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Don't Kill Your Idols: J. Cole Looks For His Place In Hip-Hop

Even the name of J. Cole's new album, <em>Born Sinner</em>, is a nod to the hip-hop lineage from which he descends: Biggie > Jay > J.
Courtesy of the artist
Even the name of J. Cole's new album, Born Sinner, is a nod to the hip-hop lineage from which he descends: Biggie > Jay > J.

"Long live the idols — may they never be your rivals!" the rapper and producer J. Cole exclaims in a key line from his second album, Born Sinner, officially released this week. It's a salute with a slight undercut — an embrace of elders that also implies the need for those aging players to consider retiring and letting the kids take over the business.

In hip-hop, that's not happening anytime soon. Cole's mentor, Jay-Z, is a major culture industry mogul and pal of President Obama — and, in terms of rapping, he's still on top of the pile. As the buzz over the freshly issued Yeezus proves, Jay's veep Kanye West can still command the entire Internet's attention when he drops a new album, seven studio releases and one overly publicized baby in. And though he doesn't have the same commercial muscle, Nasir Jones, the lyricist whom Cole was specifically addressing with that line (from a song that's an expression of filial anxiety called "Let Nas Down") retains legend status as an artist alongside other veterans like Eminem, the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA and Raekwon, and Outkast's Big Boi and Andre 3000 — all the latter has to do is guest on other people's songs to stay seriously in the game.

This is a problem for relative newbies like Cole, but mentorship also makes it a plus. Still-relevant top dogs can bring new blood into the game. Cole was signed to Roc Nation/Columbia Records by Jay-Z; at a recent New York listening party for Born Sinner,he told a long story about auditioning singles for his boss, including one time at a restaurant where Mr. Carter occupied the only table, eating with a napkin tucked into his collar. This Godfather invocation is a stock one, especially for New York rappers, but its effectiveness as both tall tale and marketing strategy is even more potent now that the Tony Sopranos of rap have identified their favorite nephews. It's been employed in different ways by Lil Wayne protégé Drake — who has a very similar line about idols and rivals — pop's favorite rapper, Nicki Minaj, and Dr. Dre 's latest big find, Kendrick Lamar. As these very successful aspirants travel the tricky terrain where integrity meets pop savvy, they're making sure their rhymes are laced with both tributes and challenges to their elders, presenting the struggle to find a place within a living history as one of the most exciting hip-hop narratives of the day.

Legacy is a natural subject in hip-hop, and not only because it's a performative art world which much of the originality is based on clever turns of old phrases. Its power and poignancy is enhanced by the African-Americanness of the music: from Thomas Jefferson's secret biracial family to the Million Man March, the myths and realities of blackness and paternity have spun out in infinitely complex, hugely impactful patterns. Cole has often spun rhymes about his own single mother, and in interviews he's called the absent fathers of his friends "mystery figures." Yet the vivid presence of older rappers within his world view reminds us that, as that notable rapper Shaquille O'Neal once said, when biological doesn't bother, often other men step in to both guide and potentially overshadow the sons.

On Born Sinner, Cole appealingly frames this unwieldy subject of inheritance as a musical reckoning with the '90s, the era of his childhood and hip-hop's current favorite source of nostalgia. Like Lamar, who in a promotional video for the album tells of first hearing rap when his father played a Big Daddy Kane song in the car taking him home from the hospital as a newborn, Cole was born into a hip-hop sound world that still seems fully in place. The first hook on Born Sinner's first track,"Villuminati," is, "Sometimes I brag like Hov" — a Jay-Z reference he follows with a borrowing from Biggie's "Juicy," all over a sample from R. Kelly's "I Wish," which brought in the 2000s in an elegiac mood. Elsewhere he samples Outkast and A Tribe Called Quest, cites DMX and Eminem, and pays feverish homage to Tupac. Hyper-aware of the shadow cast by rappers and producers who became heroes young and are, for the most part, still commercially active, Cole struggles with the impulse to usurp these established voices, even as he devoutly celebrates them.

This energizing confusion recalls the spirit of '90s rockers like Nirvana and Pearl Jam whose music mined legacies of classic rock even as their punk-fed philosophies privileged anarchistic rebellion. It embodies the predicament heirs always face when the ruler remains on his iron seat. (Just like mafia references, royal nods are rife in hip-hop, from Run DMC's "King of Rock" to Jay and Ye's .) Cole himself expressed this frustration in a pre-album release interview with 's Elliott Wilson:

"If me, Kendrick, Drake are not ... Put it this way: if not us, who? Because this s--- is gonna die. You're talking to a n---- that loves Jay-Z, loves Kanye West, loves Nas — but at some point you gotta stop acting like nobody gonna do it better. Because if you really hold onto that belief you're never gonna see the n----s that might be taking it to another place."

Cole's slightly blustery remark isn't quite a patricidal threat, but it does point to a difficult reality for himself and other young lions. For the first few decades of the genre's history, artists burned out fast: either marketed as novelties or plagued by mismanagement, personal problems or simply the fickle nature of the hit parade, most couldn't sustain careers past a decade. Now the rapper at midlife can be a powerful force. Cole's most audacious move with Born Sinner is releasing it on the same day as West's Yeezus,which despite its apparent avant-garde slant is widely predicted to outsell any competition. He brags about this in "Forbidden Fruit," a song that also features Lamar; punning on the name of , he says such moves will make this boy a man. In hip-hop, coming of age requires not just respecting your sources but mastering them, and for a pop-focused rapper like Cole, that means sales.

Cole also boosts his own success in the mainstream by paying close attention to another set of players in hip-hop's legacies: women fans. Like Drake, and to a lesser extent, Lamar, he's as concerned with impressing feminine sensibilities as with measuring up to his male competitors. And Cole's love songs (or leaving songs) still show a young man's nervousness about forging anything like a long-term partnership with a woman. He's playing both sides of what sells in pop-oriented hip-hop: his sweetness is a teen idol's, his occasional callousness a Henny-swigging party rapper's. He's willing to admit his own desire to flee: his 2011 song "Lost Ones" took a complicated look at an unwanted pregnancy, and on Born Sinner he vexes about old loves he treated badly and the girlfriend he leaves folding laundry while he's getting busy on the road.

Yet Cole still seems to have a way to go before really considering women as equals; for every positive message like the TLC-featuring ode to natural beauty "Crooked Smile," there's an encounter with a shady lady in the club or on the road that fulfills every virgin-whore cliché in the pop culture book. And it's the softer side of his music — the pop tendency, which leads Cole to craft singles like his first breakthrough, the Paula Abdul-sampling "Work Out," which was the dealbreaker for disappointed Nas — that he fears will endanger his own legacy, since that part of him belongs to the ladies, not the rhyming lords he longs to impress.

Born Sinner translates its stories of legacies to be considered and conquered using sweet hooks and singable choruses provided by the likes of Miguel and TLC or sampled from the same R&B album stack that his idols favored. It also frames Cole's struggle for hip-hop dominance within bigger contexts specifically tied to African-American histories. The gospel choir motif that runs throughout the album features voices that sound very much like college kids; this connects Cole with the vocal tradition that stretches all the way back to the foundational choruses. The social critique of "Chaining Day" reconsiders the concept of luxury as a form of contemporary enslavement (West does have a rival song for this one — his "New Slaves"). And on the interlude "Mo Money," Cole acknowledges that the competition within hip-hop, and in Black American in general, is irrelevant when compared to the real dynasties of corporate America — "billionaires wit petroleum and coal money."

Cole might do well to leave behind the mafia talk and get medieval. The most popular exploration of legacy's gifts and perils right now is Game of Thrones, the fantasy novel series turned HBO smash. So far only nerd rappers and comedians have tapped the connection between GoT and hip-hop. But Born Sinnerhas the same kind of gravitas mixed with florid imaginative flights. And on a deeper level, it taps into the same anxieties that run America's favorite dragon saga: questions about how inheritances are transferred and what set of skills will ensure dominance in a rapidly transforming environment. The show also demonstrates how to make the subject of genealogy, which by nature is insular and full of mind-numbing detail, into a story that non-specialists can love: in other words, into pop.

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Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.
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