The Anatomy Of A Song: J. Cole’s 03’ Adolescence

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This invisible alien first discovered J. Cole in 2009 on his mixtape “The Come Up.” Seriously, I love every song on that mixtape. It may not be as cohesive as The Warm Up or Friday Night Lights, but some of my favorite J. Cole tracks are all on his first project.

Let’s Talk About Jermaine


J. Cole is hip hop’s resident ‘aw man!’ rapper. Even in vulnerability, Cole tends to sound sunnier and, occasionally, clumsier than his peers, wearing hearts on both sleeves. The rapper who made “Crooked Smile” and “Let Nas Down” will never be mistaken for a tough guy, a menacing nut, or a true rogue.

Authenticity is his calling and that insistence on authenticity is a familiar pose in hip-hop, which often measures success not by how far an artist travels but by how little that travel changes him. For Cole, though, the street isn’t just a source of (borrowed) credibility; it’s where this storyteller goes to absorb details that for others are figments of their broad imagination, which they seek to tell us they have experienced.

That authenticity is a celebration of his creativity, but also a proxy for his burden. In one of hip-hop’s most populist periods, he is a divider — a loyalist to out-of-fashion values and a conscientious objector to dominant trends. As the genre has become smoother, more rigorously structured and more digital, he has become raspier, looser and more organic. He is a rap star without rap-star trappings.


Oh So Vulnerable


As with all things, the Internet has helped to flatten hip-hop — more artists and styles are available to more people, where an underground allegiance can quickly become pop fandom. The logical outcome of that circumstance has been the rise of Drake, an omnivore and a chameleon who never met a target demographic he couldn’t appease, or an Instagram post for which a lyric of his wouldn’t make the perfect caption. He’s post-region, post-era, post-ideology, and post-genre.

As Drake continues to set the tenor for what’s happening at Hip Hop’s centre, around him the genre is splintering along old fault lines, seen most clearly in the ascendance of Mr Cole and Kendrick Lamar, two of the best-selling rappers of the 2010s but who have been largely shut out of hip-hop’s celebrity class.

Sure, Kanye West and then Drake — true superstars, both — brought anxiety, vulnerability and insecurity into hip-hop’s centre, but only within a broader context of their ecstatic, king-size success. Mr Cole does not frame his internal battles this way. He is, at best, fretful about what fame has done to him, and his allergy to glitz. Enter Forest Hill Drive and a masterpiece of a song, “03 Adolescence.”


03 Adolescence: A Masterpiece


Track number three on 2014’s “Forest Hills Drive” has a woozy hook and a post-pubescent confessional at its heart, all too poignant, baring all; a song as honest as so many love letters I should written but should never have sent when I lived in the university’s dorms.
It samples the Eminem produced, Tupac and Biggie’s “Runnin’, to tell the story of how his childhood friend clowns Cole out of his brief consideration to become a drug dealer. He wrestles with the fragility of life and the importance of family ties. He also tries to come to grips with some of his all too human debauched impulses.

This song describes my own life so well. It is so relatable, it has me wondering if Cole is that light skinned kid from down my road in Jamaica that moved to the US of A in the mid 1990s. I never did catch his name.

Because like Cole spits on this classic, I too was an invisible alien, posted on the block with my weed smoking and selling friends, though I had the prospects of university in my future. The pull of that life can be irresistible when you own a single pair of shoes or hungers for the latest gadgets. The shyness, anxiety, and fear that keep you locked up inside the cell of yourself when all you want to be is open; when you want to ask out the beautiful girl at school, but your stomach clams up, your heartbeat speeds up and your mouth locks shut life a lifer in Rikers Island.

This song captures the frustrations of growing up in hopeless poverty, moving around every few years, the absent father, etc. Providing for your mom, even when she says it’s fine. The pain, the tears, the frustration of it all.

03’ Adolescence Quotable.


Ball player, star player, I’m just watchin’ from the side

On the bench, cause my lack of confidence won’t let me fly

I ain’t grow up with my father, I ain’t thinkin’ bout that now

Fast forward four years or so from now I’ll probably cry

When I realize what I missed, but as of now my eyes are dry.


J. Cole’s emotion during this section of the first verse gives me goose bumps. Cole perfectly captures the status of being an outsider, an invisible alien, where being cool and liked is everything.

The status of being fatherless; of ignoring it and thinking it doesn’t matter until one day you are 29 years old and realise that leaving emotions unspoken only mean that they retreat beneath the blanket until they awake with hungry urgency. This is an emotion this invisible alien understands only too well.


03’ Adolescence Quotable.


Things change, rearrange and so do I

It ain’t always for the better dawg I can’t lie

I get high cause the lows can be so cold

I might bend a little bit but I don’t fold

One time for my mind and two for yours

I got food for your thoughts to soothe your soul

If you see my tears fall just let me be

Move along, nothing to see.


Here Cole sings a hook so soothing, it could be a lullaby to put your baby girl to sleep. But the message is no twinkle twinkle little star. The message is sharp, tender and urgent. Cole notes that changes, though not always for the better, are inevitable, yet doesn’t necessarily mean he’s improving. Some changes may result in him taking on characteristics and attitudes he would consider negative, something we have all been guilty of.

Nonetheless, Cole recognises that he will have to change, which is bending. Bending too much, however, is folding, something he refuses to do. As an immigrant and invisible alien, this message has real resonance. Keeping my roots and passing them on to my children is critical. Whilst doing this, however, one must grow and adapt. It is finding a balance that is crucial, of course.

Jermaine’s poignant words display a willingness to be vulnerable that is rape in the macho world of hip hop. Unlike most rappers, Cole doesn’t see emotion as a weakness. In truth, it gives him greater depth.


03’ Adolescence Quotable.


So how you looking up to me, when I look up to you

You bout to go get a degree, I’ma be stuck with two choices

Either graduate to weight or selling number two

For what? A hundred bucks or two a week?


Here Cole addresses an issue that the poor and dispossessed has had to wrangle with when they decide to attend university. Some students turn to escorting or sex to pay unaffordable university fees. Some contemplate the drug game. Cole’s friend ponders, “Why deal cocaine when you could go to college?”

This conversation is similar to Nas’ final verse on One Love  —Cole’s becoming disillusioned as his friend, a dealer, educates him on the downfalls of dealing.

When he raps ‘graduate to weight,’ that could also be perceived as ‘graduate to wait.’ That is, attending university with expectations, then growing up just to ‘wait’ to die. All the promises of higher education later proving to be a lie. The whole phrase ‘graduate to wait’ suits the tone of these few bars, as it’s vaguely sarcastic and plays on the fact that you would work hard to get through (graduate) childhood in a tough neighbourhood, only to go on and achieve nothing worthwhile.

The Anatomy of A Song

The anatomy of this song reveals the bones of being society’s dregs with ambition. By addressing the song to the “darkness” of hope, J. Cole emphasizes the song’s themes of loneliness and isolation, as  a young man plots his path out of the ghetto. This is a song for anyone who has ever felt the tug of peer or societal pressure. It is a gentle call to arms to find one’s own mind and let it be a guiding light through the troubled, rocky coastline of life.