On May 14, J. Cole will release his 10th, and possibly penultimate, studio album. Titled “The Off-Season,” the new release will be one of the last in his incredibly illustrious career. In approaching retirement, particularly with a rapper as notable as he is, the question invariably turns to the impact that Cole has had on the genre, and how said impact will be regarded in the future. Ascribing a concrete sense of significance may be easier with artists such as Kanye West or Jay-Z, who are more universally proclaimed as greats. This question is not as obviously answerable for Cole; the response can change drastically depending on who you ask. I believe that Cole’s legacy is closely tied with the essence of music itself, and doing justice by its purposes and listeners through emotional connection, relatability and fostering positive change.
We have such an appreciation for music because of the emotional connections we make through it. Unique relationships form with songs that impart special meanings and significance to us. Through associating strong emotional reactions with songs, we deepen our relationships with them. I find that the songs I love most are the ones that I have the meaningful responses to, the ones that I associate with the aspects of life that are most salient, such as the compassion for others or importance of equality in life. This is one of the features of rap that Cole does best. He can elicit strong emotional responses from his listeners, which few other rap artists can claim to. Through his earnest storytelling, as he describes events and issues that he truly cares about, listeners develop a more intense connection with both Cole and the song itself simply for the emotions he evokes. Over the easy, languid beat of “4 Your Eyez Only,” Cole narrates the story from the perspective of a father struggling to provide for his daughter, even in an area, and under a system, that wants to see him fail. By telling this tragic tale of a dad doomed to death, we grow attached to his noble cause (leaving a tape for his daughter) and actively root for a happy resolution, even while knowing that it won’t come.
The impact of his songs is impossibly personal. Listening to this song for the first time, and so many others in his discography, is a surreal experience; you can listen to the story with rapt attention, almost as if the narrator is right there, telling it just for you. His songs necessitate the creation of incredibly strong connections with them, since it is not easy to forget the first thoughts you have immediately after listening to a story so detailed.
And while establishing these emotional connections is an extremely crucial aspect of Cole’s skillset, there are also other central essentialities of music that he explores. For example, music has the power to speak to us in different ways. Sometimes, the storytelling capabilities of it allow us to take away messages from the songs that we listen to. Other times, it speaks to us by describing situations that we all personally understand, or by expressing that struggles are normal, and we aren’t alone in our difficulties. This sense of relatability is where the heart of Cole’s rapping lies. Through his descriptions of the hope, struggle and perseverance he experienced, growing up in Fayetteville, North Carolina to making it big, we can all empathize. This relation is not because we grew up around him, or had a similar rise to fame, but because his music hits on emotions and notes that are fundamentally human. His music speaks to us like no other, because we have all gone through some of the same things (experiencing the same feelings, dealing with similar hardships) that he has. The ultimate culmination of Cole’s unique ability to make touching and impactful music is “Wet Dreamz,” off of his 2014 release “2014 Forest Hills Drive.” Retelling the story of the immense nervousness, anticipation, humility and optimism that he experienced with his first crush, we as listeners empathize and relate to those feelings. They are all emotions that we can attribute to similar experiences in our own lives, which enables the song to have an incredibly poignant impact. Cole’s ability to garner such a response so easily and consistently sets him apart from the other artists of this generation.
Finally, Cole promotes a variety of social and political causes and activism in his music, which cements him as an artist who is in the industry for the right reasons. Musicians have a unique opportunity to reach millions of people with their songs and inspire positive change. The potential for a lasting impact on the world is boundless. When he retires, sooner or later, Cole will sleep peacefully knowing that he used his platform for good. On songs such as “Brackets,” he critiques the American tax collection system for not allocating funds to where they are needed most, to the people that are most vulnerable. On “Fire Squad,” he highlights the significantly harder path to success that minorities in the United States have than those who are white. On “Crooked Smile,” he encourages a far healthier mindset regarding body image, particularly for women, as opposed to the incredibly detrimental and damaging ones that society has promoted. Throughout his career, Cole has made an effort to point out and criticize the aspects of society that he sees as morally wrong, wanting to help out in whatever way he can.
Through his music, Cole explains, teaches and speaks to us in a unique way. So what will his legacy be, and what is it currently? Cole is an artist of the people, an artist who will be known for understanding his audience better than anyone and someone who actively seeks the best for others. Someone who makes music the right way, who appreciates the power and immense capability it has for impact on both a personal and widespread level. He makes music for you and me, for the people thinking they were alone in their struggles, or for the person who is nervous for a first date. His music provides a soundtrack for our lives. No matter the time, place, mood or mindset, J. Cole will be there with a song.
With all of that being said, I could not be more excited for his new album. While the answer of where he stacks up amongst the greats of the genre may change depending on the listener, the one commendation that should remain consistent is an admiration for the way he went about it all.