Typically, when releasing an album, artists and their labels spend a lot of effort drumming up as much hype as their budget can afford. This includes an interview circuit, at least one radio single, and as many high profile performance spots as possible. However, this winter J. Cole decided not to do any of that with his latest album 2014 Forest Hills Drive. He released the album in December with no radio single, a lone interview with NPR’s Microphone Check, and a sole performance on Late Night with David Letterman. Even more striking is during his only live appearance to promote the album, he performed a song that isn’t on the new record and isn’t even commercially available for purchase.
The original version of this song, Be Free, was released shortly after Michael Brown’s death, and this updated version was performed amidst heightened civil and political tensions following the non-indictments of the officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The entire performance is heartfelt but the climax is underscored by simple yet effective camera work from the Letterman crew. About halfway through the performance, as J. Cole transitions from crooning to rapping, the camera begins a slow zoom that finally settles squarely centered on J. Cole’s face. Then, eye to eye with the viewer, he articulately delivers his feelings ranging from his frustration - and sympathy - for Obama, his fortunate position in life, and the associated guilt when compared to his friends:
You ‘ought to be ashamed
When brothers back home be dreading when the seasons change
Cause they ain’t got no heat
And they ain’t got no AC
Walmart distribution fired my homie
He just had a baby
You wonder why it’s been so many B&E’s lately
While brothers from the hood shooting like it’s TNT lately
And since all the ballers leaving college early
I turn on the TV and don’t see no brothers with degrees lately
And by doing so, Cole gives an empathetic and passionate voice to young black men across the country. In a time of racial and political tension, his words and eyes were met directly by Letterman’s primarily middle class and white audience, an audience that likely has limited exposure to the unfilitered expression of black voices. It’s subversive in the best way. He ends the last line of the verse with body language that is almost hard to watch, indicating anger and helplessness all at once. It’s sad and it’s moving, and it’s a standout example of how poignant rap music can be, especially given the right medium. Even if you work to dismiss some of the points he brought up in his verse, it’s hard to dismiss his reflection of the exasperation felt by so many in the country at this time. It was conveyed in his eyes, his scruff look, and his almost shy placement of his hands in his hoodie pocket. And all of this was relayed to a demographic that probably has only a cursory relationship with hip-hop and those who it aims to represent.
Kendrick’s recent late night performances have been in perfect contrast to J. Cole’s somber display. In his SNL performance of the song, i, and as The Colbert Report’s final musical guest, Kendrick Lamar delivers memorable performances that border on musical theater. During his SNL performance, Kendrick dons slacks, a pair of loafers, and dance moves which all seem comfortably in tune with the era evoked. This outfit and general presentation is appropriate for a song that samples a classic Isley Brothers track and was produced with live instruments in mind. His hair messy and half way done with black contacts in his eyes (an ode to Method Man’s Tical which was released 20 years ago to the day of the performance), Kendrick alternates from seeming deranged when rapping to all out goofy when he breaks into his dance number (“YG Chicken Wing!”). It’s a song that I hated until I heard it with live instruments and a fun and personal visual performance to back it up. The song deviates from the studio version with an additional verse and a complete overhaul of his cadence and intonation throughout — adding melody where none existed before. While the studio version is easy to overlook, this performed version adds a breath of fresh air to an originally deflated song.
On Colbert (performance starts at 4:10), Kendrick is joined by a group artists that have been aptly referred to as the “Neo-soul Avengers”. He, alongside a dream crew of Terrace Martin, Bilal, Anna Wise, and Flying Lotus collaborator Thundercat, perform an untitled song that straddles several genres of music while still remaining cohesive and self-consistent. Throughout the performance we see mood defining details such as Terrace Martin practicing his hand at dice and Kendrick taking swigs from a flask. The performance, through aid of its visual theatrics, sets a crisp tone in a way that strongly compliments the song itself. I can’t imagine a time since men everywhere were hitting the gym after secretly watching D’Angelo’s own untitled video that such a large portion of the country was exposed to neo-soul renditions. The lyrics call into question everything from mental health, to black values and music industry exploitation. It’s a small but significant culture jam, and culture jams are what hip-hop is all about.
These showcases aren’t the first examples of great hip-hop on late night television — Kanye brought the ballet to SNL, and The Roots have been Jimmy Fallon’s in house band for years. But they extract more out of the format than almost any other rap performance in recent memory. J. Cole and Kendrick’s recent performances have used the unique qualities of the medium to elevate the songs past what they would be without them. Whether it’s J. Cole using his face to convey personal pain or Kendrick using live instruments to give songs the vitality they deserve, these artists are showing how rap can transcend music and become a performance that is greater than the sum of its audio and visual parts. And given late night TV’s broad demographics, it also serves as one of the few times where folks who listen to Fox News are given the chance to hear how good the genre can be.
Hip-hop at its best delivers an experience akin to that of a short movie — taking you to a place with layered characters, a mood, and a distinct setting with an almost tangible feeling. Whether the feeling is of the freedom and fun of a party, or just the general sense of what it’s like to grow up in a certain neighborhood, the most compelling hip-hop lets you share headspace with the artist performing. With this wonderful pairing of a sturdy platform and great artists that are willing to do more than just rap over a beat, late night TV is providing that ability to temporarily jump into a hip-hop artist’s mind in a more provoking way, and to a more varied audience, than almost any other medium around.