J. Cole managed to make the world a better place on January 16th, 2017 with the release of his latest single, “High for Hours”. It’s no coincidence that that Monday also happens to have been Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and while we as a society collectively and lazily sat at home enjoying our day off Jermaine celebrated the great man’s legacy with a meditation on self-improvement, the key he argues, to alleviating some of the deep seated and historically rooted issues that plague our nation today. Music sites such as Billboard and Voice Online have variously referred to the song as “politically charged”, confrontational, and “revolutionary”. I would disagree with those classifications entirely, except perhaps revolutionary which is a bit more tricky. “High for Hours” is neither politically charged, nor confrontational, despite Cole’s addressing the bleak contemporary political landscape and openly voicing his displeasure.
In his opening verse Cole contemplates the historical legacy of slavery and its implications for modern day Black America. “American Hypocrisy, oh, let me count the ways/ They came here seekin’ freedom/ Then they end up ownin’ slaves,” he raps. While this sentiment takes a critical view of the American political experiment it’s a far cry from confrontational or politically charged, in fact I would go as far as saying that the veracity of the statement is nearly undeniable. In actuality these lines are a more than accurate observation of American history. What Billboard and Voice Online both cite though as evidence of Cole’s politically charged and confrontational lyrics is the second verse of the song, in which he raps about his meeting President Obama. “Raised my hand and asked the man a question/ Does he see the struggle of our brother’s in oppression?” While Billboard and Voice Online may zero in on these particular lines as evidence of to support their assertions, it is the President’s response to his question that is the key to understanding both this verse and Cole’s message throughout the song, which is not fully apparent until the end. Obama responds, “‘There’s things I wanna fix/ But you know this shit, n*#@a: politics/ Don’t stop fightin’ and don’t stop believin’/ You can make the world a better place for your kids before you leave it”.
J. Cole carries this theme into his final verse and conclusion. Revolution is not plausible he argues because historically revolutionaries who successfully seize power become oppressors and tyrants, much like the governments they seek to overthrow. But there is one type of revolution which Cole advocates for, different from the other forms of revolution throughout history, self-revolution, or self-improvement. In his exact words, “What good is takin’ over/ When we know what you gon’ do?/ The only real revolution happens right inside of you”. So, in the sense that he argues for a revolution of the self I would agree that “High for Hours” should be branded as a revolutionary song, but it is not a song that advocates for political revolution. In the same sense, it is not a politically charged song because Cole’s suggestion is not one that advocates a strong political stance. His focus is rather on bettering oneself and the surrounding world, and through this process creating a better world for our posterity.