J. Cole (Robin Marchant/Getty Images)
One thing I have stopped doing over the years is looking at hip-hop artists to be a voice for our social conscious. Of course when things in Ferguson, Missouri started getting out of control I had a quick thought: “What’s Nelly going to do?” But I dismissed it as quick as it entered my head. No matter what he would do in his own backyard,it was a fool’s errand to think Nelly had answers. The important things we needed were going to come from people far more important than him. And besides the idea of Nelly doing something like going into a booth and recording a song in honor of Mike Brown and the Ferguson community sounds nice…on paper. But on headphones or speakers? A new Nelly song is currently fluctuating between the last and second-to-last thing I want in my life.
In general, I let go of the idea that rap is, what Chuck D once called, “black America’s CNN” a long time ago. That isn’t because I’m cynical. Rather, the opposite is true. As a fan and a critic, I have noticed how over the years, the hip-hop genre has become so robust, it can no longer be easily divided up into neat sub-categories like “conscious” and “gangsta” or “backpack” and “street.” These days, a lot of rappers can be woke and ball at the same time, spit bars about selling drugs and break down the systemic problems in America that put them on that path. “Keeping it real” has become a contrived lifestyle phrase to the point where any artist who says that’s what they’re doing is perceived by me as doing the opposite. Now when I look at rappers and their music, the only intangible quality I’m listening for is authenticity.
Authenticity is what I heard this morning when I pressed play and started streaming J. Cole’s new song, “Be Free.” Again, this was a moment in the Ferguson crisis that I wasn’t holding my breath for, a new song that would encapsulate my anger and frustration. If anything, looking at the artwork that accompanied it, I halfway expected this song to be a throwaway track he unearthed to score some points with fans of his who consider themselves purists and wish Rawkus Records was still around. That’s not a dig on J. Cole personally, more so, it’s my familiarity with how art works in times like this.
Yes, these events can inspire us to want to express ourselves using our gifts, but there’s also something to be said for tact, and speaking too soon. As Drake once said, “wait on it.” Stay silent and no one can accuse you of grandstanding. Besides, there are enough records out there that were already helping me cope with this, such as Young Jeezy’s The Recession, which is why my expectations that this new J. Cole song was going to be something I wanted to listen to more than once were low.
So far, I have counted myself listening to this song 12 times.
If you listen closely, there’s a noise in the background of the vamp from the rhodes that sounds like the ruffling of papers. I don’t know if those were from Cole flipping through pages of pre-written lyrics, but I’d like to think they are, and the words he’s reciting are written in all caps with a red pen. And before he even spits a word, there’s that deep breath he lets out, then he begins:
AND I’M IN DENIAL, AND IT DON’T TAKE NO X-RAY TO SEE RIGHT THROUGH MY SMILE.
That’s written in all caps because “Be Free” is more than Cole venting out his emotions, he’s exhuming them. Also of note is Cole’s decision to add excerpts of an interview with Dorian Johnson, the friend who was with Michael Brown when he was killed. In a way, that addition is a timestamp, so that no matter how many years go by, no listener will ever forget what inspired Cole to record this song.
“Be Free,” will probably never go down as the next “We Are The World.” It is messy, like something that came out of a home or tour bus studio. Hell, J. Cole isn’t even rapping, and the song doesn’t even sound mastered. But I can’t stop listening to “Be Free” and as long as tragedies like what happened to Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouricontinue to happen, I’ll always be given a reason to listen to it again.