Rapper J. Cole, something of an elder statesman at 32, appears at Seattle’s KeyArena on July 17, 2017.
Though he’s just 32, rapper J. Cole is something of an elder statesman.
In a genre fueled by youthful exuberance, Cole’s introspective, narrative-driven style hearkens back to rap’s so-called golden age of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Some of his fans even compare him to Nas, a perceptive storyteller renowned as one of hip-hop’s best lyricists.
Cole’s traditionalist approach has made him a star. (He plays KeyArena on Monday, July 17.) He’s not really a singles artist, but each of his four albums has gone at least platinum and hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts.
With Anderson.Paak, J.I.D., Ari Lennox. 8 p.m. Monday, July 17, KeyArena, 305 Harrison St., Seattle; $45-$354 (800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com).
Cole is more than just successful, though — he’s established himself as an artist whose work listeners can immerse themselves in.
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On last year’s “4 Your Eyez Only,” Cole operates as an auteur. There are no features, and the album sticks to an organic, cohesive sonic template — keys, strings, beats that propel rather than bludgeon. The songs deal with insecurity, death and the toll of fame. As a lyricist, Cole sometimes gets stuck in his own head, but his ability is hard to deny.
As rap approaches middle age, its generation gap has widened. If Cole makes something akin to AOR (in this case, album-oriented rap), then current rap trends are like disco — designed for the club and sneered at by those with more orthodox tastes.
Drawing inspiration from the likes of Lil B and Chief Keef, today’s young rappers are less concerned with formal constraints like song structure or technical ability than they are with immediacy and raw expression. The trend is especially evident this year with the rise of Soundcloud rap, a loosely defined, swaggering genre whose teenage stars have garnered millions of streams — and, more recently, record deals — from blown-out, bedroom-recorded tracks.
These rappers have plenty of detractors, including J. Cole himself. On freewheeling diss track “Everybody Dies,” released last year, he takes shots at what he terms “amateur eight-week rappers” and “short bus rappers.” Though Cole doesn’t name names, many took it as a slight toward the rapid ascent and often indecipherable lyrics of artists like Lil Yachty and Lil Uzi Vert.
Typically, though, Cole doesn’t veil the message of his songs. A more representative example is “Neighbors,” a standout track from “4 Your Eyez Only” that was inspired by a SWAT team raid of Cole’s home studio in his native North Carolina. The song’s chorus — “The neighbors think I’m selling dope” — neatly encapsulates the cognitive dissonance of being wealthy and black.
The song is Cole at his best, exuding candor and vulnerability without didacticism. While he may not represent rap’s future, Cole is a fundamental part of rap’s present who thoughtfully engages its past.