Will J. Cole really be able to bridge the gap between the old heads and the youth?
Lil Pump started rapping two years ago, towards the end of Obama’s presidency, amidst the rise of Donald Trump. J. Cole was introduced to Tupac’s debut through his soon-to-be stepfather after the man had returned from serving in the Gulf War; about five years later, when Cole was in the sixth grade, Pac was murdered and the subsequent trauma forced the first raps out of his pen. The dream and the grind are staples of rap. But the grind exists in various forms these days. For Cole, it took years off groundwork and failed attempts. For Pump, it was a lucid daydream turned to reality overnight.
The crux of Cole’s message has always been that talent is an amalgamation of hard work, vision and perseverance. Just a few months ago, the crux of Pump’s message was: “Fuck J. Cole.” What started off as a joke became a calling card for a kid who simply wanted to laugh and troll his way out of his less than ideal upbringing. How was he to know that it would one day give him the same platform as his target? Authenticity has always been important to Cole, and it makes sense: it’s as much a pillar of life, as it is of hip hop. But that’s why the kids love Pump - he’s authentic and willing to do shit like sit down and listen to a grown man twice his age.
Around the 48 minute mark of their conversation last month, there’s a subtle yet all too telling misunderstanding when Pump asks his wisened colleague when he first started popping. Cole questions him in return, wondering if he means before or after getting a label deal - inadvertently revealing just how much the music industry has changed since he was Pump’s age. To Pump, someone who started buzzing regionally, with no management or label backing, literally a handful of months after he spit his first raps, Cole’s retort doesn’t even make sense. His face reads something along the lines of: “Don’t you have to be popping to get signed??”
This is just further proof that the goal posts in the music industry have been moved, dismantled and reconstructed over the past decade or so. And that’s with pop music as a whole - just imagine how many subtle micro changes have influenced the way we consume and talk about just hip-hop and the art of rap itself? With this interview, Cole attempts to gracefully offer an olive branch so that we, as a culture, can start celebrating artists for their individual for merit and not against some elusive set of rules and guidelines.
Cole seems to have realized that the generational gap is not just about taste. “This music industry is fucked bro,” Pump thoughtfully quips at one point, while Cole has a look on his face that reads: hey, maybe the generational gap isn’t all that big after all! Tastes will always change, but offering knowledge and wisdom to the youth should remain constant. The divide between generations stems from a growing disregard for the idiosyncrasies of each generation. So while his last few albums had stayed utterly true to his own sonic vision, Cole used KOD as a conscious effort to tap into the youth and adapt to the current terrain.
But Cole at his most effective is on Born Sinner or Forest Hills Drive - when he’s fully invested in his own lore and uses his struggles as an allegory for the everyday man. If Cole genuinely wants to step out of his own shoes and into other perspectives, he should attempt to do so with uncompromised artistic direction. KOD ultimately sounds too much like Cole trying to relate to the kids, instead of Cole treating the kids like the young adults they are, and presenting them with his unfiltered version of the truth.
With KOD, Cole showcased a desire to understand the youth, but he also accidentally placed himself in a lane with navel-gazers like Russ. The message in Cole’s new music may ring hollow when the first thing a majority of his intended audience hears is him aping the stylings of more naturally charismatic pop acts, such as Migos. Titular track “KOD,” along with singles like “ATM,” go out of their way to use current beats and flows in what can be received as pretentious. This could be shrugged off as Cole adding his own flavor to contemporary styles, but to a younger audience, it feels condescending and is, ultimately, an ineffective way to connect.
Kids can sniff out irony better than most adults, so if this is genuinely for the kids, Cole should take what he’s learned from them and apply it directly to his own lane of soulful, storytelling rap. Cole is currently in the same transition phase as Kanye. It’s a phase all maturing contemporary rappers will have to confront at some point in their careers. With his next effort, Cole would benefit from unironically doubling down on his intentions of bridging the generational gap. Through his interviews with Angie Martinez and Lil Pump, and by inviting Young Thug on tour, he’s taken tangible steps in this direction - he just now has to apply that same open-mindedness to his music.
The same reason J. Cole initially became the butt of the joke for Lil Pump and his fans, is the same reason Pump is now tweeting: “NOW IT’S FUCK RUSS.” Russ, who has all but become a new J. Cole-type figure for kids who only know of Kanye West by his controversies and rants, often approaches his art with the same type of lofty pretentiousness that Cole is accused of similarly. However, he seems even more self-absorbed and beyond a non-confrontational sit-down like the one Pump and Cole had. Which, to be fair, makes him a perfect target for memes. But it’s not a baseless crusade; Pump has moved on from Cole to Russ because the former has made an attempt at understanding his generation, instead of villyfing their choices. Russ, on the other hand, who is somewhere in between Pump and Cole in terms of age, seems hellbent on ostracizing those whose morals he disagrees with. Instead of embracing hip-hop in all its forms, Russ seems focused on elevating the supposed worth of his own art.
So while we believe Lil Pump learned a lot from his brief time with Cole, it may actually be better suited for Cole to now have a conversation with those closer in his own age and older, if we’re to truly build a bridge between these rapidly divergent schools of thought.