You’d be forgiven for not realizing that J Cole’s “Who Dat” is one of the year’s biggest hits. Neither New York nor Los Angeles radio plays it with any regularity. On the main Chicago rap station, it sulks near the bottom of the top 40, and judging from a cursory glance through YouTube, NBA players would prefer to spread the gospel of post-jerkin’ boy band Cali Swag District. Lebron James, dig a hole.
Yet in odd ashy corners of the Internet, to people whose self-worth is predicated on how edgy they are to 178 Internerds, J Cole is often treated with derision or more damningly, he’s ignored. Granted, Internet think-piece hype has been obivated by his appearances on BET and in fish wrap rags like the NY Daily News. But to some, he’s just Jay-Z’s latest lab-tested harvest. He didn’t pay his dues. He wears a letterman’s jacket. He once accepted a ride to a subway stop from 9th Wonder. It doesn’t help that Details Drizzy compared him to Nas–the rap equivalent of being called the next Bob Dylan. The one analogy sure to doom you to failure — or worse, turn you into Bright Eyes.
When I saw Cole at SXSW, I was underwhelmed. He seemed overmatched–unable to match the rock fury of Pill, the methamphetamine whiplash of Yelawolf, or the killer haze of Gibbs. His songs focused on ethereal and trite themes: light, optimism, and clouds. The sort of sophomoric poetry you’d expect from a kid in his early 20s, who attended college on an academic scholarship, graduated Magna Cum Laude, and may or may not sing Jennifer Hudson songs in the shower. So sensitive.
Yet the video for “Who Dat” has over 6,000,000 YouTube plays in a matter of two months. That’s six times as many as Soulja Boy’s “Pretty Boy Swag” has gotten in a similar span. I’m not necessarily discounting Roc Nation click manipulation, but it’s an Internet hit by any metric. Maybe not quite as viral as the esteemed Cee-Lo sings The Bruno Mars Songbook, but certainly notable.
Interestingly enough, it initially seems like a solid but pedestrian underground hip-hop song, from a guy whose catalogue seemed fated to be full of them. His cameos on the Jay-Z and Reflection Eternal records were respectable but forgettable. As a rapper, Cole is one of those spectacularly unspectacular types who haunt subterranean circles. Fashawn. Jay Rock. Phonte. Guys who I respect, like, and will occasionally champion. But guys who have a ceiling. They’ll maybe get a major label deal, a XXL Freshman 10 cover, but they lack the flair and weirdness to be a pop star. But these are different times, so who knows anymore. Drake has the versatility of a two day old scone, but he’s the biggest rap pop star in the world. Up is down. Down is up and I am told that Lady Gaga is neither a man, nor a woman, she’s just gaga. So help me.
But if it turns out that the success of “Who Dat” is really not the result of Sec. of Intelligence Bleek’s decision to fuck with YouTube counts, it will actually make sense. Cole’s lyrics and cadence aren’t better than anything you’d hear on a Tanya Morgan record, but the beat is a monster. A sinister call to arms with casually eccentric flourishes. In the video, Cole’s voice gets bathed in static. Some Mobb Deep keyboards skitter across the top for a few bars and then disappear into a bronze hail of horns. Andre 3000’s “Who Else Wanna Fuck with Hollywood Cole,” chimes in like a disembodied SpottieOttieDopaliscious spirit. The crowd goes wild as if Holyfield has just won the fight.
The North Carolina-raised, New York-based Cole triangulates for his hook, stealing the Saints’ chant, and genuflecting to Southern Democrats, or kissing the chain.But the star is the beat, which Cole made, a gesture that adds unspoken rap affirmative action points. Historically, you usually get one of the two. Eminem’s beats sound like John Phillip Sousa as interpreted by a 16-year old with Asperberger’s, while Pharrell and Timbaland couldn’t rap their way out of a wet Louis Vuitton bag. I won’t be surprised if his debut is another gelatinous lump filled with lame crossover attempts and guest appearances from Pimp C’s putative heir. But at the very least, Cole’s created one really great song and a couple other very strong ones, which is more than most musicians can claim.
And like any halfway decent new track, a spate of rappers emerged to hijack it–from also-rans like Gillie Da Kid, to message board messiah Joell Ortiz, to anonymously “nice” blog types like Emilio Rojas. The best of the bunch comes from a couple of teenagers out of LA named Hodgy Beats and Domo Genesis, who are part of the Odd Future collective, who are in the process of being the rap blog version of Best Coast. I.E. Southern California weedheads into cursing, pop culture, and 90s influences (lo-fi and riot grrl vs. Slim Shady EP-era Eminem and early MF Doom) who are becoming world famous in a matter of weeks. Except that Odd Future rhyme about sodomizing the Virgin Mary and Goldilocks. One after the other –which probably won’t get them on Stereogum anytime soon.
They’re a bunch of teenagers making goofy and blunted videos and bragging about albums “flooded With Bitches, Weed, Females, Marijuana, Sluts, Green Shit And Grocery Stores.” It plays like the rap version of the Bad News Bears if Kelly Leak was on mescaline and owned more guns. A confirmation of the axiom that it is always an entertaining proposition to hear young kids curse and spit venom. OF have created a weird slanguage and imagery worth its own essay. What’s more pertinent to this one, is the velocity with which they’ve gone from anonymity to ubiquity (in an obscure sort of way).
In about six weeks, they’ve traveled from message board and Tumblr topic, to Flying Lotus Tweets, to Fader love. The attention is deserved if not a little over-heated. The speed may mean nothing in and of itself, but it shows how obliterated the lines have become. Nothing good enough ever stayed underground, but things used to take a lot longer. With a surfeit of information in every direction, what stands out are the truly bizarre. Which is maybe one way to explain why the new odd squad and J. Cole are both the future in their own way.
You have your choice of a bunch of purported psychos who are probably pretty normal. And a highly creative producer masquerading as an underground everyman. Both are probably a lot closer than they seem, and neither of them are likely to be more popular than the Dougie dance. –Weiss