If you listened to “January 28” on J. Cole’s latest album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, then you know it’s an important date. That’s right. J. Cole’s turning 30 today and in honor of the rapper’s birthday, we took a look back at some of his greatest life lessons on wax.
Jermaine’s lived a life full of ups and downs. He’s lived a life of poverty and a life of wealth and in that journey, those travels through highs and lows, he’s learned valuable lessons that have shaped him and his rhymes.
So, we looked through his lyrical gems to analyze the lessons he’s learned. They say we grow wiser with every year that passes and if that’s the case, we can only image the wisdom that Cole will be displaying in the next years of his career. Here’s a look at some of Jermaine’s most valuable life lessons thus far.
1. Don’t Fall For The Same Mistakes
“Fool me one time, shame on you / Fool me twice, can’t put the blame on you.” “No Role Modelz”
Cole may have learned this before President George W. Bush infamously and hilariously fumbled through this old saying, but it’s a reminder that, as the former Prez once put it, “If you fool me, we can’t get fooled again.”
2. All That Glitters Ain’t Gold
“Remember when I did a show with Waka Flocka Flame / Felt naked ’cause the boy rocked about a thousand chains / Guess we rock a lot of ice cause we got a lot of pain.” “Cost Me A Lot”
It only took a show with Flockavelli to prove that chains are sometimes a mask that some use to hide their pain. We’re not sure if Waka would agree, but that’s how Jermaine learned this lesson. In the end, the experience led to a standout track that still carries depth years after its release.
3. We’re all the same at the end of the day … sort of.
“Today I know that we are the same, you and I / Different kind of skin, different set of eyes / Two different minds / but only one God.” “Fire Squad”
Okay, so people are only talking about how J. Cole sent shots at Iggy on this track, but there’s more to the song. In the end, Cole brings the firing to a calm moment and here, he clarifies his stance on the importance of equality and adds a religious reference from the heart.
4. Beware Of Anyone Who Wants To Be Crowned “King”
“Every poet just wants to be loved.” “Fire Squad”
The last line in “Fire Squad” leads us to believe J. Cole’s learned that all emcees who claim the crown are really just striving to be the most loved. Some of rap’s most beloved figures, Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. were all crown holders before and perhaps that claim to the throne is really just a claim to be adored.
5. No Matter Your Situation, Be Thankful For What You Have
“I grew up in the city and though some times we had less / Compared to some of my niggas down the block, man we were blessed.” “Love Yourz”
J. Cole’s “Love Yourz” is one of the most heartfelt songs on 2014 Forest Hills Drive. “Love Yourz” is a prime example of just why the song stands out as one of its brightest. The lesson here: be thankful for what you’ve got because not everyone is as fortunate as you are. As Phonte once said, “even the three-legged dog’s still got three good legs to lose.”
6. “Tempt Not A Desperate Man…”
“Anybody is a killer, all you gotta do is push ’em to the limits” “A Tale of 2 Citiez”
Tupac once rhymed that he wasn’t a killer, but warned his opponents not to push him. Perhaps that’s where Jermaine learned this lesson and on “A Tale of 2 Citiez,” the emcee flips the line to show that the line doesn’t just pertain to him or Tupac. Instead, he shines a light on the fact that anybody can snap and anybody is capable of anything.
7. More is lost through inaction and indecision than through bad actions or bad decisions.
“I’ll be dammed if I sit around another year / Dreamin’ dreams, hopin’ somehow that they just appear.” “Stay”
A lot of people stay stuck in their dreams. Keep creating vision boards for 365 a day, if that’s your wish, but those vision boards and goals are nothing without action. That’s the message Cole’s trying to relay here and it’s damn good advice for teens day dreaming their way through school right now. Dreams can come true, but not if you keep sleeping.
8. Money Doesn’t Mean Happiness.
“Now I’m Cobain with a shotgun aimed at my brain / ‘Cause I can’t maintain no more/ Tad bit extreme I know / Money can’t save your soul.” “Rich Niggaz”
J. Cole’s learned lessons from rappers he idolized growing up, but as you can tell from these rhymes, he also learned some valuable jewels from Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. This lesson, that money can’t save us, became more vivid due to the reference to Cobain’s sad suicide, which took place in 1994, a death that shocked the music world.
9. You Were Who You Were Before You Got Here
“You know the sayin’, ‘Fake it ’til you make it?’ / Me, I did the opposite, made it then I faked it / And acted like I gave a fuck / money I was savin’ up / To buy a crib that’s gated / ’til hundred racks, I gave it up.” “Chaining Day”
Money continues to be a topic of discussion here as Cole acknowledges his own mishaps with the “root of all evil.” On “Chaining Day,” Cole serves up an honest cut that shows how he’s sometimes been shortsighted with cash even when he had different plans when he began.
10. True Happiness Starts From Within
“No need to fix what God already put his paint brush on.” “Crooked Smile”
In a time where you can go see a doctor for a fix, it was refreshing to hear this J. Cole line. This life lesson, that you’re fine the way God made you, is hopefully going to serve a lot of his fans well. A little self-love in the era of the plastic surgery quick-fix is actually a good thing. It’s also good to see Cole came to grips with his own imperfections here.
11. White Privilege Is Real
“Rich white man rule the nation still / Only difference is we all slaves now, the chain’s concealed / In our thoughts.” “Runaway”
J. Cole’s wisdom here, that we can be trapped in our minds, that we can be enslaved by our thoughts, was clear. While he still fought inner demons on the track, he revealed and acknowledged this insight, which will hopefully continue to help young minds break free from whatever’s holding them back.
12. Sometimes, You Gotta’ Go With Your Gut, Not What The Data Tells You
“Labels are archaic, formulaic with their outcomes / They don’t know, they just study the charts.” “Let Nas Down”
13. Never Lose The Common Touch
“I’m just a man of the people / not above but equal / And for the greater good I walk amongst the evil Don’t cry mama, this the life I choose myself / Just pray along the way that I don’t lose myself. “Let Nas Down”
There’s some self-awareness here that’s commendable. He realizes that this is the life he chose (perhaps another nod to an underrated Nas song), but Cole also takes note of what could happen while he continues navigating through the treacherous industry waters. This lesson (“don’t lose yourself”) is valuable whether you’re a rap star or an ordinary person, and one that not everyone is aware of.
14. There Are No Shortcuts On The Road To Success
“Just a young little nigga tryin’ to see the other side of the railroad tracks / Where them scarecrows at / No brains on a nigga but they’ll air your back / Fuck the man, Uncle Sam I won’t sell your crack.” “Miss America”
When you’re a young kid trying to find a way to make a better life for yourself, it’s easy to see the allure of illegal means to make a quick buck. Here, Cole shows he learned an important lesson early on, to never give in to those temptations.
15. Be An Inspiration
“This life gets hard on this road, yeah, it’s true / I don’t ever tell you how much I be stressin’, but I do / But I suck it up for who? / My fans, and my mans / who probably never ever had this type of lifestyle in they plans.” “Dollar And a Dream III”
So what’s the life lesson here? Well, there’s actually more than one. The first lesson is to always strive to do your best even when you’re faced with obstacles. The second is that it’s possible to do things for others even when you are dealing with stress. Finally, there’s a third lesson in the realization that not everyone gets to be as fortunate as you are.
16. Sometimes, You Just Have To Show And Prove
“They calling you the savior, so much pressure but you deal with it / The weight of the world on your shoulders, but you still lift it / Ill with it for real / lil’ nigga from the ‘Ville / that real niggas can feel / Nobody taught us how to cook, still niggas’ll grill.” “Dead Presidents II”
The selfless lesson from #15 gets a different angle here. In this rhyme, Cole proves that he’s learned that you have to deal with the pressures that are handed to you because there are others who are counting on you. There’s also a lesson to be learned when you realize that you can sometimes be stronger than you imagined.
17. Where You Start, Doesn’t Have To Be Where You Finish
“I grew up with nothing, it hurt me to see my mother poor / The only pops a nigga ever seen around was Huxtable” “Simba”
This rhyme is a lot like his Uncle Phil bar in “No Role Modelz” and it drives home the same lesson in realizing the value of a parent. Cole’s often discussed this theme in various tracks and on “Simba,” we see another life lesson in understanding the importance of being there for your kids and the value of helping your parents through their struggles.
18. Nothing Lasts Forever… And That’s OK.
“They say everything happens for a reason / And people change like the seasons, then grow apart.” “Lost Ones”
This is a famous saying, one that Kanye West also famously used on “Heard ‘Em Say,” and it serves here to show the lesson to be learned from having friends and loved ones switch up and flip the script on you. It ain’t always your fault. Sometimes, it’s just part of the game of life. People will change. People will grow apart. That’s okay.
19. Real Men Take Care Of Their Kids
“Ain’t it shameful, how niggas blame hoes for giving birth / To a baby that took two to make / Coward nigga, you a fake.” “Lights Please”
A lot of dudes probably listened to this line with their heads down. Not sure why Cole chose to call women hoes while trying to stand up for them here (or why he called women “bitches” while trying to uplift them on “Crooked Smile”), but the message of accountability in parenting has likely been an important life lesson for Cole. Here’s another look at Jermaine’s disdain for unaccountable fathers everywhere.
20. Bad Company Corrupts Good Character
“I’m tired of living with demons cause they always inviting more.” “Love Yourz”
By acknowledging our weaknesses, we can really begin to build on our strengths and eventually, we can tackle to weaknesses. In this case, Cole realizes that his demons continue to multiply. So here’s another lesson: drop those demons or more will follow.
21. Hard Work Pays Off… Eventually
“Keep grindin’ boy, your life can change in one year / And even when it’s dark out, the sun is shining somewhere.” “Premeditated Murder”
Tupac once said “Through every dark night, there’ll be a bright day after that.” Evidence once rhymed about how “even under cloudy days, the sun is still shining, just rerouted and out of phase.” These lines all come to mind when I hear this rhyme and the same lesson echoes in all of them, that life has its ups and downs, the highs and lows, but we shouldn’t just focus on the bad.
22. Stay Positive, Even In The Face Of Adversity
“Even through the joy, I feel the pain / Even in the sun, I feel the rain / Even when I’m high, I feel the lows / like that’s all I know / Lord knows I can’t complain / But even when I do, it feels the same / I’m getting high just to fight the lows, ’cause that’s all I know.” “Cheer Up”
As lesson #21 shows, life is filled with the sun shining and the clouds rising. As a result, we often find ways to cope with the cloudy days. On “Cheer Up,” Cole realizes that he hasn’t always found the best methods for coping because those are the only methods he knew about. So the lesson here? Don’t get high to fight those lows. You can fight them without getting high, even though you may believe you can’t. But there’s also another important lesson to behold: “Don’t just complain about life.” Simply complaining won’t help.
23. The Percentage That Don’t Understand, Is Higher Than The Percentage That Do…
“That’s why them niggas don’t like me / and always wanna fight me / A dumb nigga hate a smart mouth most likely. “Green Ranger”
Jay Z had great advice when he rapped about not arguing with fools. Remember why he said that? “Because people from a distance can’t tell who is who.” Well, Cole also learned a similar lesson when he realized a dumb person may hate him for his intellect. If that’s the case, don’t even bother trying to be a smart mouth. That’ll only make the dumb person mad. They’ll probably want to argue with you after that, which leads us back to that Jay Z line.
24. Always Shoot For The Stars
“If you ain’t aim too high, then you aimed too low.” “January 28”
There’s wisdom in shooting for the stars. As Blu once put it on “Below The Heavens” with this Gang Starr tribute line, “Be a star out your gang / Aim ‘above the clouds’ / And if you miss, you’ll at least be amongst your own crowd.” Here, Cole reasserts the notion of aiming high. Why? Well, as The Notorious B.I.G. taught us all, “the sky is the limit.” So, there’s no such thing as aiming too high.
25. Ignore Those Trying To Bring You Down
“Same rope you climb up on, they’ll hang you with / But not Jermaine, my aim too sick / I bang, nigga, I came to bring the pain / my brain too quick / You see how I maneuver this game? / I ain’t stupid.” “Fire Squad”
Celebrity culture can be such that fans and media will build you up just to break you down. Cole thought of more vivid and symbolic imagery to relay that message here. So, what’s the lesson? Outsmart those who are trying to tear you down.
26. There Will Always Be Valleys
“I put my heart and soul in this game / I’m feelin’ drained / Unappreciated, unalleviated / Tired of comin’ up short, fuck abbreviated.” “Sideline Story”
Don’t settle for coming up short. As Cole once put it himself after Gary Coleman passed, “life is short.” That being the case, don’t settle for being under-appreciated even when you’re “feeling drained.”
27. In The Face Of Adversity, Always Find the Bright Side
“When I was assed out with my funds low / It’s nice to know I had the whole world at my front door.” “Sideline Story”
You’re down on your luck. You might not have the money you wish you had. You might even not have the job you wanted or the recognition you worked hard for. But remember, opportunity is out there. You just have to open the doors and go get them.
28. Smart People Always Play The Long Game
“The man make the chain, chain don’t make the man / How many niggas do we know with hella ice but yet they lame? / The cloth from which we came / me and them is not the same / It’s like we all headed to Spain / they took the boat I took the plane.” “Who Dat”
You want that new car? You want that new pair of shoes? You want that house? Sure, those purchases would be great and they’d at least make you feel fly, but that stuff won’t make up for what’s inside. And it also won’t separate you from the pack.
29. Hating Is Pointless
“All this mean muggin’ from niggas who mean nothin.” “Looking for Trouble”
There’s probably someone (or a group of folks) at your job or at school who savor every moment they can hate on you. They look like they drank expired milk every time they see you shining. Don’t let those people get you down. Those meam mugs don’t mean nothin’. As the saying goes, those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind. Keep shining.
30. Love Yourself First
“Love yourself, girl, or nobody will.” “Crooked Smile”
This works for girls, as Cole intended, but it can work for anybody, really. Look in the mirror. You matter. Love yourself and don’t worry about validation from the outside.
31. Don’t Be Scared Of Commitment
“I’ll be king, and she’ll be queen when I hit her with a ring At the wedding, who gon’ sing?” “Dreams”
While Cole didn’t intend for the general public to know he was married, it’s a welcomed surprise. It shows that no matter how crazy his life might be, he still values his family and those that were there when he started the most.