On J. Cole, The Best Storyteller I Know
In my first MFA class ever, our professor gave us each a vintage North Carolina postcard and told us to mail it to an author we admired, any author, anywhere in the world. I was initially relieved at such an easy first assignment. But by the fifth or sixth day, the postcard had begun staring accusingly at me from the folder where it lay. Ha, it taunted. You’ve got no idea where to send me, do you?
I didn’t. I admired a lot of authors, but I wasn’t currently salivating over any. Or at least not traditional fiction writers. The person I kept circling back to was certainly an author, though the world wouldn't necessarily use this word for it. The truth was that he wrote some of the best narrative prose I’d ever heard in my life--so much so that I had listened to him for years on repeat, wondering how he managed to cultivate such a deep sense of place, character, nostalgia, heartache, upheaval and familiarity--all in the span of three or four minutes.
Finally, on the seventh day, I mailed my postcard to J. Cole.
J. Cole is a Fayetteville-raised rapper, singer, songwriter and producer. I first heard of him nearly a decade ago while working at a summer camp in Pittsboro, NC. The camp was located a mile down a dirt road, a long walk in from the blacktop which I made most mornings with Lamar, a fellow counselor. The morning he told me about J. Cole, I remember the way the world looked in precise detail, as if I already sensed that this moment would be important: dew burning off the tips of grass, the driveway red and slick from last night’s rain, sky already fading to the white heat of the day to come. Lamar said, “There’s this song called 'Lights Please.' It’s about a guy who wants to change the world, and a girl who just wants to have sex. I know--I know. Believe me, though, you’ve got to hear it.”
When I did hear it, I understood. In that song, as in many others, J. Cole paints a broad picture by telling a particular (often lighthearted) story. "Lights Please" takes place in a bedroom: a boy attempts to expound societal ills, a girl advocates impatiently for the fun to start and convinces him with very little effort. This scenario plays out in each verse, giving us the idea of an endless cycle, an entire planet of people who want to incite change but land, again and again, among the pleasures that make life worth living in the meantime. There are gender stereotypes at play in this song, and in many he's written. But there is also valuable nuance, and strong characterization, and incisive tension and conflict. In short, incredible prose.
I moved on quickly to "Lost Ones," a stirring battle of perspectives after a young woman tells her boyfriend she's pregnant. Then "Wet Dreamz," a riotous tale of a teenage boy angling fearfully toward losing his virginity, and "Love Yourz," in which Cole movingly appeals to the human beings everywhere to accept that their lives are the only ones they own, impossible to trade in, theirs alone to construct and make beautiful. "Power Trip" blew up the radio for a solid year. And then, in late 2016, "4 Your Eyez Only," a smoldering eight-minute epic about a man who falls victim to the drug war, leaving behind a single album for his daughter to listen to when she grows up. My son's father spent the first year of our baby's life in jail facing drug charges, and I must have listened to this song a thousand times.
I haven’t studied the lyrics of his latest album the way I did with the rest, picking apart each piece of dialogue, analyzing his images. Still, every time he comes on the radio, I catch myself vanishing from the traffic and the sticky heat and the muddy concerns of my life. For a couple minutes, I’m sitting squarely in one of his stories again, shaking my head, marveling, wondering how to place someone as squarely in one of mine.