What is more important, getting or letting go? J. Cole
With the rumored upcoming release of J. Cole’s 6th studio album “The Fall Off,” I think it is timely to take a look at one of the songs that will appear on that album, “The Climb Back,” from his 2020 EP “Lewis Street.” This song, in particular, is especially appropriate given the subject matter and the timing of the release, the end of ‘the’ year 2020. It offers early insight into the upcoming album as a whole and into J. Cole’s current perspective on self-discovery and societal woes. For me personally, the song had a huge impact and is a testament to just how gifted Cole is as a lyricist, successfully exploring some of life’s most confounding themes and offering fresh insight into their substance.
Cole gives us plenty to think about, from the title, to the subject matter, to the rhymes, without insulting our intelligence and spoon feeding us meaning. The title of the song, “The Climb Back,” is telling. The act of ‘climbing back’ is by nature reciprocal and necessitates a fall and an attempt to recover from that fall. I have had both in my life, falls and returns, so I am always drawn, on a personal level, to stories of transformation. But in 2020, it is difficult for me to think about my own life’s journey outside of its relationship to society as a whole. From human rights violations, civil rights violations, protests, riots, economic pain, and a pandemic, we have experienced many of our ups and downs together. So, I am left wondering, are we as a society climbing back?
The first verse of this song begins, “Everything comes back around full circle.” In the context of this song, it will be J. Cole’s fall and return to his personal truth, as well as the black community’s continued struggle to climb back from physical and psychological enslavement, that are the subjects of this metaphorical circle. Truth is quickly introduced as a major theme - “Why do lies sound pleasant but the truth’s hurtful?” and is the constant point of departure and return on this journey. Though the truth can be hurtful, Cole tells us that it brings contentment. The only question is, when are we going to make the effort to climb back? – “Everybody gotta cry once in a while, but how long will it take ‘for you smile?”
It is impossible to hear these lines in 2020 and not think of phrases like, “alternative facts” or “fake news.” Though Cole’s truth will involve coming to terms with his place in the world, truth itself is on trial, a subject that is as relevant now as it has ever been. We live in a society that is obsessed with conspiracy theories, and half of the country believes differently than the other half. I find myself asking, “How do we as a society come to a consensus about truth? Can we climb back from this destructive relativism with which we find ourselves?”
Next, Cole drops what I feel is the most resolute and powerful line in the entire song – “This is that come back to life shit.” Cole’s return to truth will not only be a change in attitude; It will be a rebirth. He will return to a familiar point with the perspective of a completely different person. Maybe America too will have to be reborn in order to remember its truth – a violent and ugly history that includes slavery and genocide.
The final two lines of the chorus begin to narrow the focus and use more specific imagery to offer us insight into exactly what and who are the featured subjects. He tells us, “My n*gg*s pick me up and we gon’ light the city up as if the sun had the night shift, and paint the town red for my n*gg*s found dead too soon.” Cole is doing something quite crafty here. He is using metaphor while simultaneously making a direct reference to concrete things that occurred in America this year.
‘Lighting the city up’ is something that people literally did in the wake of the death of George Floyd. The Minneapolis riots, and protests nationwide, were a desperate attempt by a suppressed and mistreated people to come to terms with their ongoing struggle with a country that continues to priveledge white skin over black skin. By saying, “My n*gg*s pick me up…,” before they "Light the city up," Cole is telling us that the passion of the people in the streets surrounding the BLM movement hoisted him up and played a major role in his ‘climb back.’ He was forced to evaluate his own place in the movement, something that he’s struggled to come to terms with.
The song continues with two verses, separated by the above-mentioned chorus. The two verses could not be more different and seem to demonstrate the very journey on which Cole is embarking. The first verse presents a J. Cole that has grown numb and even indifferent to the death of young black men and is struggling to make sense of it. You can feel him torn between truth and lies as he battles his own conscience. The lyrics in this verse go back and forth between the fallen J. Cole and the reborn J. Cole.
The death of young black men is so prevalent in Cole’s life that he has developed strong defense mechanisms to cope. One is the accumulation of wealth. He starts the first verse by bragging about how much he gets paid to perform, and how many different musical projects that he is advancing. His work and his money have taken his focus away from the painful truth of the world in which he lives, a place where there has been, “More death than World War II caused.”
As he ponders in real time, his lyrics depart for a moment from his flaunting of wealth and he is using alcohol to “…drown these thoughts, of black corpses in county morgues, Lord.” He tells us that “…those images hauntin’, I ain’t been to sleep yet, It’s ten in the mornin,’” before wavering back into his denial through his bragging of being the best, “Address me as the G.O.A.T,” and a sad example of his own cold indifference, “Another dead body lay frozen, that’s how it goes sometimes.” He is even able, in his denial, to make himself believe that he is not susceptible to the same pitfalls of life in the hood as others, even when it comes to death. As the last line of the verse states, he is not “with that sleepin’ underground like a gopher…”
The second verse begins with the raw realization of what life is truly like for many young black men. Cole cannot ignore it anymore - “Survival at all costs, Everyday n*gg*s get logged off, bodies get hauled off.” This reality check brings him to ask himself a pivotal question, crucial to his rebirth: “At times it be feelin’ the devil be winnin,’ but do that mean God lost?” In other words, is it futile to fight back against oppression?
In considering this, J. Cole approaches resolution as he strikes a beautiful balance and finds the middle ground between two extremes – being carless and being indifferent. First, he is forced to accept the fact that some of his friends are taking the wrong approach, while others are more reasonable. He takes one of his friend’s quotes to heart, in one of the more beautiful lyrics in this song:
“My n*gg* repeated this quote to me, I felt its potency, Most of these n*gg*s gonna hang themselves, just give em’ the rope and see; Shit, I heeded that, and what got showed to me, was screamin’ that, Some n*gg*s you got to leave em back.” But he also battles his own indifference - “Meanwhile, I see yo’ diamonds is glistenin,’ I’m glad that you shinin,’ but need I remind you my n*gg*s is dimin’ and nickelin’? Scrapin’ up whatever coin they can find, the pettiest crime they committin’ it.”
So, what can be the bridge between these two worlds? He says bluntly, “Gettin’ in tune with my God…Slowly revelin’ myself.” He gives truth a name and tells us that God is the common element at the open and close of his circle. J. Cole has changed but God has not, truth has not. God was there when he was young and innocent, he was there while he was struggling, and he is still there as J. Cole is being reborn as an adult.
But as the song again returns to the powerful hook with which it began, the song itself now coming full circle, we are reminded that the journey of self-discovery is not mutually exclusive from society as a whole. He leaves us pondering, “How much is the world responsible for our problems? How much power do we have to change ourselves and the world?"
As I stated, this song had a huge impact on me. Though my personal battles have dealt with drugs and alcohol, which is different from gun violence and discrimination, the parallels between my experience and what J. Cole expresses in this song cannot be overstated. In order to overcome my addiction, I had to come to terms with my own truth, through my personal fall to rock bottom and my ‘climb back.’ But after recovering, I am left wondering how much responsibility I have to help those who are still struggling as I did. I have seen ‘bodies get hauled off’ from overdoses. I have been there in the trenches doing the very things that killed so many people and took away the hopes and dreams of the rest.
As I have recovered from my addiction, I have gone through times when I told myself that I am different from those others who died and those who remain in active addiction, even though I know in my heart that we are the same. I have used self-aggrandizing defense mechanisms to remain in denial about where I have been and the things that I have done. And as I have emerged on the other side, I still find it difficult to determine those who want to be saved versus the ones who do not. Is there really anything I can do for them? J. Cole does not answer this question outright, but by leaving us with a chorus that emanates hope, I think he believes that we have to try. We have to follow our truth, or what he calls God, and hope that we can make a difference.
J. Cole, with this song, has once again reminded us all that he, along with Kendrick Lamar and a few others, is one of the most important voices in music today. He is without doubt a poet and a gifted rapper. But he is also a philosopher, and he uses his powers of insight to relate to his audience. Like most poets that I love, his lyrics never feel contrived. He does not have an agenda other than being honest, and he does not believe that he has the answers. He is not imparting knowledge per se. He is relating to his audience by bravely bearing his soul. This alone is something that J. Cole is doing to help society.
Along with this song, I was recently reminded of how everyone can contribute a little piece of themselves for the good of the world, with the release of the documentary, “Healing a Beautiful Broken Mind.” This movie follows a selection of gifted recovering addicts, artists that selflessly share their passion to help others, while reinforcing their own commitment to a healthy and fruitful life. The featured artist is a rapper named Michael Cavallo. He, like J. Cole uses his gift to help others. Between that movie and this song, I have been doing some soul searching.
I am left thinking, “What do I have to offer society,” and because of the inspiration I have received from artists like J. Cole and Michael Cavallo, I am beginning to believe that I can offer something with my writing. I want to try and overcome my absence in the recovery community by offering stories of hope. J. Cole gives us hope, and if you want inspiration, I strongly suggest that you check out his new song “The Climb Back,” as we anticipate his new album. He reminds us that if we can all find a way to give back a little piece of ourselves, maybe we can heal this world and find truth. We can climb back together if we all do our part.
by Josh Gane
Everything come back around full circle,
Why do lies sound pleasant, but the truth hurtful?
Everybody gotta cry once in a while,
But how long will it take ‘fore you smile?
This is that come back to life shit,
My n*gg*s pick me up
And we gon light the city up
As if the sun had the night shift,
And paint the town red
For my n*gg* found dead, too soon.