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7 min read

Hip hop’s pantheon rumbles

J. Cole's changing role in the battle for pre-eminence with Drake and Lamar.

Nyasha graduated from Cardiff University where he studied media, journalism and culture. He makes both hip hop and spoken word content.

A composite image of three rappers, Cole, Lamar and Drake against a mushrooming cloud.
Cole, Lamar and Drake.

Spirituality and religion are inseparable from American hip hop culture. Recent studies have shown that African Americans, the pioneers of hip hop culture, are more likely to be religious than any other ethnic group in America. As such, hip hop lyrics are often littered with allusions to both organised religion and more abstract spirituality. Consider Kanye West’s infamous 2004 record Jesus Walks, a song in which the Chicago native overtly professes faith in Jesus of Nazareth and pleads for his protection as he traverses through the adverse socio-economic terrain that is Black America.  

Or take two of hip hop's most successful and influential artists today, friends turned enemies: J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar. As recently as his second last project, The Off Season, Cole reveals an ongoing journey he finds himself on, stating: 

I dibble-dabble in a few religions  

My homie constantly telling me ’bout Quran, puttin’ me on  

I read a few pages and recognize the wisdom in it  

But I ain’t got the discipline for stickin’ with it 

Cole’s belief in some form of a deity is well-documented throughout his music. Religion, though often critiqued, serves as a continual trope in his discography. Consider his pseudo-messianic perspective on the track Want You To Fly, where he claims that: 

God is real and he usin’ me for a bigger purpose…  

Sometimes I think that these verses can help a person  

Way more than the ones they readin’ in churches on days of worship  

No disrespect to the Lord and Savior, that ain’t just ego  

I just observe that them words no longer relate to people  

‘Cause modern times be flooded with dollar signs  

And social media stuntin’, my n****s just wanna shine  

They frame of mind so far removed from the days and times  

Of Nazareth   

His counterpart, Lamar, is not far behind in terms of religious motifs and themes. His spiritual journey, like Cole’s, is complex and multi-layered. Early in his career, one could assume that Lamar was an all-out Christian due to lyrics on songs such as His Pain, within which the Compton artist questions why God keeps on blessing him amid his mistakes and transgressions. Furthermore, his debut album good kid, m.A.A.d city was flooded with religious overtones, the culmination being the 12-minute track Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst where Kendrick and his affiliates confess their need for a Saviour, namely Jesus of Nazareth. However, as alluded to earlier, Kendrick’s spiritual journey is not as straightforward as that song would make it seem. 

Though Christian virtues such as humility, altruism and charity still run through  songs such as How Much A Dollar Cost, Kendrick has often been drawn to other religions, including  Black Hebrew Israelism.  Kendrick’s current position is uncertain, he seems to have landed on a form of religious syncretism. In his most recent album, Mr Morale and The Big Steppers, he confesses to still being a Christian “but just not today” and openly confesses to “praying to the trees”.  

Both artists, surveying their immense influence across the hip hop community, both locally and globally, have developed something of a Saviour complex as they seek to promote peace and unity. Despite Cole and Lamar’s prominent themes of emotional healing and social consciousness, the two still possess a competitive edge. Cole, on the hit single First Person Shooter on Drake’s For All The Dogs album stated 

Love when they argue the hardest MC  

Is it K-Dot? Is it Aubrey? Or me? We the big three like we started a league 

This seemed to be a profound moment of acknowledgement and respect for the three rappers on contemporary hip hop’s pantheon (J Cole, Kendrick Lamar and Drake). However, the collaboration between J. Cole and Drake clearly didn’t sit well with the Compton Cowboy, Kendrick Lamar. This seemingly uncontroversial statement triggered a response Lamar, who declared: 

“Motherf**k the ‘Big 3’, *n***a it’s just Big Me”  

Lamar’s verse instantly became the talk of the town as Lamar had returned from his hiatus in order to take aim at his competition. And thus, Cole’s observation from his 2019 release Middle Child that “They act like two legends cannot coexist” has proved to be true.  

However, Cole, perhaps unknowingly, has showcased the character of the Christian God in choosing to forego his offence and make peace with his brother. 

So, what was Cole to do in this scenario?  

For the Fayetteville Emcee, it seemed like a catch-22 of sorts; on the one hand, if he chose to retaliate that could cost him a friendship (with Lamar) that spanned over a decade. However, if Cole, choosing to maintain the peace, chose to turn the other cheek, his reputation as a preeminent emcee would be brought into question.  

Cole, competitive as they come, refused to be outdone and replied to his friend-turned-foe, Kendrick Lamar, on a since deleted track called 7 Minute Drill. Cole scrutinised Lamar’s most recent album Mr Morale And The Big Steppers as well as his critically acclaimed 2015 release To Pimp A Butterfly. However, within a few days of the retaliation, J.Cole made a public apology to Lamar and his fans.  

Cue the trolling, the confusion and the memes.  

After years of working to cement his position as an elite hip hop artist, Cole’s status as a top emcee was now being questioned. The discourse surrounding Cole quickly turned sour, for the many hip hop fans who rejoiced over the return of parity and competition to the genre, this seemed to be a cop-out by Cole. However, Cole, perhaps unknowingly, has showcased the character of the Christian God in choosing to forego his offence and make peace with his brother.  

But when he began to display forgiveness and humility? That became too much for the hip hop audience to stomach. 

When Kendrick Lamar subsequently began to battle the third member of hip hop's Big Three, Drake, many fans applauded Cole for staying out of the conflict. 

When Cole made his public apology to Lamar, his actions more resembled those of a Gandhi, Martin Luther King or, dare I say, Jesus, than a hip hop megastar. When the opportunity for lyrical bloodshed presented itself, Cole admittedly indulged, yet quickly retracted and repented. His actions strikingly resemble the teachings of Jesus, who advocated for radical reconciliation with one’s enemies.  

It seems as though hip hop was content, and even supportive, of Cole’s afore-mentioned saviour complex... but only to a certain point. Giving to the poor? Fine. Spreading positivity and uplifting the oppressed? Fine. But when he began to display forgiveness and humility? That became too much for the hip hop audience to stomach.  

In Jesus’ day, it was widely hoped that a Jewish messiah arrive in the form of a military warrior, who would destroy the oppressive Roman Empire. Therefore, when Jesus of Nazareth spoke of forgiveness, love for enemies and humility, this was difficult for his audience to accept. Instead, he taught and demonstrated a different path: one where the merciful will be shown mercy.  

And so, perhaps there are similarities between Jesus’ story and the scenario Cole finds himself in.  

Both audiences desired kings who sought bloodshed, vengeance and dominance. But, instead, both displayed love, peace and humility. It’s easy to choose the former but it’s pricey to choose the latter. 

 Some ponder the existence of God and His activity in the world today and with valid and noble reasons. However, what if God’s actions and character are sometimes mediated through unsuspecting people. What if God is condescending? Not in the sense that He belittles us or speaks patronisingly to us but rather gently descends to our level and communicates in ways that we can comprehend through people that we can relate to? What if God is more human than we sometimes think? Again, not in the sense that He’s susceptible to mistakes and error like us but more so in the sense that He knows what it’s like to experience pain and injustice, joy and relief and everything that comprises the human experience? Maybe through the medium of hip hop, a culture birthed out of poverty, vocational insecurity and social instability God has spoken to us? After all, it would be much like the God of the Christian Bible who chose not to enter the world as an infant in a royal family but rather choose the ghetto of Nazareth as His humble abode. Maybe, just maybe, this hip hop feud and Jermaine Cole’s withdrawal from it was a microphone through which God chose to speak and communicate His character to an onlooking world. 

Review
Books
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Identity
Sport
4 min read

What makes fans tick?

Fandom’s remarkable fusing.

Simon is Bishop of Tonbridge in the Diocese of Rochester. He writes regularly round social, cultural and political issues.

Scottish football fans wearing kilts march down a street singing and waving their arms alogt.
Scotland's Tartan Army of football fans.

"A fat, sarcastic Star Trek fan: you must be a devil with the ladies." 

This put down of Comic Book Guy in The Simpsons neatly sums up a prevailing attitude to fans.  To be a committed fan is to devote yourself to a niche pastime; to be weird and nerdy and, simply, not cool.  At its worst, the fan becomes a fanatic, from which the noun is derived; an obsessive who stalks the object of their passion online and, at its most dangerous, offline. 

Times are changing, though, and the internet is chiefly responsible.  Where once fans could feel isolated and able only to relate to fellow afficionados slowly via the postal system, now they can find people who share their love in a handful of clicks and build relationships in real time.  A lot of anguish is spent on how the internet allows people to find extremist chat rooms where abhorrent behaviour is normalised; less attention is given to the wonder of being able to find fellow lovers online of Massey Ferguson tractors, Australian mullets or Rubik’s Cubes.  Many fans feel less alone online, building a new sense of belonging and purpose – a realisation that others will take them seriously. 

Yet experienced from the inside, a remarkable bonding is taking place, where fans not only fuse with others, but with the team itself.   

In Fans: A Journey into the Psychology of Belonging (Picador, 2024), the academic Michael Bond gives a perceptive and generous insight into the world of fandom.  There are Beliebers, Directioners, Trekkers, Swifties, Janeites, Ricardians.  For the uninitiated, that’s lovers of Justin Bieber, One Direction, Star Trek, Taylor Swift, Jane Austen, Richard the Third; though strangely one of the biggest bases of all simply goes by the title Star Wars fans.  Bond spends some time looking at the phenomenon of Michael Jackson.  Professor Gayle Stever has researched the pop star’s fans and found them, like many other fans, to be ‘normal people carrying on normal lives with functioning relationships and jobs, who just had this passion for Michael Jackson’.  Despite the discomfort of idolising a celebrity who lived, and died, with serious child abuse allegations made against him, they saw Jackson as ‘the target of racist abuse and unwarranted criticism throughout his career’. 

Fans often identify very personally with their idols.  Cosplaying conventions allow fans to reinvent themselves and Houston University studies have shown that people can ‘feel less lonely and less anxious in the face of rejection simply by thinking of a favourite TV show’. 

But what of football fans?  Many find the aggressive tribalism involved hard to accept.  I have observed young male fans of London Premier League teams chanting loudly at train stations in a way that made young women nearby shrink away, making me wonder whether my opening line from The Simpsons ought to be re-purposed.  The ritualised conduct of football crowds – the fist pumping, jumping and embracing at a goal, the verbal and hand abuse of opposing players and referees, and the chants that defy pre-match announcements about tolerance at games – can look bizarre and scary.  Yet experienced from the inside, a remarkable bonding is taking place, where fans not only fuse with others, but with the team itself.   

‘... the best of sport is not the earthy moment of victory, but the privilege of watching athletes tilt at divinity.’ 

Emma John

The deeper the love for a club, the greater the joy and the pain at success and failure.  It is a high-risk investment that many stake because it makes them feel so alive.  The peerless interpreter of football fandom, Nick Hornby, says that football is a context where watching becomes doing’.  Anyone whose leg has involuntarily jerked as a player reaches for the ball will grasp that. 

I wonder if some football fans who identify as Christian struggle with the secret reality of uncontrollable mood swings every weekend?  Should a win on a football pitch matter that much, when so many things are so much more important?  They may aspire to the whimsy of Ecclesiastes (there is a time to win and a time to lose, the author nearly said) but feel the coursing testosterone of Samson instead. 

God made us playful, and football is a disarmingly simple game to watch and play.  There is also breathtaking beauty in the movements of its finest exponents, like the choreography of Michael Jackson himself.  If we are called to life in all its fulness, isn’t this also a part of that fulness (even if some games are a stretch)?  

In recent interviews, Nick Hornby has said he couldn’t write Fever Pitch again, his pained love letter to Arsenal FC; middle age has brought a new perspective.  Writing in Prospect magazine (May 2024), sports journalist Emma John says: ‘I have observed many of my sports-loving friends follow the same trajectory…the best of sport is not the earthy moment of victory, but the privilege of watching athletes tilt at divinity’. 

At least, until the final penalty shoot-out, when for the diehard fan it’s absolutely all about the earthly moment of victory.