On his latest single, “Nobody’s Perfect,” J. Cole raps to an undergraduate biddie, “Take the weekend off and come home soon; I graduated way too long ago to be sneakin all in your dorm room…But baby where your roommates? Did you make sure the door’s locked?” Against the backdrop of abrasive dance beats and constant chatter surrounding hoes and money—or hoes looking like a bag of money—any Billboard Hot 100 single that offers something remotely different feels refreshing and worthy of some admiration. J. Cole’s ease spitting collegiate culture, writing on tropes that appeal to neither the rage of America’s most deprived nor the excesses of America’s most privileged, alludes to something American hip-hop music and its critics have often overlooked: the bourgeois rapper’s voice.
Attending college—the proverbial entrée into the middle-class—has never really been foreign to American hip-hop music. From Public Enemy’s Chuck D & Flavor Flav, who met while at Adelphi University, to Talib Kweli, who studied experimental theatre at New York University, to David Banner, who acted as the student government president at Southern University, countless rappers have sent Frisbees across the quad. But Public Enemy’s raps were more or less focused on mobilizing the downtrodden residents of America’s slums. Talib Kweli’s sorts of intellectual hip-hop certainly give a nod to the Black bourgie sensibility, but don’t really speak to the Black middle-class experience itself. As for David Banner, his half-naked, “work them hips” ladies can speak for themselves. The main point being that although rappers have come from that diploma-totting class, it wasn’t too audible in their raps.
Of course, Kanye West’s scholastic trilogy—College Dropout, Late Registration, Graduation—was probably the most obvious display of collegiate culture in the history of American hip-hop music. And it deserves recognition for boldly confronting the complex economic, social and cultural issues facing Black, university-aspiring youth, while warping the empty promises (read: employment) of a college education. But as much as the album titles may suggest a neat narrative, honestly the trilogy was only sprinkled with these moments, in songs here and there, mostly in skits. West largely mocked the University institution, as well as the Black adolescents who, as he seems to suggest, make a misguided choice to participate in it. College, for all intents and purposes, was the butt of West’s joke.
But in “Nobody’s Perfect,” J. Cole, who graduated magna cum laude from St. John’s University, willfully demonstrates his easy navigation of the coed life—the playful avoidance of dorm security, the open-door policy of on-campus undergrads—without any further comment. Nurtured by the college experience, J. Cole’s verse articulates it in earnest. Drake less directly displays his exceedingly middle-class upbringing on “Crew Love.” Rejecting the college route, he blithely raps, “I guess we’ll never know what Harvard gets us. But seeing my family have it all took the place of that desire for diplomas on the wall.” Drake basically trades his middle-class upbringing for the rises-from-the-ashes-of-the-
It is enticing to conclude that we are witnessing a more honest hip-hop milieu, one in which rappers need not bottle up their identities in order to fit the industry’s mold. But such censure would not be so fair to those who, like Chuck D, may not have bottled up anything at all, artists who chose simply to rap from more of a soapbox than a diary. Instead, the quad’s renewed presence in hip-hop verse may indicate a shift towards a more confessional hip-hop, one in which the artist him or herself becomes more visible. As dorms across the country are once-again trampled by hoards of the young, the horny, and the cerebral—all hopeful contenders for that coveted membership in the bourgeoisie—the day-to-day realities of American college life, and middle-class life at large, are finding a somewhat unexpected home in the rhymes of American hip-hop music. Who knows, we may even soon hear the woes of the young, the graduated, and the debt-ridden unemployed.
Benjamin Ratskoff is a contributing writer for respect-mag.com
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