Well to provide a little context - I wrote that subtweet in response to a mess of folks on my twitter timeline who were taking great pleasure in the fact that Cole’s record was coming so close to matching the sales of Kanye’s Yeezus. This is sort of understandable - Kanye’s a natural heel and he works pretty hard to invoke the wrath of the masses. But come the fuck on thinking people, for better or worse he made a very ambitious album and has a bunch of squares banging acid squelches and metallic shard bursts while scratching their heads. It might only be subversive as a means to amplify Kanye’s ego, but at least it’s subversive. J. Cole made a regular ass mediocre rap record that only appeals to and appeases the mediocre people of the world.
And I do mean mediocre in the most literal sense. I don’t think Cole’s garbage or anything. Dude can rap okay as far as rapping humans go. If he were in a cipher on a corner or in a dorm room or at an open mic or whatever he’d surely evoke the “oh cool, rapping” response that such activities exist to evoke. That old rap rap raprap / rap ra rap rap approach can go a long way in certain social situations. But great rappers and rap stars have historically been expected to transcend that.
I mean this guy is supposed to be a great lyricist, a compelling writer, The Nas Of Our Time but nobody seems to notice that he failed to absorb the most (only?) compelling aspect of Nas’ style - that project window vision. Dude is wholly incapable of seeing outside of himself. Literally every idea on Born Sinner is I / me / my on some elementary school essay shit. His subjects exist only as one dimensional props for him to hang his own personality and narratives on.
The “Art Of Storytelling” beat jack on “Land Of The Snakes” is perfect because it opens Cole up to such a bold contrast against the Outkast original. Sasha Thumper was a fully formed human, one with hopes and fears and slumber parties. She even exits the scene and lives an entire life outside of Andre’s verse. The women of “Snakes" and elsewhere on BS are set pieces. They have no names, no stories, no personalities, no specific characteristics. It’s just “this bitch,” “some hoes” and endless “she”s. Sometimes they talk at him like wamp wamp wamp wamp but that’s where it stops. I’m sure someone could extract an intense gender politics thinkpiece out of this but it’s not just women either. He does the same thing with his family, with physical spaces, even with his own heroes (On “Let Nas Down” Cole makes no specific case for Nas’ talents or appeal, he just talks about shaking dude’s hand and hanging posters on the wall.) It’s flat narcissism and it’s definitely not good writing. Good writing requires a panoramic worldview.
And I can hear you little frutflies spitting out cheetoh dust onto your keyboard and filling my ask box with baahh but Chief Keef and Migos can write? questions. No, of course not. Those guys fucking suck at traditional rhyme writing when compared to Cole’s ample mediocrity. But their goals are very different. They redirect the effort that they would’ve put into pure lyricism elsewhere - into delivery, into structure, into intensity, into flows, into adlibs, into hooks, into sonics. This is perfectly fine. Writing (“lyricism”) isn’t everything in rap. I don’t even think it’s the most important thing. But if an artist is going to make it the focal point of their work - which is what Cole clearly aims to do - then they should be doing it better than he does. I mean not to go all old head on you but if someone is not at least striving to be as vivid as Nas or as emotive as Scarface or as imaginative as Posdnuos or as bugged out as Cam’ron then I’d be more comfortable if they were to just give up on writing entirely and make a thousand kewl grunt noises on their record.
I don’t know, maybe this is a generational thing - you young people sure are in love with yourselves and maybe you need stars who are equally self-obsessed - but as a writer it’s hard for me to sit back and call someone a good writer if their shit is as insular and shallow as Cole’s. Wale suffers from this sort of narcissism and lightweight laziness too and you could pretty easily sub his middling ass new album into any paragraph here. These guys are stuck in their own heads and bouncing around cliches that they cribbed from played out Mount Rushmore rap legends like Nas and Jay. They see nothing beyond the mirror and do very little within this narrow perspective. They’re prisoners of their own realities and of the laws of language and it destroys me to think that anyone would consider them the great lyricists of our time. But hey most people don’t pay very much attention to words at all anymore so whatever.