J. Cole Shows The Tea Partiers How To Do It

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The positive anthem is a genre of hip-hop song Talib Kweli mastered with "Get By" and then beat to death an album later with "I Try." "Get By" is sort of plugged as an option for the emcee who's more lyrically than musically inclined, who's trying to show intellectual depth and draw a certain kind of audience. And since I'm a nostalgic sentimental softie and more likely to play the wall in a club than holler at somebody, it appeals to me.

I happen to think up-and-coming Jay-Z protoge J. Cole's entry into the genre, "I Get Up," off of his 2009 mixtape, The Warm-Up, is one of the best I've heard in years:

Positive anthems substitute emotional intensity for lyrical complexity, so you really need to have a good emo hook, which J. Cole provides: "I get up/I see the clouds from my window/I pray the sun gone shine this way/and where I go as the wind blow/mama your son gone find his way/and if I gotta crawl Imma make it to the end though/until the top if I climb my way/tell em I'm a rise I'm on my/headed for the sky I'm on my way"

But I suppose what interests me about "I Get Up" is that it contains the most aggressive criticism of President Obama I've heard from any emcee, ever:

We raising babies up in Hades where it ain't no Hope
Ain't no fathers don't take no scholarships to slang no dope
Politicians hollerin bout problems but I ain't gone vote
Keep talking bout Change still we floatin in this same old boat
So tell me how I'm supposed to feel when the president spoke
when he ain't never had to struggle ain't never been broke
Ain't even rode through the ghetto ain't never been close
Trusting this government like trusting the devil in oath

The reason this doesn't sound jarring, like clownish conservative rappers usually sound, is that J. Cole is employing a kind of cultural conservatism that is already manifest in hip-hop: importance of family, fatherhood in particular, distrust of the government (I discuss this more here). But most conservatives are so distant from this, as a matter of typical cultural background, that they can't recognize it. It's sincere rather than partisan--J. Cole is, out of apparent exasperation, questioning the degree to which Obama's election actually improved the economic or social status of black people as a whole.

I'm not trying to get into an argument about whether or not the stimulus worked (it did, although its benefits thus far haven't accrued to everyone -- black unemployment last year for ages 16-24 was 30%). I'm just trying to point out that J. Cole is making this criticism from a place of sincerity, rather than political opportunism, so it feels authentic even if it isn't entirely true on the merits. The reason most conservatives can't sound this honest with this kind of criticism is that no one believes they care in the first place.

I guess what I also find interesting is that J. Cole isn't really satisfied with the economic critique. He argues that what he sees as Obama's failure is explained by what he sees as Obama's tenuous connection to the black urban poor. I think this argument is wrong both on the facts and on the merits, since I don't think you need to have been broke to care about the poverty. But it's startling to me how often critiques of Obama center on his personal authenticity and identity -- whether it's Tea Partiers claiming he's not a "real American," liberals claiming he's not a "true progressive", or J. Cole saying he really just doesn't know shit about what it means to be broke.

I think it's meaningful though, that J. Cole doesn't question Obama's blackness the way some critics tend to do--just his knowledge of poverty. In fact, rhetorically, he seems to be asking why people would assume Obama does care, just because he happens to be black.

Still, I can't help but wonder if J. Cole is gonna end up facing some version of the same critique someday, having graduated magna cum laude from St. John's and all. Hip-hop is like politics in that the currency of authenticity is almost everything.

UPDATE: So apparently I have the interpretation of the song completely wrong! J. Cole himself tweets me on twitter:

"Song was made in 2007. So the criticism was for @georgewbush. But art is all interpretation so take it how you will"

There's a lesson in here about letting your politics infiltrate your artistic criticism I feel like I should have learned a long time ago...

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Adam Serwer is a staff writer for The American Prospect.

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