Rappers and artists have become storytellers - prophets even - that produce music for mass audiences across borders, oceans, and generations. Recently, there has been a shift in the dominant themes of many hip hop and rap albums; in which a deeper, personal story has been interwoven with vulnerability and emotive lyrics. By comparing contemporary, widely popular rappers Jay-Z and J. Cole, I have analyzed the ways in which Jay-Z’s music, especially his most recent work 4:44, has progressed into a narrative, reminiscent style of detailing generational wealth, legacy, and mental health, and how these themes are also shown in J. Cole’s newest album, released on April 20th of this year, titled KOD. While both rappers uncover their deepest truths to listeners, it is clear that there exists a difference in outlook on many traumatic events and experiences, but both artist wrestle with and demand an alternative to the preexisting notions and stereotypes of Black men in America.
Both albums highlight Black, male vulnerability, which has undergone an exponential amount of exposure, working against a world where Black men, specifically, are assumed and conditioned to be otherwise. Jay-Z’s most recent album is regarded as the rapper’s most mature, personal album to date, and this is because, for the first time in his musical career, he directly discusses private aspects of his life, with lyrics filled with emotions surrounding his family, drugs, rumors, and even sexuality. Ja’han Jones of The Huffington Post describes the importance of vulnerability in 4:44:
“In this vein, JAY-Z’s most recent album, “4:44,” and, more specifically, its retroactively released footnotes, are providing listeners — particularly, black men — space to evaluate our own flaws, hurt and occasional ineptitude… JAY-Z’s title track, “4:44,” is, perhaps, the most honest and forthright iteration of the rapper listeners have ever heard, with references to his infidelity, his sorrow over inducing the conditions contributing to Beyoncé’s miscarriages, the shame he feels before his children, and the disgrace he heaped upon his family.” (Jones, JAY-Z’s ‘4:44’ Makes Room For Black Men To Be Vulnerable)
The ways that Beyonce and Jay Z, as a couple, choose to publicize their private lives have been to tactfully unpack their relationship through music. (Jones, 2017) They often do this subliminally, such as Jay Z’s non-hyphenated name on the first song “Kill Jay Z.” Jay Z discussed this typological choice on his iHeartRadio interview that was in conjunction with his album, stating this choice was about “killing off the ego, so we can have this conversation in a place of vulnerability and honesty.” Jay Z mentions a number of personal incidents, and addresses the rumors and his beef with Kanye, in lines like “You dropped outta school, you lost your principles” and “you gave him 20 million without thinkin’,” confirming the rumor that he lent Kanye 20 million dollars.
On the flip side, J. Cole has been known to be an personable artist, and his narrative rhymes in KOD lay out rumors and personal incidents all throughout the album. In “FRIENDS,” J. Cole reminisces on real people, in which he chooses distorts the names of, and routinely raps about anxiety, depression, and therapy, especially regarding young Black men. Jon Caramanica of The New York Times draws attention to KOD’s “Once an Addict (Interlude),” saying the song is “chillingly detailed and emotionally scarred, equipped with a melodic tone that details his family relationships, his relationship with drugs and alcohol, and his emotive pain.” J. Cole has been known for having music that is reflective and honest, especially with his previous album 4 Your Eyes Only, released December 9th, 2016, which was primarily about death.
Men, especially Black men in hip-hop and rap music, are rarely allowed to uncover their emotions. But regardless of holding up iconography, Jay Z presents a rare, intimate alternative in 4:44. J. Cole, also, routinely seeks to show his vulnerable side, and has been for years and across multiple albums. These two prominent artists addressing these private parts of their lives works to influence an overall discussion of Black male vulnerability given the current socio political climate.
“The Black capitalist in America is a deeply fascinating creation; we, who have been commodities, are now in the position, perhaps for the first time to this extent, to commodify” (Gordon, Family Feud: Jay Z, Beyonce, and the Desecration of Black Art).
Max S. Gordon, of “Family Feud: Jay Z, Beyonce, and the Desecration of Black Art,” calls attention to the dichotomy of Black capitalism and Black exploitation, and the ways in which artists, like Jay Z, fit into this narrative. Finances has been a dominant theme among hip hop and rap music since its origin, and Jay Z has not been shy when it comes to profession of his wealth, as such in many of his earlier songs like“Big Pimpin.” He is now, though, remembered and celebrated as a mogul and businessman. With this shift in his legacy as an artist was equally depicted in his music. In the album 4:44, the most noted song that discusses finances, especially financial investment and literacy, is his powerful “The Story of OJ.” In KOD, the 35 year old J. Cole tells his story of money in many of his songs, including the most obvious, given the title, ATM. In this song, he details his material wealth in many of his lyrics. In BRACKETS, the song begins with a comedy skit and ends with an edited phone call of someone asking for money, almost half his paycheck.
It is clear, in both artists, that with wealth comes an assumed responsibility to recognize how this affects, uplifts, or impacts the communities they have come from. Specifically, in J. Cole’s last song, 1985, this upbeat work discusses a conversation that many hip hop and rap listeners have been wanting for the longest time — the nature and legacy of the niche genre of younger, trap rappers. He also details his explanation for the overwhelming number of White listeners of trap music and rap, especially in today’s society.
Finally, legacy is becoming more and more apparent in modern hip-hop and rap music. Across the board, the number of Black male artists who have tapped in to, or are known to be cognisant and vocal about what their impact personifies increases every decade. Like Jay Z, J. Cole’s KOD represents clear growth in his foreshadowing for his legacy and impact on other artists, and the music industry.
While J. Cole details and attempts to explain his personal trauma in this album, his lyrics, at times, attempts to intertwine many facets of his social and political life into a simple statement about something universal among the human population. On J. Cole’s 1985, explains in great detail how he can lose his livelihood in five years flat if he’s not careful (Jenkins, 2018). In this album-ending song, the North Carolina rapper questions the motive of young rappers that “ride trends, just for the clout.” He deliberately asks, “have you ever thought about your impact”? With this track, though, his narrative shifts from leaving advice to the up and coming generation of rappers to self-righteousness by way of explaining how his music will be around forever. What is interesting, though, is that J. Cole, at the beginning of the track implies that he was similar to many of the very same rappers he is calling out, in saying that “at eighteen, he was on the same thing.” On the song “FRIENDS,” he implores several of his acquaintances to stop making excuses for their shortcomings and work hard at realizing their dreams (Jenkins, 2018).
In “Caught Their Eyes,” this upbeat song calls attention to the industry as a whole, Jay Z’s experience with it, as well as his conversations with many other legends in the music industry, including Biggie and Prince. The importance of legacy, especially Jay-Z’s call for generational wealth, makes his album impactful, as Max S. Gordon in his article “Family Feud: Jay-Z, Beyonce, and the Desecration of Black Art”:
“It won’t come as news to anyone that many of our greatest black athletes, musicians, and writers died penniless and broke. In fact, it’s newsworthy and the rare exception when a black artist dies with a few coins still left in his pocket, or able to keep the publishing rights to her music. As artists, we haven’t had the riches in this country that we should have, often underpaid or ripped off by the industries we’ve worked for. (Gordon, Family Feud: Jay-Z, Beyonce, and the Desecration of Black Art).”
The attention to inheritance and legacy fits in a broader cultural moment that discussing the history of Black families and their challenges of generating capital. Jay-Z deftly connects his desire to achieve more than a quick buck with the other album’s other themes, like fatherhood (Kornhaber, 2017). He raps, “A man that don’t take care his family can’t be rich,” and on “Legacy” he discusses leaving his first-born daughter, Blue Ivy, a stake in his largely successful record company, Roc Nation. His call to inheritance also strengthens his discourse regarding infidelity, which in turn promotes a further discussion about offspring and long-term prosperity in the Black household.
Since his 13th studio album release, often known as his most mature, personal album to date, Jay Z has sat down with multiple news sources, journalists, and radio stations, including iHeartRadio to “break down the meaning behind each track on the record, and provide some anecdotes around the album. Through this, he furthers the movement of using hip hop as a forum in which young Black men are allowed to space to express their pain (Morgan, 74). The most prime examples of growth exhibited in Jay Z’s 4:44 include outing his mother, Gloria Carter, as a lesbian in “Smile,” and including the experience of seeking therapy, a topic that is seldom reverberated in the Black male community.
On the flip side, North Carolina rapper J. Cole’s newly-released KOD can be seen as an album that discusses the same themes as 4:44, but his arrogance and pain tends to still overshadow his outlook on legacy, investment, and impact:
“Ten of KOD’s 12 tracks visit a handful of characters at various stages of dependency to sex, drugs, money, and the internet. The addiction-themed KOD loves to suggest that people should abstain from things — smoking, drinking, online dating. Sometimes, he’s persuasive, but just as often, he simply seems self-righteous (Bromwich, J. Cole).
Regardless, there are still flaws in both Jay Z and J. Cole’s analysis and outlook on specific similar things on both projects. Across the board, rap and hip hop “vigorously erases the contradictory stance toward capitalism, raging sexism, and other “non progressive” elements that have always been part of parcel and jazz, the blues, and R&B, as well as any number of other nonblack cultural forms (Rose, 24). In Jay Z’s 4:44, he implies several times that it took having his first-born daughter, Blue Ivy, to see the damage he had caused to his wife and his marriage. “Some listeners may bristle at Jay-Z talking more about changing black investment strategies rather than about political obstacles and racism” says Spencer Kornhaber of “Jay-Z’s Pitch for Generational Wealth.” “Others may take issue with Jay-Z trying to conquer capitalism as it exists rather than, say, making like Kendrick Lamar and questioning the system itself.” These critiques help to explain the paradox between the hypermasculine and dominant lyrics in music and the sense of powerlessness when it comes to “facing the evils of the larger society, accepting responsibility for their lives, or the lives of their children” (Morgan, 74).
Hip-hop replicates and reimagines the experiences of urban life and symbolically appropriates urban space through sampling, attitude, dance, style, and sound effects (Rose, 22). Jay Z and J. Cole prove to do this well. “Jay-Z neither romanticizes his days in the street nor apologized for them, as Michijo Kakutani pointed out in his New York Times article, “Jay-Z Deconstructs Himself.” But the deliberate choice to include a reflective piece as reflective as 4:44, draws attention to and highlights many topics that are often overlooked or taboo in society. “That he includes other Black men” Ja’han Jones of “ JAY-Z’s ‘4:44’ Makes Room For Black Men To Be Vulnerable” writes, “in these deep, difficulty discussions signals the urgency of these matters and provides space for us to lay bare our trials before the eyes of the world.” 4:44 is not just a great album, but it’s a great album that shows growth. However idealistic his methodology may seem, Cole, through his lyrics, is trying to use his stardom to push his peers to greater heights, and his actions are notable, by way of tapping into his personal side with his listeners. Thus, it is clear that these two artists have been, and continue to, challenge the iconography of Black men in society while establishing a sense of vulnerability and emotion, countering their too-often status quo.
(References list provided upon request)