“Rap music is persuasive towards consumerism.”- Timothy Alexander Guzman
“As a sixteen year old white kid from the suburbs, listening to Pusha T & Malice plot all the ways to spend their drug money on Hell Hath No Fury grants me access to a world that I’ll thankfully never have to be a part of.”- Michael Di Gennaro
For several months I’ve been seeing memes and people in my newsfeed making comments about J. Cole being trash/boring and/or overrated. I don’t agree at all but I was wondering where the hell the mindset that justified this line of thinking came from. I recently read an article that came nearly bullseye close to nailing it too. But the best thing about it, is that without even trying, it completely gave me everything I needed to prove my point on why this mindset is invalid, fundamentally flawed and should be dismissed with extreme prejudice. *Rubs hands together and cackles maniacally* Let’s get to it.
First off, people who are fans of what is being called mumble rap are much more likely to talk shit about J. Cole than listeners of any other subgenre. There’s a reason for this. J. Cole is the polar opposite of a mumble rapper. That’s not even to say that all mumble rappers suck and J. Cole is the best. No, the actual way to interpret that has to do with what two different audiences want. J. Cole does not actually want the mumble rap audience, and the mumble rap audience doesn’t want him. Cole wants people to listen to his music and relate to his lyrics, that’s why his songs are written and produced the way they are. Mumble rap fans are not listeners. What they want is entirely different from what any traditional hip hop fans want. Traditional Hip Hop is meant to be digested. Heard, absorbed, mulled over, thought about, and at its quotable best, even regurgitated. It is meant to grab and hold your attention in a way that makes you interact with it. Discuss it and realize things you missed. Talk about it with friends. Debate its merits with rivals. Inspire new generations to be as good as, or get better than, their favorite artists. Mumble rap is not meant to do these things. Its primary purpose is to act as a signal. When the beat drops, it lets everyone know that it’s time to “turn up.” Get “lit.” Life has officially become fun and exciting and now is the time to live in the moment and focus on doing the most. That’s it. In case those two descriptions weren’t enough, think of it this way: Traditional rap/hip hop is meant to be in the foreground, Mumble rap is meant to be background music. It’s what’s playing in the score of someone’s life when the music swells and they finally got the guts to say “fuck it” and hit the dance floor. It’s what you hear when your friend offers you a new drug for the first time and you decide to throw caution to the wind and experiment with it. It’s the loop that’s on repeat when you lock eyes with a girl at a party and suddenly know that sex isn’t just a possibility, but a certainty. And it turns up to eleven when she whispers in her friend’s ear, and they both look at you and dance their way over. It is the new fantasy music. It is the music that insinuates that just by virtue of your listening to it, you must be having the time of your life. It is the dream they sold you. If you listen to it and feel like you actually are having the time of your life that means you bought it. That’s why words are unnecessary. That’s why it doesn’t matter what the purveyors of it rap about. They don’t have to say anything clever. They don’t have to rhyme. They don’t have to be anything resembling talented in any way shape or form. All they have to do is capture the feeling that what you’re living right now is so great you should be loving life. The feeling that you’re having a one of a kind, once in a lifetime experience. The feeling like you just made your slow-motion entrance to the coolest place on Earth. That feeling isn’t words. It’s not a voice or an instrument. It’s a vibe. And if the song captures it, then it’s doing it’s job. J. Cole doesn’t do any of that shit.
J. Cole is similes, metaphors, wordplay, somewhat conscious, mostly relatable content. As I said, traditional hip hop. If you put it on in the background it’s not going to turn your party up to eleven. It doesn’t expect you to dance and forget about it. It expects you to listen and take mental notes. If you were making a movie that included the scenarios I was describing, you wouldn’t want a J. Cole song playing. You would want “Panda” by Desiigner. You would want “Black Beatles” by Rae Sremmurd. “Same Damn Time” by Future, or…something by Young Thug, maybe. You damn sure wouldn’t want a single song from 4 Your Eyez Only. That shit would kill the vibe faster than a bitch trying to ruin Kendrick Lamar’s mood. Millenials are in a perpetual state of social media sharing and they want the appropriate soundtrack for the fun, exciting parts, and that is most decidedly not J. Cole. I like J. Cole. But I only just recently understood what it is that his detractors have against him and his fanbase.
J. Cole fans are most likely just hip hop heads. However, J. Cole stans are the spiritual (and in some cases direct) descendants of East Coast Elitist Hip Hop Snobs. They look down on mumble rappers and their fans because they aren’t artists/don’t appreciate the true beauty of the art form. It’s like Bill Maher fans talking shit about people who love Larry The Cable Guy. Nobody wants to be told that they are stupid or somehow less than because of what they like/do for fun. That judgment is not welcome. And maybe you get Bill Maher’s jokes but they just don’t make you laugh. Understanding Cole is one thing, and the mumble rap fans probably get it in principle but so what? Those two girls who were dancing their way over? They lost the mood when “False Prophets” came on and changed course. Now they’re heading to the bathroom. Thanks, J. Cole. That song is not gonna rock parties. That song is for earbuds and headphones. That song is for tranquil Sunday drives with mild weather. That song is not for turning up. Many times taste is just about fulfilling expectation. If I hold up a brownie, then blindfold you and proceed to feed you a bite of the best lasagna anyone ever made, you’d probably spit it out because you have no idea what you just put in your mouth but you know damn well it wasn’t a brownie. J. Cole is lasagna and mumble rap fans want brownies. So they say he’s boring. In the context of what they’re asking for and expecting from their music, they’re absolutely correct. The major difference that a lot of the mumble rap fans don’t want to accept though, is that it is not beyond J. Cole’s ability to make songs that rock parties (even though that’s not where his focus lies at the moment.) But it is beyond the mumble rappers abilities to construct the music that J. Cole can make. So as much as they may not like him, he is still their artistic superior.
Producer, author and veteran industry insider, Moses Avalon predicted that as music streaming became more popular, music itself would function more like background noise. Because it’s cheaper (or free), it’s more easily accessible than it’s been to any previous generations and consequently, more disposable. Therefore, the time, energy and effort taken to develop artists and create good music is no longer deemed necessary. Why should it be? Any music good enough now to qualify as art is targeted to a niche audience with little chance of going mainstream. You could put any mentally challenged person in a booth and tell them to recite something unintelligible and as long as the beat has a certain sound, you could have another “Trap Queen.” All you’d have to do is promote it. Turns out Mr. Avalon was right on the money.
A study by M. Elizabeth Blair and Mark N. Hatala of Ohio University proved that music can be used to condition preferences. This has been common knowledge for any interested party since 1992. The study also found that rap delivers more lyrics per thirty seconds (the length of the average commercial) than any other genre of music. For advertising purposes it’s a goldmine. Especially if you advertise within the songs themselves. As rap music has been being steered into less lyrical territory, it has maintained the idea of selling a fun, exciting and dangerous lifestyle to the people who like it. Its wind down has taken away the dual purpose of the music. There was a time when the party scenarios I mentioned earlier would have a soundtrack that included songs like 2Pac’s “How Do You Want It,” Notorious B.I.G.’s “One More Chance,” Eminem’s “Drug Ballad,” Jay-Z’s “Jigga That Nigga”or even Mase’s “Feel So Good.” All songs that provided some clever lyricism to go with their party atmosphere. Music that was appropriate for zoning out by yourself with headphones, or partying the night away at a packed club. The evolution (devolution?) of mumble rap has taken away the point of the former and made only the latter make sense in any social context. That’s not to say that people don’t listen to Lil Yachty with earbuds. I’m sure that they do, but there’s no way they’re getting a deeper satisfaction from hearing anything new that they didn’t hear before because there is no deeper satisfaction to be had. It’s all surface level. It’s designed that way. And earbuds have been moving toward obsolescence because the idea of having a personal soundtrack has become so prevalent that it’s not uncommon for people to play their music out of their smartphones walking down the street, the exact same way people play music out of car stereos while driving. As if the world is their personal movie and the other people who have to hear their choice of song are just extras who don’t matter in the life of the star. Regardless of who doesn’t mind, I personally don’t wanna hear your shitty music, fam. I know I’m not about to have the time of my life, I’m just going to work (or coming home, same difference.)
The self-centered disposition of the mumble rap fans has made them easy targets for social engineering and subliminal conditioning. Marketing is about targeting demographics and selling them a message. When that message is intentionally biased, based in misinformation and promotes something inherently negative, it’s propaganda. The marketing machine that dominates Hip Hop has been selling us the idea that rap is more authentic when it talks about crime, that Hip Hop as a culture is inextricably tied to violence, misogyny and self-destructive behavior and slowly but surely that anyone can rap because it doesn’t take talent, skill or creative ability. Mumble rap and its audience is what happens when those messages finally sink in. The ulterior motives of those messages seem to serve two nefarious purposes from what I can tell. 1. It conditions youth with the prevailing mindset that they will enter a life of street crime and therefore serve as new-slave labor in the school to prison pipeline or be killed as a consequence of their own self-destructive behavior. 2. It serves as a tourist-type of exhibition for those who do not live in the hood or experience anything tangentially related to the lifestyle it represents, and in doing so reinforces negative stereotypes that allow other races (not just whites) to see blacks as less intelligent, more violent, and sexually depraved, as well as more prone to indulge in addictive behaviors and deviant lifestyles. In short, it is propaganda that makes those who view it, including ourselves see us as subhuman.
This wouldn’t necessarily be the case if there were only some rappers who talked about life on the street, left with no choice but to hustle, and the realities of being and subsequently returning from prison. But they make up the majority of what is being shown to the widest audience. And any and everyone will tell you, it’s not because they are the best rappers. How many times have you heard someone mention being “the plug?” Enough that it doesn’t sound slick anymore. That phrase, like everything in the Gangsta, Ringtone, Trap, Autotune and Mumble rap arsenals, has basically become a damned cliche.
Hip Hop music started as escapist fantasy. Later it became an expressive tool for life’s hardships and struggles. Then it seemed to have a balance between the two. Then the realists started to deride the escapists, calling them “fake” if they talked about street life they didn’t live. There was a somewhat sensible reason for this. It’s kind of like seeing someone who doesn’t need glasses wearing large hipster frames. You don’t need these so why are you wearing them, making a statement as if you have a handicap that you don’t? This outlaw lifestyle is only undertaken by people who have run out of choices, so if you have choices, why would you pretend as if you don’t? A few years ago, a letter started circling the internet that claimed the music industry was in bed with the prison industry for the purpose of trying to promote rap music that would influence kids to grow up to be criminals so that they could be imprisoned for the prison industry’s workforce. Some claimed this was a hoax. Is this true? I don’t know, but considering the government was documentedly proven to be behind COINTELPRO, MK Ultra and the flooding of cocaine into the inner-cities, I’m as far as one can get from putting it past them.
Michael Di Gennaro, who was quoted above, gives the perfect juxtaposition for how this works. “Why would you want to listen to someone you can relate to? Music is about the escape,” he writes in a piece for Medium.com. As a self-proclaimed white kid from the suburbs he fails to understand that while he can’t relate, those of us who can relate, listen to it because we can. We are so used to not having our stories told, or people who look like us in movies or television shows doing the things we do, that when something even vaguely familiar is shown to us, we latch onto it as though our lives depend on it. Of course you don’t get it. You’re white. For you, this music is like being on safari. A fun adventure. But we live here. That song about hunting down a zebra and hiding the meat from a lion so that you won’t starve to death or get eaten yourself? That ain’t no fuckin’ adventure. That’s a Tuesday. So yeah, I’d rather be able to shop at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s and I may even like artists who talk about that so I can live in that fantasy for a bit. But I also wanna hear someone talk about how dangerous lions are, and ideally it should be someone who I know had to run and hide from them, not somebody who went on safari and saw them with binoculars from a football field away. It’s called authenticity. But failing that, it’s way more acceptable to have someone who can at least be true to the art in a creative sense, telling the story well rather than someone who lived it and tells the story badly because they’re not even an artist to begin with. It’s terribly redundant to say this but, creative license still requires creativity.80% of consumers of rap music in the United States are white. They like rap for the same reason that the Academy gives Oscars to black actors who play slaves. It reinforces what they already think. It plays to the stereotypes. J. Cole doesn’t do that. No wonder Mr. Di Gennaro doesn’t like him.
I do think there’s something to be said for promoting more escapism in rap though. There’s nothing wrong with remembering where you come from. There’s also nothing wrong with wanting to move on to greener pastures. There’s even less wrong with wanting to find a balance between the lessons of one’s past and the promise of one’s future. Hip Hop seems to have either forgotten this lesson almost completely or disregarded any evidence of having learned it to begin with. I think it’s a mistake for us to be so caught up in the idea that we need to “keep it real” that we don’t exercise our imaginations and flex our creativity. What’s worse is that music is the only genre where this is forced down an artist’s throat and used by listeners as a badge of honor. “I only listen to music I can relate to.” Said by a black guy who watches Marvel movies and went to see the latest Star Wars release in 3D. Give it a rest. None of these people confine the movies they watch to only being Boyz N The Hood, Menace II Society, Juice, Poetic Justice and Friday. But they’ll happily force themselves into this way of thinking with their music because they’ve been socially engineered to believe that this is somehow more noble, makes them realer, and in effect better than those who don’t. It doesn’t. That’s a lie. Don’t believe the hype. I wish these people would broaden their horizons instead of locking themselves in a box and weighing the culture down with their willful ignorance. Artists who say the same are no better. It’s impossible to sell the idea that what you’re doing is special when you’re copying what everyone else is doing. And it’s impossible not to be copying what everyone else is doing when all you talk about is your “real life” or the lifestyle you aspire to, because those two things have too many similarities to every other mainstream artist and have in no way been groundbreaking for thirty years or so. Jump outside the circle. Fly outside your comfort zone. We need game changers now more than ever. We need the rap music equivalent of The Matrix. We need the rap equivalent of The 48 Laws of Power. We need the rap equivalent of Game of Thrones. And the sooner the better, because if we wait too long, we won’t live to see it before the lion eats us.
Chris Newcastle has some serious game changer ideas for albums he’s working on. Right now, he’s working on a game changer book. And if you read all his posts he might send you a bottle of his game changer barbecue sauce