J. Cole's debut, Cole World: The Sideline Story, is one of the hotly anticipated CDs of 2011.
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In the state of North Carolina, there’s a region of land that lies between the cities of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill. That area is commonly known as the Triangle; a fateful moniker when you consider the following: Today, there are three artists from Carolina – two who hail from said Triangle – who’s current long player creations harkens the pride and innovation that it took their descendants to create the ancient pyramids. When you think about it, their works and tasks are not so different from the Egyptians: They are attempting to build a rock solid structure on a sometimes unstable, yet inescapable, foundation, in order to protect all that they treasure most, while attempting to reach heights that would scrape the crust of the Heavens. At the base, you have Phonte Coleman. His arresting lyricism, filtered through engaging vocal ability both as an emcee and a singer, gives his craft the heavy density it needs to bare heavy weight. J. Cole is at the summit; a beacon that’s seen from hundreds of miles, using his versatility as a rapper and behind the boards to entice onlookers to search beyond a familiar façade. Lastly, we have the pyramid’s mortar, 9th Wonder, who’s beats bind the bricks known as the rhymes, thus completing a structure with the strength that’ll endure unforgiving elements of superficial artistry and remain impenetrable over time.
When you think of North Carolina, you think of Tar Heels versus Blue Devils; Number 23; chopped barbeque. Hip Hop music might be somewhere low on the list, if it shows up at all. But on Tuesday, September 27, 2011, all that may have changed. On a day that witnessed the release of several prodigious recordings from Madlib, Nneka, The Stepkids and others, the most anticipated albums of that day came from J. Cole, 9th Wonder and Phonte, all natives of the Tar Heel state.
Hip Hop culture in different states and cities have idiosyncratic characteristics, in particularly when it comes to music. New York City Hip Hop sounds much different that Miami Hip Hop. However, some so-called experts on the subject will bunch numerous cities and states into one generalized region to simply rhetoric for readers. For instance, East Coast Hip Hop consists of all five boroughs (65 percent of all famous rappers), Westchester County (Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth), Long Island (Public Enemy, De La Soul), and New Jersey (The Fugees). West Coast Hip Hop consists of urban L.A. neighborhoods of South Central (Ice-T), Compton (NWA, Dr. Dre) and Long Beach (Snoop Dogg), along with Oakland (Too Short). The Dirty South is Atlanta (Outkast), Miami (Rick Ross, Luke) and Texas at large (Geto Boys, UGK). Lastly we have the Midwest, which comprises of Chicago (Common, Kanye West), St. Louis (Nelly) and Detroit (Eminen, J. Dilla). As a result, it’s difficult for a novice to pinpoint NC’s Hip Hop identity. Smacked dab between the East Coast and Dirty South, NC is in a geographical Hip Hop demilitarized zone. North Carolina got in the game (on the charts, that is) in the late 1990s, when Lords of the Underground, former Shaw University students, dropped five top 20 singles on Billboard’s Rap charts, including “Chief Rocka.” Petey Pablo was the one, however, to literally shot out his state in his 2001 anthem “Raise Up.” People in clubs had no choice but to say “North Carolina! C’mon and raise up!” Pablo has enjoyed some mainstream success; his first two CDs went gold, the single “Freek-A-Leek” reached number seven on the Billboard Hot 100 and was a featured artist on Ciara’s number 1 smash, “Goodies.” To relegate a city with a unique sound onto a marginalized list is as misleading as it is lazy. The albums of Coleman, 9th and Cole – Charity Starts at Home, The Wonder Years, and Cole World: The Sideline Story, respectively – arrive right on time to school the world about what Tar Heel Hip Hop is all about.
Lords of the Underground, former Shaw University classmates, helped put North Carolina Hip Hop on the map in the mid-1990's with "Chief Rocka."
North Carolina Hip Hop is part of a musical tradition far deeper than one could imagine. NC is the home of radical music legends Thelonius Monk, Nina Simone and John Coltrane. While North Carolina Hip Hop draws from the best of each region of hip hop culture, it injects its own homegrown nuances of those late jazz greats; intelligence, maturity and soul. Phonte Coleman personified those three virtues from the beginning. As a member of the trio Little Brother, and later the Foreign Exchange (a pre-Gnarls Barkley rapper-producer duo that mixed singing and rhyming), Phonte is an artist who rhymes about ideas outside the box, only to spread the word to those stuck inside of it. Never was this more evident than in Little Brothers’ 2005 album The Minstrel Show
. A concept piece about a fictional, “Bamboozled-type” television network UBN (U
Former Little Brother MC Phonte releases his solo debut, "Charity Starts at Home."
Black Nigger), Phonte , Rapper Big Pooh and DJ 9th Wonder displayed an exaggerated state of affairs that was all too real in Black society. The freedom to record such an album was made possible by the clairvoyance of De La Soul’s Stakes is High and displayed the learned, intellectual nature of North Carolina rap music; So much so that BET refused to air the video for “Lovin’ It” because its ironic attacks on Black stereotypes was deemed “too intelligent” for their viewers. Life imitating art was never so immediate. Six years later, Phonte has emerged as one of hip hop’s go-to thinking men, and his solo debut, Charity Starts at Home, is the culmination of a man who is determined to show the world that there’s a place for maturity in the culture, or as Roots MC Black Thought once eloquently stated, “grown man’s hip hop.” After one listen of “Not Here Anymore,” with the back drop of a phonetic sample of Rose Royce’s “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” courtesy of 9th Wonder, it’s easy to see that Phonte has no desire to top the charts: “I don’t need the limelight/that’s young nigga shit/I’m an OG, and the ‘G’ stands for ‘Gentleman.'” Charity Starts at Home explores relationships in a mature fashion not common in a mainstream Hip Hop forum. Tracks like “Sendin’ My Love” and “Ball and Chain” explores the push and pull between the old Chris Rock adage: Commitment or New Pussy. Rather than conforming to the subject matter that often is associated with successful rap music – big screen TVs, 40s and bitches – Phonte followed that age old advice teachers give to their students: write about what you know. And what Phonte knows, at age 41, is more than most, rhyming and singing about the fear of equaling the faults of his father (“Everything is Falling Down”) or making painful ultimatums – it’s me or the streets (“Who Loves You More”). With the dynamic artistry that Phonte possesses, it would seem strange that he hasn’t made the crossover like a Cee-Lo Green has, someone with similar ability and career choices. In album opener, “Dance in the Reign,” Phonte addresses that very issue: “Some might even say ‘underachiever’/cause they are not believers that I don’t world/but I done seen the world/and if you ever saw it, hell, you wouldn’t want it either/cause I don’t need a kingdom/just want a home.” Phonte is happy just where he is and making strides one step at a time.
DJ/Producer/College Lecturer 9th Wonder unleashed his album "The Wonder Years" this month, another example of the versatility of Tar Heel Hip Hop.
Originality in Hip Hop is dependent on the Three “I’s:” Inspiration, Influence and Ingenuity; finding someone or something that makes you want to do something important, following the path laid by those who came before you, and then doing it the best you can with the tools at your disposal. These three tenants are what epitomize North Carolina music ambassadors. Just listen to the productions of DJ 9th Wonder. The influences on his artistry are transparent, but without being blatant facsimiles, walking the fine line between inspiration and influence. 9th takes the best of his influences and contemporaries to make his own sound: the production of Dr. Dre, the beat making of Pete Rock, the sampling genius of J. Dilla and DJ Premier’s ability to set mood. This can all be heard in the Little Brother catalog, as well as recent releases from big names like Erykah Badu, Mary J. Blige and Drake. Despite his increasingly glowing reputation, 9th Wonder – born Patrick Douthit – isn’t satisfied with being merely a producer and DJ. He’s a resident instructor at Duke University and travelling lecturer on the college circuit in an effort to explain the importance of intellectual administration into one’s music. Once again, there’s that reoccurring theme of a North Carolina artist celebrating his higher education in his work. His new album, The Wonder Years, is a celebration on many levels, but mostly of the spirit of North Carolina Hip Hop on an ambitious and definitive scale. With 16 soulful, boom-bap tracks, 9th invited more than 25 artists to rhyme and/or sing. Some artists, like Phonte, Rapsody and Jamla are North Carolina bred, either from the Native Tongues-esqe Justus League collective or signees to 9th’s own label; It’s A Wonderful World Music Group. The remaining artists all hail from various regions and cities, each with their own homegrown techniques, such as Raekwon, Warren G, and Talib Kweli. Despite all the differing approaches from each contributor, 9th created tracks to maximize their individual gifts, ultimately serving the song best in the end. Marsha Ambrosius’ erotic British vocals make “Peanut Butter & Jelly” as sexy as it is gritty. The fanfare horns used on “A Star U R” matched perfectly with the uplifting lyrics of rapping brothers Terrence Martin and Jason Martin (aka Problem): “…feelin’ like Leroy when Shogun put his face up out the water/glowing like the sun/thank my mother and my father/I can’t worry about manana/I could go out like “Labamba” today.” Earlier this summer, during the hysteria that surrounded the Jay-Z/Kanye West album, Watch the Throne, 9th caught heat on twitter for not praising the record. Although it must be stated that he did not condemn either artist or even express dislike for the music, 9th went on to say that for him, music had to scare him, in a way that would keep him on his toes (He offered Outkast’s 1998 album Aquemini as an example). The Wonder Years will certainly show producers, and emcees alike, that’s it’s not enough just to know how to make beats, but understand why they work.
J. Cole's Cole World: Sideline Story comes after a run of critically acclaimed mixtapes.
The presence of Phonte and 9th Wonder is important to Hip Hop’s underground culture, but we must remember that Hip Hop’s most visual aspect, rap music, dominates the music charts all over Earth. A random person, even if they don’t listen to rap personally, could name Eminem, 50 Cent, Lil’ Wayne, Kanye West or Jay-Z, rappers who have sold millions of albums and have transcended the music, becoming charter members of pop culture. It’s likely that random person would name 50 rappers before, if ever, getting to a guy like Phonte. While all the aforementioned MCs are talented, they’ve all had to curtail their subject matter somewhat to get radio play. Even Jay-Z once spit, ”Truthfully, I wanna rhyme like Common Sense, but I did five mil, I ain’t been rhymin’ like Common since (“Moment of Clarity,” 2003).” But Hova can recognize when an MC like J. Cole can break through with thoughtful rap and still go platinum. Born Jermaine Cole, from Fayetteville, NC, by way of Hamburg, Germany, Cole has emerged as Rap music’s latest savior. Both a rapper and a producer, the 26 year old appeals to the masses, but his blood is North Carolina blue. Throughout his major label debut, Cole World: The Sideline Story, he uses numerous basketball references and imagery in his presentation, typical of a man from the state that produced the greatest NBA player who ever lived, Michael Jordan. A magna cum laude graduate from St. John’s University, the rapper known as Young Simba has the characteristics of college educated rappers who use their academic prowess to their lyrical advantage. He spits on “Dollar and a Dream III, “I got the nerds rappin’ hard shit, dummies rappin’ smart shit.” Cole’s wordplay is some of the most unique heard in years, combining sensitive topics with eclectic metaphors: “No pain, no gain/I blow brains, Cobain/Throw flames, Liu Kang/The coach ain’t help me out, so I call my own shots/I’m David Blane, I’m breaking out of my own box/You stay the same” (“Sideline Story”). The themes on the album carry over from his three acclaimed mixapes, addressing some incendiary, sometimes taboo subjects: “Lost Ones” explores the difficult topic of abortion from both the male and female sides, as well as a third party narrator. He even explores the discrimination that he received from northerners who doubted his intelligence based solely on his slang and his hometown: “Some New York niggas thought it was funny calling us ‘Bama’/Laughing at the grammar ’cause they didn’t understand us/Must’ve thought we slow, but little do they know I came up here to take advantage of that shit y’all take for granted” (“Sideline Story”). Being on a major label like Roc Nation does, however, carry with it the burden of compromise. Tracks like “Work Out,” “In the Morning,” and “Can’t Get Enough” are all party records that celebrate the outer attributes of females and receive the bulk of the airplay. Although there’s certainly nothing wrong with having a good time (these tracks are certainly great hooks into the more serious songs), they somewhat eschew what’s otherwise an album chocked full of profound emotional statements. Cole World isn’t a classic, but that’s probably better for him and for his fans. Traditionally, MCs of Cole’s talent have dropped their best works their first time out and spend their whole careers trying to live up to it. So this takes some pressure off.
There you have it. Three men. Three artists. Three individuals who refuse to allow the status quo define their sound, their message, and their manhood. Three people who refuse to mask their intellect for the sake of image. Three men from North Carolina who do this thing we call Hip Hop.
Thank you for listening, and remember: Black American’s may only make up 10 percent of the population in this country, but that 10th is talented.