Despite his status as The Human Itis, I actually don’t harbor any dislike for J. Cole. I think he’s a genuinely talented rapper who seems to have a decent head on his shoulders and has managed to carve out a bit of a niche for himself. Yes, he tends to turn me into a narcoleptic, but I think that’s more my doing than his.
Lemme put it this way: I’d probably be more of a fan if he happened to be relevant in 2000 instead of 2013. Now, though, I’m just not as carnivorous of a rap fan as I used to be, and Cole’s music isn’t distinguishable enough for it to resonate with me.
Anyway, Cole made a few headlines last week when expressing his feelings about intra-racial colorism, and how being light-skinned has helped his career (as well as President Obama’s).
In Obama’s case, I think he has a point. It’s no coincidence that the first Black president and the three Black male politicians with the best chance of being president one day—Cory Booker, Deval Patrick, and Colin Powell—all received A’s on their paper bag tests. (Ironically, while the biracial thing has been a plus for Obama, he probably wouldn’t have the same type of unwavering support from the Black community if his wife was also as light. You can disagree with me about that, but you’d be wrong.)
Rap is a little trickier. So tricky that the only way to see if J. Cole is right is to examine each of the four most popular lightskinneded rappers today—J. Cole, Drake, T.I., and Common (Sorry, Joe Budden. I guess Kendrick’s not the only one to leave you off the list. I’d apologize to French Montana too, but I’m not sure he can read.)—and see whether their complexions have helped their careers.
J. Cole was a mixtape darling for years before anyone really knew what he looked like. And by “anyone really knew what he looked like” I mean “women knew he existed.” But, while his history may suggest that his looks had no effect on his success, that would discount the Mixtape/Backpack Corollary, which states the following:
All rappers who first made their name on the backpack/mixtape/freestyle battle circuit are generally assumed to resemble the construction workers from Fraggle Rock until proven otherwise.
Basically, it’s generally assumed that rappers who could be considered backpackers are considered backpackers because they’re not charismatic/attractive enough to be more popular. And, when a backpacker is found to be tall, lightskinneded, and not bad looking, it’s a pleasant surprise…at least until you realize that the reason why he wasn’t more popular was due to the fact that all his long-time fans are currently in comas.
Verdict? Yes, his color has helped his career, but only because of a generous helping of “you’re better looking than I thought you’d be” points.
At first glance, this should be the easiest examination on the list. He is the country’s preeminent light-skinned icon, and will soon join Al B Sure, El Debarge, and Terrance Howard—whose 2005 may have been the best light-skinned year in light-skinned history—on the Light-Skinned Mt. Rushmore.
But, while much of his fame is undoubtedly due to women fawning over his flurry eyebrowed lightskinndedness, I actually think his look has been more of a negative than a positive for him.
Why? Well, for one simple reason:
Drake is a great rapper.
I know, I know, I know. The only time “Drake,” “great,” and “rapping” should be in the same sentence is “Drake is really great at wrapping his arms all the way around you when he hugs.” Despite his popularity, he is a perpetual punchline who is often cited as the primary example of the pervasive bitchassness permeating the rap game.
But, regardless of how you feel about his widow’s peak, wardrobe choices, whine sessions on wax, and the fact that he somehow always manages to look wet, beneath all of that is a foundation made possible by the popularity of his mixtapes—mixtapes that featured some legitimately standout rapping. This standout rapping has continued on his albums and most of the tracks he’s been featured on in the past three years.
Yet, his persona has made it near blasphemous for anyone not a 19 year old college sophomore to publicly admit he’s good at rapping, and his look—seriously, if you drew a picture of Drake, the color of the crayon used to shade in his face would be “brunch”—definitely contributes to that.
Verdict: Yes and No. Yes, because his light-skindedness allows him to murder Amanda Bynes’ vagina. No, because just the simple act of writing that Drake was a great rapper caused one of my testicles to bounce.
Perhaps no other rapper in rap history has a bigger distance between “the type of rap music he creates” and “the size you’d expect a person creating that type of rap music would be.” It still amazes me that some of the hardest, thuggest, and most gas face-inducing music of the last decade was made by someone who can fit inside a woman’s Timberland.
This in mind, there’s no doubt his light-skinnededness has hurt him.
I’m sure he’s aware of his (lack of) size. And, when you combine this with the fact that lighter-skinned men are often considered to be “softer” than their darker-skinned brethren, the 44783293 gun charges he’s received over the past several years start to make sense. But, while gun charges are usually boons to the careers of other rappers, each case has made T.I. considerably worse at rapping. It’s a paradox where his light-skinnededness made him harder off record, indirectly leading to him kinda sucking on record.
Verdict: A resounding no. After starting out as a southern Ice Cube, Tip is a predicate charge away from going full Bruce Jenner.
Verdict: Yes! Dark-skinned rappers who go eight years without releasing relevant albums don’t go on Bill Maher, don’t give invited to the White House, and damn sure don’t date Serena.
—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)