What if Kendrick was from Fayetteville? I know, I know, I know… y’all aren’t trying to hear this… but if you keep reading you may be surprised what you see. First things first it goes without saying how significant their geographical locations really are, as Cole has always repped his city of Fayettnam and even used his childhood address as the title of his last album - while Kendrick has similarly repped Compton throughout his career and has always been personified by his circumstances as a good kid from a maad city.
Therefore there’s no disputing the relevance of either artist’s background, specifically in regards to their subject matter and their overall approach to the game in general. Of course with their similarities and differences in mind, it’s likely to be assumed that their respective environments is what influenced their disparity more than anything else, as within their music you hear descriptive tales that vividly depict the neighborhoods they grew up in. Yet looking beyond the names on their street signs you can’t help but notice their resemblance as well, as they both came from the bottom and they both made it to the top, all the while staying true to themselves and not compromising their artistry for no one - in which case on behalf of their skills they became the two most decorated spitters in the genre. However they’re not received the same, not even close, and certainly not by the media, twitter a&rs, and celebrities who all pretty much say unanimously that it’s Kendrick and no one else. Thus begs the question, how, or more appropriately where on earth did they come to that conclusion, as when you look closer at the two artists identities it becomes remarkably clear how much they have in common… in spite of course the narratives that define them.
They say Kendrick has a message in his music that nobody can touch, and that his insight is so divine and his story is so profound that he in fact has no contemporaries. I don’t at all question the core of that sentiment, as Kendrick is indeed a phenomenal artist that is worthy of all the praise that he’s received. What I don’t subscribe to however is the idea that he’s not in good company, as even when disregarding the plethora of talented MCs who get overlooked within the underground scene, the mainstream itself has an artist right beside him that not only is as equally thoughtful and successful - but one who also happens to be his closest ally whereas they’ve hinted at a collaborative album for years now. Thus that particular fact certainly makes you wonder why Kendrick’s biggest supporters don’t see something in Cole that Kendrick sees himself, and many go out of their way to defame his Carolina bredren as if he has nothing to offer with music at all. However all trolls aside (and there’s so many of you and it’s a tragedy it really is) but actual journalists have made this claim time and time again as well, in which case it was time to write an article that would challenge and debunk the conventional wisdom that honestly holds hip-hop back and gives it no room to grow.
I’ve written before that the infamous Rolling Stone magazine left Cole’s Forest Hills Drive off their Top 40 rap album list of 2014 and how that’s the worst piece of music journalism I’ve seen in recent time. Please let that sink in and think about how outrageous that truly is, as it wasn’t a Top 40 list for every genre (which would have still been questionable), but it was a Top 40 RAP album list for that one particular year, and it wasn’t Top 5, Top 10… Top 20… Top 30… ya’ll catching on yet? It was as egregiously inaccurate as it possibly could be, and they published it without any objections from any other journalist in the field, thus symbolizing how irresponsible and unreliable music journalism is today as a whole. [Quick side note: Rob Markman, Sway, and a few others put in respectable work, but they also need to speak up when they see something as flagrant as this omission from Rolling Stone, and put their reputation/relationships on the line when the art form really needs them to].
Yet as expected that same Rolling Stone magazine honored the far more polarizing To Pimp A Butterfly from Kendrick at #1 the following year, and that was not only #1 on the rap list, but it was also placed at #1 of the Top 50 albums from all genres of music as well. Again I can’t say this enough, all of that praise for Kendrick is deserving and I’m happy to see him win, but the COMBINATION between the two points is too perplexing to ignore; as how could two artists who see themselves as contemporaries be so divided when it comes to their critical acclaim. Again Kendrick is a genius correct? He’s the one and he’s brilliant and he’s a visionary and all of that x 10, he’s the GOD MC for the new generation... yet why when he aligns with the ONE artist outside his camp it’s also the ONE artist that didn’t make a Rolling Stone Top 40 list, quite a disparity to say the least, further illuminated by how that same artist was the #1 most successful MC of that same year.
However it’s also no surprise that Rolling Stone is in good company of outlets who champion Kendrick and barely acknowledge Cole (and if they do it’s usually far from complimentary), exemplified in the tweets and articles below which demonstrates that the critics are more concerned with the imagery than they are the actual music. I say that with confidence considering there are many parallels in regards to subject matter when it comes to Kendrick and Cole, as they’re both underdog stories and they both promote knowledge and family over glamour and fame, which leads to only one true outlier as far as what makes them so different - and I can’t help but notice what that something really is.
Cole is from North Carolina the home of college basketball and Krispy Kreme donuts, and even though he only made it after moving to New York to his credit he has always represented where he comes from, and for that reason he’s an inspiration for anyone from a small town with big dreams. On the flipside Kendrick is from Compton, not only home of the flashy Impalas with the hydraulics and a certain lifestyle to match, but also a city that has been represented in hip-hop many times before - with NWA and company being some of the most emblematic figures of the genre to this day. Fast forward from the Straight Outta Compton era to the Death Row era and so much of hip-hop’s legacy was formed in and around Compton, so much so that they even made a full length motion picture about it last year which was met with rave reviews, sold out theatres, and even a nomination for an Academy Award. Yet the enthusiasm didn’t stop there, as even outside the film itself the promo campaign went on to have a life of it’s own, with the Straight Outta.... promotional run becoming a viral sensation that made an impact worldwide. [So let’s stop for a moment and be very clear, the movie itself was fun and entertaining but rather formulaic by Hollywood’s standards, so therefore let’s not be disingenuous and say the pandemonium had anything to do with quality], it instead had everything to do with the draw and intrigue of a mystical place called Compton...
Yet if you don’t believe me let’s go back to Kendrick and Cole, and let’s look at some of the excerpts from the articles that held To Pimp A Butterfly in such high regard. From Pitchfork, to Complex, to Stereogum, back to Rolling Stone, all these articles were fixated on one of two things: Location and Color; with the actual Music coming in as an afterthought almost every single time.
However this author feels it necessary to note that all of the above excerpts absolutely do touch on culture and race in a way that I find admirable, and in some cases I’d agree that the back story can in rare occasions be even more significant than the music itself, yet I’m still having a hard time deciphering how we pick and choose when those moments occur. Keeping in mind that the critics are clearly not impressed with Cole’s upbringing, growing up with nothing but a dollar and a dream albeit in a rural community in the middle of nowhere, only to flip those circumstances and even go as far as to lease his childhood home to single mothers in the same predicament his mother once faced while raising him. Before that he opened those same doors to his mass following, where fans from all over the globe travelled to exit 49 off the I-95 so they could breath in that same energy, and for good measure all that organic footage was packaged in an HBO miniseries/concert docu-series that had high production value behind it and will live in their catalogue forever.
And even before that Cole was one of the very few (and certainly most notable) artists to actually GO and protest WITH the Black Lives Matter movement in NY and St Louis, and even performed a tribute record on the Letterman Show that critiqued Obama in one of the most powerful and significant hip-hop moments in recent memory (yet once again it failed to impress his critics). Despite Cole being a phenomenal story in his own right, the critics seemingly have no use for him, characterizing him as rudimentary and far more superficial than their beloved Kendrick Lamar. And from a sheer hip-hop perspective nevermind his effortless delivery and clever wordplay, the content overall has scored exceptionally low on metacritic, with Sideline Story at 75%, Born Sinner at 71%, and Forest Hills Drive coming in last at 67% - numbers that don’t at all reflect the impact he’s made on the culture. On the contrary however Kendrick's Good Kid M.A.A.D. City has a 91% rating with his follow up To Pimp A Butterfly a groundbreaking 96%; which is pretty much unanimous praise across the board.
Yet while those numbers don't really speak to the music they do perhaps reflect the words that get published - narratives that look copied and pasted and say something to the effect of how Cole makes them sleepy like NyQuil and is just otherwise overall a boring MC; an indictment on him as an artist that his critics are never ever ever ever able to articulate or explain. That right there is a huge sect of rap journalism in a nutshell, bad jokes that are worse simply because they’ve been repeated so many times, and writers actually continue to use this twitter material for reputable outlets as seen below:
via washington post
That is honestly par for the course for hip-hop journalism, as Shea Serrano who is quoted in the WP article writes for the NY Times and he does major numbers recycling the same repetitive memes that now insinuate that going Platinum by yourself is not a merit anymore, just another insightful view from 'rap twitter' and what I call the highly distinguished 'twitters writers guild'.
Either way there are other critics less flagrant who do more respectable work for the art form, however they as well fall short of providing an objective critique of Cole whether it’s deliberate or not, and ultimately fail to give him the respect that he really deserves. Peter Rosenberg for example, who I actually like as a radio personality and think cares about good music, has said on the record that he 1) “can’t be a super fan of J Cole because he once was a fan of Q Tip”.....???? (that’s a horrible critique and is reminiscent of a sports analyst who can’t appreciate LeBron because he’s seen Jordan) and 2) “he likes J Cole but his music just doesn’t resonate with him” ......???? But To Pimp A Butterfly does? …. and here lies the problem…
Real quick one more disclaimer that these people I'm mentioning are not bad people by any means, and undoubtedly mean well during a time where the nation is once again at war with each other over the color of our skin. Yet I can’t help but notice a glaring issue that’s right in front of us, as apparently even proponents of the art form want to marginalize it and see it defined as only one thing, even in the rare case when the deviation from the norm doesn’t compromise any of it’s best qualities. Cole doesn’t rap about gang banging but he definitely raps about the world in it’s entirety, and with themes such as ‘home as where the heart is’ and ‘born sinner was never born to be perfect,’ it’s left very mysterious as to how so many critics like Rosenberg can find him so uninspiring. [A quick moment of perspective: Cole is neither Macklemore or Future or Will Smith or Fetty Wap, meaning he is not one extreme or the other, instead he is a BALANCE of everything, the type of balance that a responsible critic would encourage and not overlook or ignore.]
Of course in contrast we have Kendrick, who’s incredible and this article has never said otherwise but let’s look at the content… and then let’s look at who’s putting the praise on it. Considering all the aforementioned outlets are for the most part white owned with white authors and white subscribers, is it not a little bit unusual what they find so boring and on the flip side so provocative? Take their intros from each of their last albums for example, the first lyrics that set the tone for each album are as follows:
“Do you want to be happy, do you want to be free,” from Cole
“Every ***** is a star” from Kendrick
Thus I’d say it’s highly perplexing that Taylor Swift has never felt inclined to tweet an endorsement for Cole, yet all the same felt compelled to tweet this…
Again what makes it so bizarre is the COMBINATION of the two, not that she holds Kendrick in high regard (that’s great), just the fact that it comes after not having any opinion on Cole, even though he has a story that she can far better relate to. Thus comes the ‘why’ in all of this, which honestly has an answer too complex to fully explore in this article, yet one should still wonder about the effects of blaxploitation, and the idea that when a culture (in this case a culture of music more than anything) gets defined as just one thing, then sometimes it’s proponents misguidedly want to keep it restrained - and don’t lend their support when it tries to go above and beyond the imagery that it's known for. [Again I endorse all forms of hip-hop, and that includes everything from NWA to The Beastie Boys to the balance of Cole, whereas I find the absence of praise for the latter a further testament to how lost we are as a society.]
Of course Kendrick does push the needle and is original in every way, yet it would be shortsighted not to see how often the critics are defining his work by color (in many ways in all it’s glory, a celebration of culture which is wonderful and I’m glad Kendrick is who he is and I applaud him for all that he’s done), but again it’s perplexing why the absence of race would make another artist less desirable, in which case Cole is half black and half white yet neither color is what he’s ultimately defined by. Instead Cole is a mouthpiece for anybody trying to go beyond the life they were given, and for that reason whether you’re white, black, young, or old, as long as you have a pulse you should have no problem hearing something that hit’s home inside Cole’s music.
Yet as this piece gets written Cole remains the people’s champion all the while neglected by twitter groupthink and critics alike, yet per usual the critiques don’t add up for a number of reasons, further illustrated in more excerpts below:
via washington post via independent
and... Cole does ALL of that too....Whether it’s attending schools and being hands on with the youth, or the musical content itself being rich in substance while void of the flash and flare glorified elsewhere, Cole embodies why Kendrick is so revered in every single way - EVEN down to the high school sweetheart - of course omitting one inevitable fact… that he’s not from Compton... and thus as far as the media is concerned I suppose that means there’s nothing of value to write about ...