The evolution of J. Cole’s activism


Ben Burton, Writer



Rapper J. Cole is widely regarded as one of the greatest rappers in the game right now, and arguably one of the best of all time, but he isn’t the same as he once was. When J. Cole started his rap career, he wrote his music about the hardships of making it in the rap game. There was also an obvious influence of 90s rap along with the “bling era” of rap from the early 2000s. After his successful release of “Cole World: The Sideline Story”, J. Cole expanded his lyrical abilities  when he released “Born Sinner,” the religion and Gospel inspired album. This release was much more intimate for J. Cole, as he delves deep into his relationship with his faith.


This was a very different J. Cole than the politically aware J. Cole we know today. J. Cole at the time even used the f-slur and r-slur on a few tracks. J. Cole defended the use of the f-slur in a response to a Huffington Post article saying, “There will soon come a day when people in general, and rap artists specifically, are going to have to answer for their past usage of the word, much like the grandfathers who are ashamed that they used [other slurs] as kids. At a time when public acceptance of gay rights is soaring (rightfully), hip-hop culture and general are still battling with homophobia (not excluding myself). Rather than run from it I chose to attack it playfully. Those lyrics are meant to make everyone uncomfortable for the sake of this very conversation.” 


  1. Cole defending the use of the f-slur by saying that it is meant to make people uncomfortable for the sake of tough conversations is absurd. If this were true, how much good does using the f-slur in a song do for “tough conversations?” In my opinion, this does more harm than good. If he were so focused on having tough conversations about supporting gay marriage, then why wouldn’t he use his platform to do so in a non-destructive way? 


But let’s go back to where we see J. Cole beginning to shift into his current self. Upon release of Cole’s “2014 Forest Hills Drive” we see a brand new Cole. “2014 Forest Hills Drive” is an aesthetic shift for him. J. Cole brings a more low-key, slowed down, and lyrical approach to his music on the album. This record was met with instant commercial success. J. Cole has officially secured a spot in rap history at this point. His hit “No Role Modelz” is a subtle nod to the style of his older work. 


But his 2016 release “4 Your Eyez Only” is a personal journey for J. Cole. This album is where we begin to see J. Cole change into his current progressive self. Tracks like “Change” and “Neighbors” touch on the racial inequity in our country. This was a new place for Cole, but a place that he would find solitude in. 


While Cole’s “4 Your Eyez Only” was only a tenuous beginning to the woke lyricism that he is known for today, J. Cole sets his place as the woke rapper with his 2018 release “KOD.” Here, J. Cole speaks on his struggle with romance in a digital age, drug use and glorification, and the guilt that comes with his success. “KOD” was quite the opposite when it came to instant commercial success. Many people were unhappy with J. Cole, saying “I wish he would go back to not rapping about politics all the time” and “Stick to rapping, not politics, J. Cole” But that’s what is so great about KOD, J. Cole is basically saying that he doesn’t need anyone’s approval. 


At this point in time, J. Cole is a superstar. It doesn’t matter what J. Cole is rapping about, people will listen. Much like he talked about when he addressed his use of the f-slur in his music, he knows he has a platform that he needs to use to have those tough conversations. Now, this time, he is actually using his platform the right way. KOD was exactly what we needed in mainstream media: attention. The attention of millions of people looking at KOD, whether it was as praisal or criticism, this album got many people reflecting their own values, and J. Cole knew that. When a media outlet talks about KOD as this outrageous and socially forward moving rap album there are people who were influenced to go and listen, which may have changed their views on topics discussed on the record.


Back to the backlash from his fans on this release, we must talk about “thingification.” It’s the concept of thinking of celebrities, artists, musicians, and any creator really, as a product and not an actual human being. When fans came at Cole saying “stick to music, not politics” it was because they viewed him as a product rather than a person. J. Cole has full right to speak about whatever he wants, as clearly shown in the release of KOD. If Cole was unaware of this thought of him as a product, he would give his listeners exactly what they want: a “classic” J. Cole album. Even though these fans who criticized this album probably won’t listen to it again, they listened once, and they heard his voice, and that’s exactly what J. Cole wanted when he released KOD.