Today’s culture has ingrained the need for attention into many young minds. We’re encouraged to have presences on all social media platforms under the idea that all attention is good attention. This especially holds true for those who are highly public and trying to grow their brands or businesses. Still, some resist this concept. At first this may seem counterintuitive, but it can often be for good reason. Maybe they’re bad at interviewing, maybe they don’t have the time, or maybe it’s part of their personality. When it comes to hip-hop, we’re starting to see more artist who stay away from the camera. J.Cole has taken this approach and has become one of the loudest voices by saying the least.
As far as J.Cole goes, I’ve been paying attention for over eight years now. By the time his second album came around, I was a full fledged fan. I remember listening to “No Role Modelz” (debateably my favorite song of his) and listening to him refer to himself as a “B-List celebrity.” At the time, this didn’t make sense. He’s someone who consistently reaches to top of the Billboard Charts with his album, yet he wasn’t the same media presence as artists far less successful.
At first I attributed J. Cole’s lack of media presence as a lack of controversy. He really didn’t have any notable feuds, run-ins with the law, or relationships beyond working with Jay-Z. It wasn’t until a picture of J.Cole surfaced online that I realized why he was seldom discussed. In this picture he was riding a public bus. That’s it. A daily occurrence for millions of Americans though an uncommon occurrence for the successful. He wasn’t doing this for attention and he didn’t even have security. He was just riding the bus.
This is the type of thing J. Cole often raps about. He understands the struggles of growing up with a single mother without a lot of money. As he earned more money, he never forgot his past. This is reflected in his work and he strives to bring his reality into his music. If you listen to his early work, you may see that some of his song are fairly generic. Most notably is his first commercial success “Work Out.” This song received heavy radio play but it was also a misstep in his career. It was the moment when he lost his sincerity and let his record label persuade him to release a radio hit. After receiving disapproval from his rap-idol Nas he realized he made a mistakes reevaluated his direction. He even released a song named “Let Nas Down” on his second album where he discusses the disappointment of letting down his idol.
Of course, you would only really know these things if you actually listened to his music. This wasn’t a highly publicized argument. This is J.Cole’s style. He isn’t the center of rumors because he’s not starting rumors. He keeps his personal matters personal and he only uses his voice for issues that really impact him. In an interview with Billboard, a rarity, he discussed that he would only speak about issues where he was personally invested, could speak knowledgeably, and speak freely. Ultimately, rap beefs just aren’t that important to him. He will speak up for people like Colin Kaepernick and he’s known to show up at Black Lives Matter protest unannounced to show genuine support.
It wasn’t until I Googled J. Cole that I understood his significance. His personal brand works well for him, and there are many others who could benefit by mimicking his approach. I thought that I’d find something interesting about him by Googling his, and I did, it just wasn’t what I expected.
When you look into his background you see someone who’s well-educated, civically engaged, and was (surprisingly) a violinist in a past life. Even in his music he doesn’t mention these things, they’re often not relevant. When he wants to rap about a specific topic he doesn’t use his successes to convince the listener. He only mentions relevant aspects of his background to tell his story. This adds a level of sincerity to his work that other rappers lack.
He’s also someone who lends his voice sparingly, but when he does talk it means something. People listen to his messages because they’re rooted in his truths and his realities. He’s not someone who’s messages contradict themselves as he only speaks with intent. Of course, if you really want to know what he’s thinking you’ll have to listen to is music. His songs are full of social commentary and self-reflection. They’re all tied together in such a way that he coveys his message without losing a sense of authenticity.
Really, he is his own PR team. He speaks with intent and knowledge, but he’s really not hiding anything. The fact that he wears his missteps like badges of honor makes him seem more human. His music really isn’t about blowing money or over indulging. Rather, it’s a reflection of issues he personally cares about his growth over time. It’s not that he’s a perfect person, I’m sure he’s made many mistakes along the way. The fact that he isn’t telling his business to everyone means that his mistakes stay personal.
I’ve seen some artists and brands take this approach. Their real challenge here is establishing their presence. Once established, these people don’t worry about media perception. When your message is rooted in reality, there’s nothing that needs to be hidden. When you’re Googled, people only find good things or the mistakes you’ve already identified. No questionable off handed comments and no negative surprises.
For many people, being on the B-list is better than the A-list. You don’t need to be in every magazine or website so long as people listen when you want them to. J.Cole has established that presence for himself. He’s had five major study albums and all have debuted at #1. Clearly he’s doing something right.