Men Of The Year: How Killer Mike & J. Cole Represented Hip-Hop Honorably In 2014 (Food For Thought)

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Happy 2015 from Ambrosia For Heads!

As we, as Heads, reflect on the year that was, it’s important to look for the specific individuals that made it great. In Hip-Hop, this year was something of a rarity, where a spectrum of nominees could be argued for “Album Of The Year.” Unlike a June 18, 2013—release monopoly, or a good kid, m.A.A.d city, there was no unanimous front-runner for an artist who made the year’s biggest, or best work. Instead, 2014 was the sort of cooperative that restored hope in socially-relevant, highly-topical music, a strong regard for the 1990s purist sound and aesthetic, and a platform where substance eclipsed sales, in listening to the voices.

Taking a page from the single by ScHoolboy Q (a dominant voice, creator, and MC at the zeitgeist of 2014), the last 12 months produced a Man Of The Year, or according to AFH, two.

Since his days as an Outkast pupil, Killer Mike has been a valuable artist in Hip-Hop. Like KRS-One and 2Pac, Michael Render has been a walking contradiction at times. A conscious gangsta rapper, the Adamsville, Georgia MC knows how to make club bangers, and the type of songs that make radio uncomfortable. Half preacher, half pimp, Mike is an artist who is arguably himself to a fault. So authentic, so sincere, Mike emerged as an unlikely spokesman for the Rap music contingency in the wake of Michael Brown’s murder. The gold-selling artist penned a Billboard editorial with this thesis: “I only have this warning to all Americans: Whatever this country is willing to do to the least of us, it will one day do to us all.”

Mike’s unique vantage point made him a resonant voice in the mainstream conversation seeking clarity for what happened in Ferguson, Missouri, and what followed in New York City following the murder of Eric Garner. “Being a cop must be hard,” Killer Kill wrote in Billboard. “My dad was one, and never wanted any of his children to follow in his footsteps. Being a cop is often seeing the worst of the human condition and behavior. With all of that said, there is no reason that Mike Brown and also Eric Garner are dead today—except bad policing, excessive force and the hunt-and-capture-prey mentality many thrill-seeking cops have adapted.”

While Mike’s sentiments were shared widely, some immediately dismissed the thoughts of a man who called himself “Killer.” After appearances on CNN, Mike appeared on FOX News, opposite former MTV VJ Kennedy, and owned the criticism against him. “This is a constitutional argument. I believe this young man was killed before due process happened, and his constitutional rights may have been violated,” Mike said. “If we, in the name of safety, keep being complacent and not showing outrage when constitutional rights are violated, eventually we will all end up in an occupied community — and it won’t just be the least of us.”

After a lengthy history of Rap artists forced into the strong defensive on the conservative network’s shows (see Cam’ron, Lupe Fiasco), Killer Mike remained calm and collected, he spoke with power and approached the opposing argument with care and respect. In the end, Killer Mike refused to have his thoughts—and that deeply important perspective disqualified.

As fate would have it, Mike’s thoughts as a father struggling with police would appear on his Run The Jewels 2 album. Alongside his Run The Jewels partner and producer, El-P as well as singer Boots, Mike made “Early.” Bigga’s verse was somewhere between Chamillionaire’s “Hip-Hop Police” and Jay Z’s “99 Problems,” a man wrongfully accused more than a Main Source “Just A Friendly Game Of Baseball” or even an N.W.A. “Fuck The Police.” With conviction, Mike spoke as a husband and father, trying to live his life, and showing due respect to the badge and gun. RTJ2 as a whole was a brilliant album, and one of the year’s best in many circles. Both Mike and El are known to be bullies on the block in this group dynamic, but pumped the brakes knowing just how trigger-happy some law enforcement officials are. The LP, released by Nas’ Mass Appeal Records, had depth, range, and enduring themes. Moreover, the three-year tandem compromised of two vets from opposite pockets of ’90s Rap, gave their album away for free. In a sales drought, Run The Jewels simply wanted to be heard, absorbed, and considered. Despite the honor’s system mentality—long thought to be a recipe for financial failure in Rap music, RTJ2 earned a Top 50 debut on the charts.

Weeks later, as the verdict was reached to not arraign Officer Darren Wilson, Mike opened his November 24 Run The Jewels date, in St. Louis, Missouri, just miles from Ferguson, with these sentiments:  “Tonight I got kicked on my ass, when I listened to that prosecutor,” said the rapper on stage. “You motherfuckers got me today. I knew it was coming. I have a 20-year-old son, I have a 12-year-old son and I’m so afraid for them.” He ended his message, referencing his White band-mate. “We know you don’t value my skin, and we know you do value [El-P’s], but you know what we’re friends, and nothing is gonna devalue that.” Like Tupac Shakur’s teary-eyed portrait, or Kanye West’s public decrying of President George W. Bush following Hurricane Katrina, this was a lucid moment in the history of Hip-Hop.

Late in the year, Mike expanded his platform. The leader of the Grind Time Rap Gang criticized the courts for prosecuting defendants using music lyrics. For USA Today, the artist-turned-author wrote, “No other fictional form—musical, literary or cinematic — is used this way in the courts, a concerning double standard that research suggests is rooted, at least in part, in stereotypes about the people of color primarily associated with Rap music, as well as the misconception that Hip-Hop and the artists behind it are dangerous.”

For years, Hip-Hop has looked at Chuck D, KRS-One, and Ice-T. These artists were on the front-lines of events, ranging from the L.A. Riots to the Arizona fight for recognition of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. In 2014, Killer Mike, who has a history of powerful songs and actions, became that person. Mike made impacting music—which he gave away for free, he spoke to all people, and reacted to tragedy and deep social concern as a father, an artist, the son of a police officer, and as a Black man living in a country that scared him for his life.

In his own way, J. Cole stood for the People in 2014. In the last three years, Jermaine Cole has skyrocketed to become one of Rap’s leading artists. He’s released three gold albums, re-popularized the MC/producer in the 2010s, and become a sex symbol who has the (complicated) support of icons like Jay Z and Nas alike.

However, as J. Cole has looked to recreate the impact, on and off the mic, of Nasir Jones and Shawn Carter, he is also the product of the blog era. Cole did it himself, on 2007’s The Come Up, and 2009’s The Warm Up, but he spoke to the masses through YouTube, Soundcloud, and Twitter—tools which his heroes did not have at their disposal in the era that influenced Cole.

Rather than try to force himself into nostalgia, the Roc Nation star simply bumped the status quo. Just as Jay Z was largely hands-off with Cole’s development, the Fayetteville, North Carolina native extensively developed his Dreamville imprint, focusing on music above branding and profile. Just as he was given the light five years ago, Cole pushed Bas and Cozz into the spotlight, without needing to stand beside them. Bas’ Last Winter shined on its own merits, the digital release nearly grabbed a Top 100 debut, while Cozz’ Cozz & Effect was promoted like an underground Hip-Hop album. Music trumped a movement, and Cole simply afforded a platform to deserving voices with styles and attitudes different than his own.

As a blog-era artist, J. Cole watched firsthand how often artists made half-hearted tribute songs in the midst of powerful social events. Instead of simply looking to be a conscious figure through a screen, Cole went to Ferguson (joining Talib Kweli and other artists) to talk to the people, and share the pain as a community, as humanity. Months later—unpublicized, he took to the streets of New York City following the non-indictment NYPD Officers Daniel Pantaleo and Justin Damico in the fatal choking of Eric Garner. While people clamored for artists to speak up, J. Cole acted—as a man.

In the midst of it, J. Cole did release a song: “Be Free,” which included these deeply-evocative bars: “Can you tell me why /
Every time I step outside / I see my niggas die / I’m lettin’ you know / That there ain’t no gun they make that can kill my soul.”

And when J. Cole, who would this month release a short-notice great album in 2014 Forest Hills Drive, he used his appearance on “The Late Show With David Letterman” to perform not a cut from the LP, but the song that was on his mind and in his heart. Even David Letterman, who would seem arguably removed from protests, pain, and racial compassion, showed his reaction. The canned late-night TV Rap performance may have seen its biggest moment in history, and it was so palpable, so unscripted, and so true to the purpose of socially-aware artistic expression.

On the aforementioned album, J. Cole made what to many, is his best work. Traditionally, Cole’s skeptics and critics found an MC/producer who was more interested in winning over the favor of Hip-Hop’s elite than being himself. Cole’s songs were female integrations of Rap that still had rapping, or he made a touted traditional album in Born Sinner, while Kanye West got experimental and Mac Miller got druggy. Cole had the high-ranking spot in Hip-Hop’s hierarchy, but he lacked the fully-dimensional tangibility of an iconic artist. Forest Hills Drive challenged that, while Cole speaking openly and freely about his past, his family, his loves, and his own confused place in the milieu of 2010s Hip-Hop. Without much warning and social promotion, Jermaine Cole seemed to make his game-changer simply by being unafraid, un-distracted, and unscripted. The Internet star got real, in so, so many ways.

As the discussions are ongoing surrounding 2014’s music merits, it may take time to see just how much the paradigm has shifted. More than a debate on Auto-Tune or an exposé on one D-boy Rap star’s past as a correctional officer, Hip-Hop drove parallel to the issues. From the Grammy Awards results to Common’s most thematic album since Electric Circus, the growing “culture-vulture” conversations to police brutality, Hip-Hop suddenly got visceral, living, breathing, and reactive. Killer Mike and J. Cole, perhaps unlikely forces entering the year, left the calendars as powerful examples of our culture, who took risks, listened as much as they expressed, and showed and proved.

Related: 5 Things That Made Hip-Hop Proud in 2014 (Food For Thought)