’s debut album under Roc Nation. Many critics and the hip hop community was excited for the release of this album in 2011 due to Cole’s popularity and fanbase. The album was released on September 27th, 2011 and came to be number one on the US Billboard 200, as it sold 218,000 copies that were sold in the first week after it’s release. As of now, the album is certified as Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (Diep, 2016). In this album Cole’s central theme would discuss family and the implications of it in the black community. His lyrics would bring attention to issues dealing with infidelity, abortion, being fatherless, and also the challenges of facing success. This album was praised for it’s wholesomeness and realness. This album was heavily influenced by classical music as seen by different elements. One element was the live orchestra that was produced by Larrance Dopson of 1500 or Nothin orchestra and the violin recordings by Ginny Luke that was seen on songs like Rise & Shine, Lost Ones, and Breakdown (The Source, 2011). Throughout the album we see the instrumental elements of the piano and keyboards. These instruments helped to produce music that was straightforward, tuneful, and melodious with homophonic harmonies. Throughout the album we see simplicity in most of the songs produced with crescendo, diminuendos, and sforzandos emphasized to create a mood in the listeners. In the album we also see some folkloristics elements in the album. This gives nostalgia in the audience and allows the audience to really pay attention to the word play that J. Cole is known for today. One specific song that gained a lot of attention was Lost Ones in which J Cole takes a narrative on a male’s thought process to a teen pregnancy. In the song, the man questions his ability to raise a child when he was fatherless and felt to young to be raising a son himself. While in the second stanza, Cole takes a perspective of the young expecting mother. Cole explains how this song was influenced by the New Zealand musician Alex Gilbert (Frances, 2016).
Born Sinner would be J. Cole’s sophomore album produced by Bystorm Entertainment, Columbia Records, Dreamville Records, and Roc Nation. It was released on June 18th, 2013. It debuted at number two on the US Billboard 200 and sold 297,000 in the first week that it was released. In the third week of it being released, it became number one. In addition, it would become the second album to become Platinum, certified by the Recording Industry Association of America. This album is seen as a sequel to his first album, Sideline Story as it continues a theme of narratives but focuses more on a central theme of success and the problems that can come with it. His lyrics told stories about infidelity, money problems, capitalism, and talks briefly about other systems of oppression in America. This album is heavily influenced by the genres of jazz and gospel. When looking at jazz elements, we see that the album is very polyrhythmic and has some syncopation in multiple songs. The audience hears more wind instruments compared to string instruments in sideline story. The melodies, harmonies, and rhythms in the songs really had a set foundation from the instrument of bass. The audience also see’s how J Cole improvises at the end of most of his songs which gave a personal touch to the album. The incorporation of jazz elements really left the audience with a blues feeling and harmonic complexity. Jazz really shows up in the songs Let Nas Down and Forbidden Fruit with the instrumentation that appears in the background. When looking at gospel elements, the audience hears the elements of call-response, the looped choruses, and the piano. This is seen specifically in the songs Crooked Smile, Trouble, and Born Sinner. Crooked Smile was a hit that featured the R&B group TLC and a gospel choir. In the song they had a piano accompaniment who used closed chords around the third and fourth octaves and a polyphonic texture to emulate a typical gospel piano part. When TLC sings the chorus, they harmonize in parallel thirds which is a common characteristic of Gospel music. This not only helped catch people’s attention to the song, but really contributed to the enjoyment and overall enjoyment of the song because of it’s roots in musical history (Knox, 2017). This is seen as one of Cole’s most powerful songs because of how he empowers women to embrace their worth through their insecurities. Cole also uses orchestration in the songs Trouble and Born Sinner. In Born Sinner, Cole uses the artist Fauntleroy to sing the choruses and has a mixed choir join in. This gives a rhythmic support from hand claps that were on the beats two and four. This gave the auditory imagery of a church environment to the audience, which really made the words stick with the listener (Knox, 2017). Julia Leconte, an editor of Now, states that “Born Sinner‘s production, Cole’s own, is nuanced and varied on the whole – looped harp, careful piano, electronic elements, boom bap drums, choirs everywhere – but all impeccably orchestrated
forest hills drive
Forest Hills Drive is J. Cole’s third album released by ByStorm Entertainment, Columbia Records, Dreamville Records, and Roc Nation. It was released on December 9th 2014. When it debuted, it became number one on the US Billboard 200 and it sold 353,000 copies within the first week of being out. This album was different from the last two, as it went double Platinum and was certified by the Recording Industry Association of America in October 2016. This album’s central theme focused on the transition to fame from leaving Fayetteville, North Carolina to New York. It talks about his success and fame in the music industry, but also talks about his regrets and reluctancies as he’s risen to fame (J Cole Gives, 2015). His lyrics continue to give narratives on greed, success, and making it out of the hood. This album is heavily influenced by Blues and Old Hip Hop. When looking at blues elements, the listeners could see that blue texts were very prominent throughout the album as Cole sung in first person and expressed deep emotions and feelings about leaving people back home and reflecting on how hard life was growing up. The listeners also see how critical of a role the instrument of the piano played with the call and response between Cole and the instrumental background. The influence of blues can be seen on the songs: Intro, January 28, St. Tropez, Hello, and Apparently (Slavik, 2014). The audience also hears old Hip Hop through the elements of story telling through a simple beat with limited technology. There is a multitude of imagery, diction, perspective, and story telling that really goes back to the Old School Hip Hop created in the 1970s. This influence of hip hop can be seen on the songs: A Tale of Two Citiez, Fire Squad, and G.O.M.D. In G.O.M.D. the drums and bass is really prominent to catch the listeners attention and demand their attention throughout the whole song. This song was eventually turned into a music video where J Cole brings awareness to the systems of oppression that other black people use inside of the community. He states that the video was a commentary to show that black people need solidary and unity as the black community already knows about oppression through race. He states how we systematically oppress one another in the community through our economic status. In addition, he says we have to leave that mentality that a “real” black people is someone who is out in the field or out in the streets while the black man who is in school and is trying to do something with himself is the “soft” black person (Emmanuel, 2016). The other hip hop influenced songs on this album follow a similar structure with bringing awareness to an important issue of oppression in the black community and how we can solve these problems.
4 your eyez only
For your Eyez Only is the fourth album created by J Cole. It was released by ByStorm Entertainment, Columbia Records, Dreamville Records, and Roc Nation. It came out right before the Christmas of 2016 and went number 1 on the Billboard 200. This album of course went Platinum on April 7th, 2017 and was certified by Recording Industry Association of America. This album’s central theme focused on the oppression of a black man living in the ghetto. Cole did this lyrically by mixing his personal anecdotes to create a fictional character based of the death of his friend back in Fayetteville, North Carolina. In this album Cole was really able to show his growth not only as an artist, but a producer as well. Often compared to Nas as a rapper, J Cole’s album For your Eyez only can be compared to Nas’s Illmatic with how dark and deep the album is and how it invites the listeners to place themselves in a black person’s shoes who faces multiples struggles of oppression in the face of contemporary America. This isn’t the first time Cole has talked about the social issues of today’s society, however it was the first time it resonated so deeply with his fans because of how personal the story was on the album (Slavik). This album was influenced by a multitude of genres, the listener hears best a mix of jazz and blues. The rhythm, melodies, and harmonies of the album is very simple and soft. The songs are often accompanied by a piano or trumpet. This was done so that the listener payed less attention to the production of the album and more on the imagery that the lyrics evoked to tell a story that needed to be heard. Other than the tracks Foldin Clothes and Immortal, most of the songs have a moderate percussion, jazz pianos, and strings. This sets the soft instrumentation that the listeners hear in the background throughout the whole album. When looking specifically at songs like She’s Mine PT 1 and 2, we see the element of spoken word at play which highlights an old-school hip-hop element that was popular in the 1970s (Slavik, 2016). At the end of the album, For your Eyez Only plays for about 9 minutes. In this song Cole is able to perfectly lyrically switch between the perspective and plot development of the character James in the album to himself to explain the death of James to his daughter. In the end we see that the album was created as an ode to his late friend and connects back to the central theme of crime and his first album of the importance of a father figure role in anybody’s life (Frances, 2016). This album really dug deep into the narrative of black crimes in the community and made a call to action for people who are still in low income resourced neighborhoods and policy to figures to figure out a better solution to the problems of the inner cities.
K.O.D. is J Cole’s fifth and most recent album that was released in April of 2018. When it was released, KOD shattered Spotify’s opening-day streaming record and Cole seen 3 singles make it to the Billboard Hot 100 which included K.O.D., Kevin’s Heart, and ATM. This album is different from the rest because it’s central theme focuses on the role of the black artist. J Cole goes on to say in an interview that “excluding the top three rappers in the game, most current rap is an exaggeration of black stereotypes. Colorful hair, flamboyant, brand names, it’s caricatures, and still the dominant representation of black people, on the most popular entertainment format for black people period” (J. Cole Talks, 2018 ). Cole tries to identify the many different ways a person can spiral into depression and then lead to self-medicating themselves (doing drugs) which can ultimately end their life. When listening to the album over a span of time, the listener sees that J. Cole touches on the seven deadly sins (pride, greed, gluttony, sloth, lust, envy, and wrath) throughout each song. While doing this, Cole examines and discusses how these vices can lead to addiction which can be serious and fatal (J Cole’s KOD, 2018 ). J Cole discusses how the society that we live in today normalizes and even encourages the promotion of drugs as it is seen on television and commercials that promote drug culture (J. Cole talks, 2018). J Cole ultimately blames capitalism and the greed to feed off money for the reason that so many people are becoming addicted to things that cost money that goes to people who don’t care about helping those who are addicted or minorities. This album is heavily influenced by Old School Hip Hop and New School Hip Hop Mumble Rap. A multitude of the songs on the album are produced in a way that a listener can barely recognize Cole’s voice, this in addition to stylistically changing the instruments he usually uses in his albums to trap drums is done through the use of mumble rap which is what a lot of rappers of this generation does. This is seen as songs like ATM and Motiv8 which use hyper-repetitive chorus. These songs are used for a good laugh, but also makes the audience think about the bigger role of the artist and what their job is as a rapper. Are they only meant to rap or are they supposed to be educating the black community on things they should be aware of with their platform and talent? (J. Cole’s KOD, 2018). In other songs like 1985, Cole uses beats similar to A Tribe Called Quest, to employ old hip hop elements such as the AABB couplet rhyme scheme, imagery, puns, and diction to show how lyrically diverse he is and how these new school rappers can’t lyrically compare to him (Caramanica, 2018 ). This album was different from the rest because it really focused on the rappers today and bringing awareness to not only the problems of addiction and how they can occur, but also to how Hip Hop has changed over time.
social and political action
In addition to creating songs that many people can resonate with and bump to, J Cole is very active in the black community with bringing awareness to social and political issues that are plaguing the black community. A good example of this would be his support for other people with platforms who are trying to bring awareness to social issues. Kaepernick was a football player who protested police brutality and ended up getting fired as a football player. Cole showed his support by wearing a jersey of Kaepernick’s at a concert where he performed A Tale of 2 Citiez in front of hundreds of fans. In addition, Cole has consistently been protesting with the #BLM movement on the problems of police brutality. This is seen through his usage of social media platforms to create dialogue on the issues and even protesting in New York when the Staten Island grand jury declined to indict NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo for killing Eric Garner in 2014. Even better yet, J Cole has used his role of a rapper to create songs that bring awareness to the problems of Police Brutality. Specifically, he created the song “Be Free” and performed it live on the Late Show with David Letterman as a tribute to Michael Brown (Emmanuel, 2016). As of right now, Cole is running his own label called Dreamville Records where he gives upcoming rappers a chance to do something with themselves. He also has a non-profit named Dreamville Foundation in his hometown Fayetteville, North Carolina. He says that the point of this non-profit is to “bridge the gap between the worlds of opportunity and the urban youth of Fayetteville, North Carolina”. The non-profit is a series of programs for the youth that include a club and essay contests. In addition, Cole also purchased his childhood home which is what his 2014 Forest Hills Drive album is named after. He opened it up to be a shelter for single mothers who need somewhere to stay as they try to make ends meet as his mother tried when he was younger (Staff, 2018).
Caramanica, J. (2018, April 25). On ‘KOD,’ J. Cole Speaks to the Generation That Spurned Him.
Diep, Eric (December 21, 2016). “From Hometown Hero to Superstar Status: How High Can J. Cole Climb?”. Billboard. Retrieved December 23, 2016.
Emmanuel. (2016, September 29). J. Cole’s Socially Conscious Moments Over the Years – XXL. Retrieved from http://www.xxlmag.com/news/2016/09/j-cole-socially-conscious-moments/
Frances, L. (2016, December 25). J. Cole Tackles Social Issues: 7 Ways He Took on Racism, Mental Health & More in His Career. Retrieved from https://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/hip-hop/7633246/j-cole-songs-4-your-eyez-only-social-issues-racism-mental-health
“J. Cole Gives Tour of Childhood Home, Covers Complex”. The Boombox. Archived from the original on December 29, 2014. Retrieved January 14, 2015.
J. Cole’s KOD is a commendable examination of addiction. (2018, Apr 23). Spin (Online), Retrieved from https://login.ezproxy.auctr.edu:2050/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.auctr.edu:2050/docview/2029041102?accountid=8422
J. cole talks new rappers, drug abuse and calls his critics “Idiots” in new interview. (2018, Apr 25). Spin (Online), Retrieved from https://login.ezproxy.auctr.edu:2050/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.auctr.edu:2050/docview/2030447173?accountid=8422
Knox, G. (2017). Closing the gap: An analysis of the musical elements contributing to hip hop’s emergence into popular culture. Scholars Week, 1-24.
Slavik, N. (2014, December 04). J. Cole ‘2014 Forest Hills Drive’ 1 Listen Album Review (aka F*cking Up Hip-Hop). Retrieved from https://djbooth.net/features/album-review-j-coles-2014-forest-hills-drive
Slavik, N. (2016, December 09). J. Cole ‘4 Your Eyez Only’ 1 Listen Album Review. Retrieved from https://djbooth.net/features/2016-12-09-j-cole-4-your-eyez-only-album-review
Staff, B. (2018, May 01). J. Cole. Retrieved from https://www.biography.com/people/j-cole-5152017
“The Source – Album Preview: Cole World: The Sideline Story”. thesource.com. 18 August 2011.