Growing up with J Cole

“Just a dollar and a dream” – J Cole.

That’s all he started with. That’s all he had in his pocket. A dollar and a dream! When I first heard this I found it inspiring. Cole summed up his situation in just six words but those six words were powerful. On the come up, you have very little, and this creates hunger in you. A hunger that can only be satisfied with success. What’s the point of “being the one when you’re the only one that knows it?” Cole set out with the hunger to be king. Like Simba from The Lion King, he believed he was destined to be king. Everyone has that dream. Ambition! Very few actually make it to the top. Very few touch their fans on their way to the top. Very few become more than an artist when they get to the top. Cole became the voice of many, the pillar of good people and to me, Cole became my role model.

My hip hop fiend of a friend told me to listen to J Cole. At that time I had heard Cole feature on Wale’s Beautiful Bliss. I thought nothing of him though he did spit hectic bars. He killed that verse but at the end of the day, Wale’s album took the crown. My friend had never late me down and I didn’t doubt him on this one. So I gave Cole a listen. I was given The Come Up and The Warm Up. I sampled both, bopped my head to a couple of tracks, quoted some lyrics here and there. I could feel Cole then I came across Lights Please. I was hooked! Still in uni, young, wild and reckless, I understood what Cole was saying in that track. He opened up my eyes about women at the time because I was naive. After Lights Please I knew I had to listen to the mixtapes again. Cole, teach me.

Here is how I grow up with Cole.

2009 – The Come Up

My bible! At the time, still being in uni I felt like I would never have days like this. Ever! College Boy was my way of life. Started the day with the words of Cole in my ears, I followed Cole’s words like he was Master Yoda. Young, wild, reckless and always having fun. Split You Up, School Daze, Throw It Up. Cole had a message, “keeping up with the grades” was top priority but after that, it was “scouting hoes on the first day of classes”. I could relate to Cole and from then on, I was the “Zimbabwean J Cole” at uni in Cape Town. I lived his words, I quoted his words, I preached his words, and I became his words. Not to forget Rags to Riches which I play, till this day, from the 10th to the 20th of every month. It’s my jam! My favourite song has to be Little Ghetto N**** purely because of the lyrical content, his flow and that’s the one song I can rap from the beginning to the end. Easy!

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2009 – The Warm Up

Cole grew up and dropped a classic. What a day! You can hear it in his voice, his lyrics and his life experiences. As he grew, I grew. His rap was more personal, he spoke about himself more, and in a way, one could say he was opening up. On this mixtape, Cole was getting better, stronger, more comfortable with his rap and confident. Lights Please was on this mixtape and this was where I realised J Cole had saved hip hop for me. At the time hip hop wasn’t what it used to be. It was hard to find “teachers” and rappers that had something to say. It was “bubblegum rap”, songs that didn’t say anything and dances. “The Superman” and “the stanky leg” were considered hip hop and that was difficult for me because I couldn’t relate. I could not form a connection. But Cole was one of the rappers that saved hip hop for me. I could relate to Cole because he was saying something worth listening to. I found it extremely difficult to get the message from a lollipop. My all time favourite Cole track came from this mixtape – I Get Up. Love this track! The intro is powerful and from then on, it’s just quality. Even Dreams ft Brandon Hines is a top 10 love song of all time.

2010 – The Blow Up

This was cruise control for him. Not to say he wasn’t trying to better himself, but it seemed chilled. Still teaching me in his raps and I could find things I could use in my life to better myself. The best part of this mixtape was I Got It where he shared his history with hip hop and his idols. How he changed from hooping to rapping, and from MJ to Nas. I could picture a teenage Cole transitioning from a ball player to a rapper. But he found his calling, he was going to push music and become something as a rapper. Not only is Cole a rapper, he is a teacher. Still a good listen and ambition was on his mind. He was close to being the full grown Simba he had set out to be. Song for the Ville is my top pick from this mixtape. It got me through many exams as I found it inspiring and motivating. It was something I needed during the hard times of studying, pulling late nighters and thinking I wasn’t going to get through exams.

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2010 – Friday Night Lights

FNL is his best work. No arguments, no debate, no “but I think…” FNL is a classic (his second). Hang it up: Friday Night Lights 2010 and then retire the year 2010 in terms of rap. FNL is going to the Hall of Fame. It’s outstanding, absolute quality and the definition of hip hop. No flaw in the entire mixtape. J Cole had become a star in the hip hop community and this mixtape was his statement to other rappers that he is coming for the throne.

I remember having a debate with my hip hop fiend of a friend about which mixtape was better; I said FNL and he said The Warm Up. We had our debate on Twitter, quoting lyrics from various tracks. Going track for track, lyric for lyric. All this during work. Obviously our biases were too strong so we took our debate offline to a group chat on WhatsApp. Even there it was tough. But eventually the votes came in and (((BOOM))) FNL came in as Cole’s best work.

2011 – Cole World: The Sideline Story

It was time for his debut album. Highly anticipated and initially, I didn’t like it. This wasn’t the Cole I grew up listening to, the Cole I followed, the Cole I was preaching about. Something just seemed off about this album and I felt “confused”. It just didn’t do it for me and I was scared that Cole would fade. It was tough! Months later I listened to the album again. Sideline Story changed my view of the album. It was the closet thing to the FNL Cole or The Warm Up Cole. He still taught me a few things; Can’t Get Enough, Lost Ones, Nothing Lasts Forever. I took this album as a teacher’s bad day at work. The album was nice, nothing to go crazy about and in a way, the studio could take blame for that.

2013 – Born Sinner

“It’s way darker this time,” says J Cole. Ok, what does he mean? Timbaland on the decks, Biggie in the background saying “Born sinner”. Hhhmmmmm! Could Cole be back? When I finished She Knows I realised Cole is back. He went back to The Come Up, he went back to how it all started. It was like The Come Up Cole took over and decided to reintroduced himself as Cole, my n****. The album was fun, easy to relate to, easy to listen to and easy to become. I could be the “Zimbabwean Cole” again but this time, I had two university degrees. Pardon me. Trouble was deemed my anthem and Trouble reminded me of The Come Up. So ya, I got into trouble. I had my mentor back, my bible, my playbook, I had Cole back. My teacher had come alive and gave me what I needed to be me again. Trouble was obviously my favourite track. Thanks Mabz.

2014 Forest Hills Drive

“Do you wanna be happy?” It’s not to say Cole and I were going through the same things but at this point in my life, I had the same question. This album was Jermaine Lamarr Cole. I felt like this was the conversation I have always wanted to have with him over a beer in Cape Town. In this album I felt like Cole was showing his human side. Behind the rap, the fame, the sold out concerts and people rapping his lyrics whilst he stood on stage. Besides all that, Cole had a (one way) conversation with me. Something artists rarely do. An entire album of Jermaine from North Carolina. He became an average Joe like me and just kicked it. Cole was an adult with wisdom to share, a man in “love” and a man who wanted to be real. A man that had experienced life and wanted to share the reality of it all. My favourite track is Love Yourz. It’s poetry from the 1800s/early 1900s.

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Listening to J Cole over the years has been enlightening and highly educational. He taught me a lot and in a way, we grew up “together”. Though he is a couple of years older than me, his rap was easy to relate to. In a way we were going through the same things, handling life in the same way. Him being older, he was teaching me, through his experiences and his lyrics, Cole was the older brother I always wanted. Being an only child, it ain’t easy finding people worth calling role models. Cole, through his music, is my role model, my friend and my older brother. He inspired me, he helped me through tough times, he motivated me, he guided me in the streets, he taught me and with that, I was able to teach others. I know he doesn’t know who I am and some may read this and say “sounds like Stan and Eminem over here”, but I am grateful for artists like J Cole. Not only is a great guy, a human, and an amazing rapper, he is the beacon of hope and all things good in mankind. An ambassador of good people and a great teacher.

J Cole is an amazing human being and one of the most considerate artists out there. Dedicating videos to lives lost, making tracks that speak for people that feel they don’t have a voice, and not to forget, he is one of us. And that’s what I like about him. With all the fame, screaming fans, groupies, he is still one of us. Dollar and a Dream tour, marching with the community after the loss of an innocent life, and most importantly his lyrics are more than just a paycheck, they are wisdom. I found it funny when he was overwhelmed by the crowd at the Madison Square Garden when they showed their appreciation. That’s how much we appreciate you Cole.

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I really hope Cole continues to work at it. Working harder, rapping harder and inspiring more. He has the potential to be a great, a future hall of famer and I would want that for him. He deserves it considering all the shit he has gone through. Cole deserves it all and I’m happy to be a fan, and I’m even more glad to say I followed and I listened to him. Cole is amazing and if there is ever a day Cole doubts himself, I hope he knows there’s a kid out here that’s trying to get by with Cole’s music helping him through. You’re a great Cole & when you retire, I hope you’ll be considered a great, worthy of sitting on the table with Pac, Biggie, Em, Nas, Dre, Jay.

For the record, I could take Cole. One on one on the court, any given Sunday.

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