J. Cole has been killing it ever since he arrived to the rap scene in 2011 with the release of his debut album Cole World: The Sideline Story. Each of his albums has peaked at #1 on the charts, with 2014 Forest Hills Drive famously going platinum despite having no features. He’s a lyrical genius who produces most of his own tracks. He doesn’t beef with other rappers over petty shit, isn’t superficial or concerned with clout, and uses his success to lift others up through the Dreamville Foundation. He makes music for your turn up and for your come-down, for your mind, soul, and for your dancing feet. Cole has crafted his own lane within the rap universe and has asserted that he will always do things his way. Don’t @ me, but I’m gonna say it: J. Cole is the realest rapper of our time.
I know I’m not the only one that appreciates the greatness of J. Cole, but it also seems like he generally doesn’t get the recognition or praise he deserves, especially from mainstream music consumers. He’s been nominated for seven Grammys but has never won one, and KOD, his latest album, was beat out for the nomination for Best Rap Album by Cardi B, Nipsey Hussle, Mac Miller, Travis Scott, and Pusha T. Absolutely no shade to any of those artists, but come on. I don’t buy that KOD, a thoughtful, substantive, lyrically eloquent, and musically incredible album isn’t good enough to earn at least a nomination. Maybe his anti-drug message doesn’t fit what people want from rap right now, or maybe the ~conscious rapper~ slot has already been filled by Kendrick. Even though fans are out here ranting about the constant snubbing of J Cole, he makes it clear that he’s not bothered by any of it. He’s coming to collect what he’s earned and pulling no punches, as he shows us with the music video for his latest single, “Middle Child.”
If you’ve seen the video (and you definitely should have by now), you know there’s a lot to unpack. The lyrics alone lend themselves to deep analysis, centered around the theme of Cole feeling like a middle child, caught between two eras of hip-hop. But the release of the long-anticipated music video, directed by Mez, adds crazy new layers to the song. The video touches on wealth, appropriation, the concept of celebrities, and the evolution of rap to form a cohesive narrative told from the point of view of a rising rapper from Middle America. Here’s what you might have missed:
The Grammys. The first segment of the video shows Cole standing on a red carpet, in the middle of a glamorous crowd, at what we can assume is an award show like the Grammys. Though J Cole is a respected, undeniably talented artist, he’s continuously been denied Grammys, and even nominations, for work that fans (including myself) feel is deserving of the highest praise. J Cole puts himself in this setting, underdressed and pretty much ignoring the crowd behind him, representative of the fact that he couldn’t care less about recognition from the institutions that supposedly decide what good music is. He’s spoken about the flawed and warped nature of awards shows, making it clear that he doesn’t need that validation and is more than happy with his success and the path that he’s on. And he’s right. He can join Biggie, Tupac, Snoop Dogg, and Nas on the list of great rappers who have never won Grammys.
— J. Cole (@JColeNC) February 11, 2019
Red bottoms. There’s a flash of light at the Grammys, then the people we just saw dancing, cheering, and dripping in expensive clothing are surrounding Cole in body bags, shoes caked with red dirt. This clever play on Louboutin red bottoms, which have become a common symbol of affluence in the entertainment industry, is a commentary on the materialism that has become an increasingly central part of entertainment. Cole shows us that materialism and superficiality may be the cause of death of an industry that produces genuine art. In death, the glossy red paint and things we associate with wealth turn to dirt, insignificant and meaningless. As he says later in the song, “I hope that you scrape every dollar you can. I hope you know money won’t erase the pain.” Yikes, I know, too deep.
Old-school, new school. Being caught in between two generations of rap is a main theme for this song, and it’s been a relevant narrative throughout Cole’s career. While magically rolling down the aisle of a supermarket sitting in a shopping cart, Cole says “I’m dead in the middle of two generations. I’m little bro and big bro all at once. Just left the tab with young 21 Savage. I’m bout to go and meet Jigga for lunch.” Cole feels like he’s been influenced and raised by classic hip-hop artists like Jay-Z, Tupac, and Nas, but he now operates during the rise of a new class of rappers including all the Lil’s (Pump, Yachty, Uzi Vert, etc). Cole acknowledges that he can’t really fit into either one of these generations of rap, and embraces the fact that acting as a bridge between the two is a strength, not a weakness.
Hunting. Throughout most of the video, Cole is dressed in hunting gear, dirtying up a Bentley in the backwoods of North Carolina (where he grew up). He ends up in a cabin filled with taxidermied heads hung on the wall. Three of these are the heads of rappers, mounted on the wall above plaques that say ‘Your Favorite Rapper,’ ‘This Could Be You,’ and ‘Ask for a Feature.’ Twitter has blown up trying to attach these faces to real rappers (Offset, Tekashi69, Lil Wayne, Gucci Mane, and others have all been guessed), but director Mez says they’re just archetypes of the modern rapper. The image could be a reference to the fact that Cole has killed all his recent features (“a lot,” “Pretty Little Fears,” and “How Did I Get Here”), but it could also symbolize how he’s conquered the rap game, keeping the heads of his rivals as trophies. After all, Cole asserts that he’s “the greatest right now.”
Appropriation. Cole wraps it all up with probably the most jarring image in the video: a white woman in a supermarket shopping for a black woman’s face after seeing (and liking) the baby hairs on the woman chilling with Cole in the cabin. A lot of the messages in the video are pretty subtle and up to interpretation, but Cole and director Mez make it impossible to miss this one. They highlight the issue of the appropriation of black culture and the double standard that exists, especially with women in pop culture; when black women rock cornrows it’s ‘ratchet,’ but when white women wear them it’s stylish and fashion-forward. Cole highlights this issue and finds other ways to empower black women throughout the video, like the all-female drumline that appears behind him in the woods.
This music video offers a ton of other things to talk about, but there’s no way to cover all of it. So, keep watching and analyzing the video yourself and take away that J. Cole is an absolute king who’s not slowing down for anything: “I’m countin’ my bullets. I’m loading my clips. I’m writing down names. I’m making a list. I’m checkin’ it twice, and I’m gettin’ em hit.”