Why J. Cole's '1985' Is More Than Just a 'Diss Track' (Op-Ed)

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J. Cole performs during the 2016 Life is Beautiful festival on Sept. 24, 2016 in Las Vegas. 

J. Cole breaks down valuable lessons about age, growth & race on "KOD" closer.

Some people are calling J. Cole's "1985 (Intro to ‘The Fall Off’)” a diss track, despite the 33-year-old rapper never calling out any rapper by name. Sure, it features barbs about some of Cole World’s most vocal opponents, but it feels more like a teachable moment from a big brother than a scathing assault. Throughout the 3-minute-and-10-second KOD closer, the Fayetteville, North Carolina, rapper breaks down valuable lessons about rap’s generational gap, growth and race, while speaking from a place of experience rather than judgment.

The title “1985” -- a reference to Cole’s birth year -- sets the big bro tone early on. Then, he approaches younger rappers without too much judgment. “All these n---as popping now is young,” he raps. “Everybody say the music that they make is dumb/ I remember I was 18/ Money, p---y, parties, I was on the same thing.” Cole explored some of his own artistic pitfalls on 2013’s “Let Nas Down,” so this doesn’t feel hollow. Instead, it looks like the reflections of a growing artist with new observations to pull from. Thus, he adds, “You gotta give a boy a chance to grow some.”

Repurposing a Kanye West lyric from 2004’s “We Don’t Care,” J. Cole continues to establish himself as a 33-year-old with experience. “We weren’t supposed to make it past 25,” he says, which highlights the fact that rap hasn’t always had this privilege. While some rappers “retired” by 30, tragedy stopped others from imparting wisdom earned by age. Just think about the fact that The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur died at 24 and 25, respectively. Imagine the greatness that would have flourished were it not for those deadly bullets.

More recently, rap’s elder statesmen provided a blueprint for Cole. JAY-Z, 48, and Nas, 44, are among the MCs who’ve shown the impact of maturity on the culture. Shawn Carter’s latest offering, 4:44, is a husband and father’s introspective therapy session on wax mixed with business teachings. Nasir Jones’ 2012 album Life Is Good included one of rap’s most inspired songs about fatherhood in “Daughters.” Coincidentally, Hov and Esco also played the mentor role at different times in Cole’s career, so “1985” could be his way of paying it forward, even if there are some digs involved.  

Looking beyond Cole’s witty jabs, though, his financial guidance feels sound. “I got some good advice,” he raps, before asking rappers to keep touring, buy property and supply lyrics with substance for longevity. “One day, them kids that's listening gon' grow up and get too old for that shit that made you blow up,” he rhymes. More than a decade in and still breaking records with new releases, the Dreamville boss knows a thing or two about maintaining success. It would behoove many to take heed.

But “1985” also adds a racial component to this conversation. At one point, Cole celebrates success despite disapproval. “By your songs, I’m unimpressed,” he raps. “But I love to see a black man get paid.” Soon, however, he demands more from young artists and fans. “You havin' fun and I respect that, but have you ever thought about your impact?” he asks. “These white kids love that you don't give a fuck/ ‘Cause that's exactly what's expected when your skin black.”

Cole brings up an interesting point about modern rap consumption. Last year, R&B/hip-hop became the most popular genre in the country. This level of popularity inevitably brings more eyes to the culture than ever before, but how is that managed? What role do artists and their labels play and what role do supporters play?

“They wanna see you dab, they wanna see you pop a pill,” he continues. “They wanna see you tatted from your face to your heels/ And somewhere deep down, fuck it, I gotta keep it real/ They wanna be black and think your song is how it feels.” Cole doesn’t solely ask artists to reflect on complex relationships with stereotypes, conformity and race; he also indirectly demands the same from listeners.

Author Nelson George addressed a similar point in 1998’s Hip Hop America, when he wrote about battles royal in the South throughout the 1930s. "For the young black men who pummeled each other in the quest for a bit of spare change, it was a chance to prove their toughness to friends, rivals, and themselves,” he wrote. “For white audiences, the heated bout allowed them to see the blacks as comical figures whose most aggressive urges were neutered for their amusement.” He went on to compare hip-hop’s “most tragically comic” moments to those brutal fights, when “young African Americans...verbally, emotionally, and yes, physically bash each other for the pleasure of predominantly white spectators worldwide."

Twenty years after Hip Hop America, the issue remains on the table. This week, Hot 97/Apple Music personality Ebro Darden celebrated the last Cole lyric quoted above as “maybe the most important line in hip-hop since we had [KRS-One] trying to save our lives.” He went on to address what he views as “the perpetuation of ignorant black imagery for corporate profit” and the racial element that Cole described. “The Bhad Bhabie thing to me is about white kids wanting [to] mimic the worst aspects of Black culture for fun,” he tweeted. This conversation isn’t an easy one and there are many opinions and historical perspectives to weigh. But it’s a conversation worth having and amplifying through songs like this.

Cole manages to address all of these issues -- rap’s generational divide, financial edification, and racial tension, with self-awareness on “1985.” “Man, they barely old enough to drive,” he admits. “To tell them what they should do, who the fuck am I?” By employing this, “Come here, li'l man, let me talk with ya” approach, Cole serves up lessons without losing his grit. He drops jewels while holding younger peers accountable, or at least by making them think about their impact. That makes this song much more potent than a “diss track” on KOD. It’s also a moment of reflection and, hopefully, a sobering moment of clarity.