“It was very respectful to the generation [before him]."
Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was -- the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period -- with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
Back when J. Cole was known simply as Jermaine, a group of siblings in the Bay Area had a running joke. There were welldoers who wrongheadedly went out of their way to “save” men and women from their promiscuous ways. The Stevens -- E-40, D-Shot, and Suga-T -- along with cousin B-Legit turned the gag into their first hit, 1994’s “Captain Save a Hoe.”
The song’s core concept would have a life of its own well after the song finished its run on the charts. Project Pat would give it his rugged spin on 2001’s “Don’t Save Her” and The Boondocks would dedicate a whole episode to the Sissyphian captaincy. In 2014, Suga-T first heard what would become the most well-known take -- J. Cole’s “No Role Modelz” -- during a car ride to Los Angeles.
“When I heard that he did it, I was very elated,” said Suga-T, who’s credited as a singer. “It was very respectful to the generation [before him]. To be able to respect and honor something that meant something to him and make something creative with it and made it current, I thought it was clever.”
Reverence has been at the core of J. Cole’s appeal: One of his catalog’s essentials is an apology letter to a golden era icon. 2014 Forest Hills Drive doubled down on his proud traditionalism and achieved the critical appraisal he hadn’t quite earned after two albums. “No Role Modelz,” which draws more directly from “Don’t Save Her,” ended up being the hit that stuck. Its core misogyny might’ve remained intact -- are men not also shallow? -- but J. Cole replaces the ribald lines with straightforward earnestness. “I want a real love, dark skinned Aunt Viv love,” he says in one of the song’s multiple Fresh Prince references. Who among us isn’t looking for affection?
Despite higher acclaim and blockbuster sales — its rapid ascension to Platinum status spawning one of the decade’s great Rap Internet tropes -- 2014 Forest Hill Drive’s praise was far from unanimous. Was it proof of a generation-defining artistry or, more cynically, is he skating off appealing to the lowest-common denominator by repacking worn ideas in wholesome aesthetics?
The politics and whether it’s earned its spot in essential hip-hop lore didn’t deter “No Role Modelz,” though. It insulates itself against both because of how it refracts itself black generation Y’s touchstones and ‘90s nostalgia -- Uncle Phil, the loss of Aaliyah, Trina, young male romantic angst -- into a tunnel. The internet generation is defined by the permeability with which it could share those experiences; in a way, “No Role Modelz” is Black Twitter in hit form. J. Cole also skated over hip-hop’s generation divide by speaking a vernacular everyone understood; as E-40 tells Billboard, “The world is full of Captain Save a Hoes.”
Songs like “Modelz” saw J. Cole settle into making songs that are communal, where his genuineness makes the “be yourself” mantra its biggest currency. Even as objectively one of the decade’s biggest hip-hop stars, J. Cole’s reclusive nature suggests holding on to that modest belief is his biggest goal. Ironically, not embracing celebrity and going out of his way to maintain his brand is his brand.
"It’s appealing to be in a room full of famous people -- it says I’m important enough to be here,” J. Cole told Vulture in 2018. “But it [comes with] the pressure of wanting to be somebody -- like, Who am I supposed to be in this party? Around all these famous-ass people, who am I supposed to be? You’re supposed to be yourself. Now, if I’m going in, I’m going in as me.”