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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

Abu Dhabi GP: How J Cole's has always been more concerned with substance than style

Countering the disappointment of Kendrick Lamar cancelling Friday's Formula One after-race show, replacement act J Cole is similarly hot property

J Cole became a meme thanks to his two most recent albums, which featured no guest stars. Getty
J Cole became a meme thanks to his two most recent albums, which featured no guest stars. Getty

This may not happen so often under the present administration, but during a speech last year, Barack Obama revealed the cutting-edge sounds that were rocking the White House. “The benefit of having teenage daughters, I actually keep up,” he said. “I love J Cole.”

The former Potus isn’t a man prone to rash statements, and Cole was a typically astute choice. The North Carolina-raised rapper is something of an outlier on the modern hip-hop scene, but has still sold millions of units and tickets, and worked with an impressive roster of big-name artists.

He replaces one of them at Abu Dhabi’s Formula One after-race concert on Friday, the unfortunately indisposed Kendrick Lamar, having stepped in as his producer on several occasions, too. But the multi-talented Cole increasingly works alone.

What makes Jermaine Lamarr Cole a rap outlier? Both his backstory and methodology stand out, as do his lyrics and live approach. Cole was actually born in Germany, the son of a German woman and an African-American serviceman then endured an often difficult upbringing in the United States. He is not a performer who glamorises thug life: perhaps his best-known misdemeanour was having his degree from St John’s University in New York suspended indefinitely because of an unpaid library fine. They eventually awarded it, eight years later, when he performed a gig for the students in 2015.

While massively respected by the modern hip-hop glitterati – Drake has called him “one of the smartest, greatest, most legendary artists of our generation” – Cole eschews the glitzy trappings of success and is carving a unique solo niche. His most recent albums – 2014 Forest Hills Drive (2014) and 4 Your Eyez Only (2016) – are rarities on the rap shelves, because they feature no guest stars. Both are now certified platinum regardless, which has inspired a bizarrely popular social media meme. Whatever amazing global event occurs, be it a sporting shock or an extraordinary election result, someone will invariably respond with: “So? J Cole went platinum with no features.” It even shows up on placards at sporting events.

Cole’s hypnotic, melodic vocals are certainly suited to a wide audience, and his work would be a fine access point for anyone harbouring negative preconceptions about hip-hop. Having complete control over his album’s lyrics allows him to explore more thoughtful territories. No featured guests, no compromises.

Like Lamar – another Obama favourite – his work is increasingly concerned with weighty issues, while also remaining witty and down-to-earth. The ambitious 4 Your Eyez Only is a concept album about one man’s struggle, which shifts from the oddly sultry Foldin Clothes, about loving normal life, to Change, a funky but poignant meditation on the death of a friend. The protagonist’s own fate is cleverly revealed in the title track, which closes the album.

Cole addresses these issues personally, too. He was one of the first high-profile figures to visit protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, after the Michael Brown shooting in 2014. And that previous album title, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, is the address of his old North Carolina family home: he bought it in 2014, with plans to turn it into a rent-free refuge for single mothers.

Already up and running in his hometown of Fayetteville, North Carolina, is his Dreamville Foundation, a non-profit body that offers realistic career alternatives to young people. “They don't have to be a rapper or an athlete,” says Cole in the foundation’s mission statement. “There are people who manage the rappers, who book the shows. There are so many jobs you can do.”

His social consciousness and creative endeavours continue on the live stage, although this Abu Dhabi performance will probably be lighter in tone than his current 4 Your Eyez Only tour. That show emphasises the album’s gritty themes via an elaborate set, with the rapper sporting an orange jumpsuit in a mocked-up prison yard. One memorable segment involves real footage of armed police breaking into Cole’s home after a call from a paranoid neighbour, an incident he addresses on the single Neighbors. It begins with a telling statement: “I don't want no picture with the president,” he raps. “I just want to talk to the man.”

And being J Cole, he did, having been invited to Obama’s White House last year. This is a man on a mission.

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