The Philosopher & the Preacher
In the black community, the preacher is largely considered the philosopher, and although the dogmatic source of their wisdom somewhat limits their philosophical viewpoints, their willingness to deal with the avoided or misunderstood secures their place as their community’s accessible deep thinkers. J. Cole and Big KRIT are two of the preeminent southern MCs — though Cole has been influenced heavily by his time in New York — and they both are clearly spiritual, as their art makes apparent. Yet, Cole’s tendency to question tradition and its associated thinking as a means of finding lasting happiness differs from KRIT’s approach of using tradition to inspire and encourage his listeners to find the joy in the eternal. In some ways, their differences exist as an allegory of the historical tension between northern and southern blacks. However, neither Cole nor KRIT is self-loathing or complacent in this case — as some used to say of southern blacks.
KRIT’s unique message of spiritual discipline mixed with human fallibility and indecision shines brightest on songs like “Mixed Messages.” KRIT’s thorough understanding of his own nature is impressive and essential, as he regularly impacts upon his listeners the importance of patience and, specifically, self-patience; via learning to be patient with self, we learn how we are today does not have to be how we always are, and even though we may contradict ourselves, we will eventually reach that sense of peace and understanding so long as we maintain pure intentions and persevere through adversity. On the other hand, Cole frequently speaks from a place of hardened experience instead of learned wisdom. Tracks like KOD’s “Once an Addict” demonstrate how painful certain theoretically joyful concepts can be, such as love. “Once an Addict” lays Cole’s emotions raw and bare; himself addicted to his mother’s love, Cole knows he cannot go without it, but he’s also hurting as he experiences his mother’s own (self-inflicted) pain. Cole’s philosophical nature leads him to question why she allows herself to experience such anguish and — most telling — why she won’t change her behavior. Through leaving his questions open-ended, Cole never speaks confidently of forsaking his mother. He wrestles with these emotions even as he leaves his home in North Carolina for college in New York, striking out on his own but far away from someone who clearly needs him.
Cole manages to express his philosophy in a looser style that KRIT would typically avoid. KRIT’s technique is complementary to his religious sources of inspiration in that he rarely leaves these thoughts unresolved, and he even more rarely is philosophically provocative just because. KRIT regularly uses his spirituality and deeply embedded values to provide closure or resolution to the issues he presents. A song like “Piece of Mind” enumerates the tribulations associated with making it, plus the realizations many people have once they reach what they once considered success. KRIT stands in his new normal with certainty of character that can only come from being anchored and centered, traits likely derivative of his religious upbringing. KRIT experiences new challenges and emotions just like Cole, but KRIT approaches this newness head-on, because he draws on the strength of his spirituality and lessons from his wiser family: he regularly refers to his granny and father in his raps, detailing all they’ve taught him thus far. Alternatively, Cole’s father was not around, and Cole sometimes speaks of the problems his absence created; in “Hello,” Cole raps about the perceived difficulties associated with settling with woman with children from past relationships, and Cole isn’t sure he’s equipped to do so simply because he doesn’t know his own dad. Yet, while making his philosophical statement, Cole has opened the door to discussing the insecurities that manifest in life’s later decisions without the sort of resolute strength KRIT frequently displays. Instead of reaching a resolution or teaching a complete lesson for folks in similar circumstances, Cole chooses to further postulate and expound on his dilemmas, with the end goal of expressing himself as honestly as possible to spur motivation in those who need it most.
Most would consider KRIT and Cole woke, but both like to lighten their listeners’ moods. Nonetheless, even in their more upbeat songs, their styles are distinct and personal. “GOMD” sees Cole using an old black railroad/chain-gang working song as his sample, laying it over a tribal bass pattern to elicit feelings of spiritual fervor in his audience. The song’s video even uses a faux plantation as its backdrop, using enslaved black Americans to display a disgust with “massa” and all those who simply won’t “get off [his] d***.” The song addresses stereotypes associated with young black men, Cole drawing on his frustration as inspiration to discuss the real and inject life into people feeling similar pains and frustrations.
KRIT tends to use more traditionally positive tones in his upbeat songs, with his celebratory tracks often downright religious in their excitement. “Bury Me in Gold” is a beautiful ode to KRIT’s newfound wisdom and contentment; KRIT knows he’s only worth what his god has deemed, and he rejoices in this revelation, his faith in a higher power all the sustenance he needs. The chorus is sung by an amazing choir, and the instrumentation is reminiscent of an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, a common thread through KRIT’s more soulful songs. Sometimes, KRIT simply wants to raise his audience’s energy without taking them to church — for this, he began the My Sub series, four separate, distinct songs across multiple projects that makes old-school hip-hop lovers proud and attempts to break all the sounds in your vehicle. Again, their differences in methodology are apparent, but their intentions are the same. Their ideas on lifting energy and using upbeat tempos contrast, but they both offer their fans a balance of joy and heaviness — of pleasure, and of pain.
Their most recent albums — 4Eva Is a Mighty Long Time and KOD, respectively — have both been well-received by their fanbases. Both projects display a major leap in confidence, impressive considering they’ve yet to change their intentions of helping their fans better understand themselves and the often unfair word in which they live. The albums cover drastically different subject matter this time around, though: KRIT, in electing to release a double-album, gives listeners a more lighthearted first disc before turning to more serious issues on the second; conversely, Cole uses his entire project to highlight the insecurities, inequities, and dysfunctions of today’s younger generations. On “ATM,” Cole juxtaposes the joy of making fast money with the begrudging realization that problems with money … are still problems. He is sure to illustrate his understanding of our desire for money while also conveying the knowledge that acquiring that money isn’t a cure-all. Again, Cole is speaking from experience: he is financially richer now than he’s ever been and, before releasing KOD, he spoke on how gaining “success” taught him to look around him if he ever wants to feel what that success means. The love and happiness around him and the people he is able to positively influence are the sources of his happiness, not his money. On another KOD track, “Window Pain,” Cole touches on the violence and lack of guidance in his community — and the black community as a whole. Cole’s risen from circumstances he once though were “the realest” he could experience. But, upon seeing the world and recognizing the plight of his people throughout the United States, Cole deduces that this all is just an expression of deeper pain: an issue that maybe only a higher power can help us with. Again, Cole leaves this open-needed, allowing a young child who’d recently witnessed his cousin murdered in cold-blood to interpret our present circumstances.
KRIT uses 4Eva to teach some pertinent lessons, too. But, per usual, KRIT takes a more resolute and conclusive stance on most of the issues he touches. On “Higher Calling,” KRIT — alongside a very much necessary Jill Scott — speaks on the trials that aggrieve young relationships. Nevertheless, KRIT ultimately resolves the union that brings his first child is ordained and blessed beyond any and all tribulations, a common feeling I’m sure for many young couples embarking on their first romantic journeys. “Higher Calling” is KRIT’s attempt at instilling confidence in his audience regarding their ability to start, maintain, and champion their relationships — a positive and empowering message amidst so many songs imploring folks to “cancel” any partner the moment that flame begins to waver. “Keep the Devil Off” finds KRIT transforming a strictly religious theme into something more universal: to win in this life, you must constantly strive to be positive and good, always careful not to fall victim to inner (or outer) demons. The organ in this instrumental puts me right in a Sunday morning church service, and the combination of the organ with the introduction of an electric guitar incites a certain energy, one both sanctified and spiritual. I firmly believe these are the sorts of experiences that regularly bring KRIT a batch of new listeners.
Just for the sake of completeness, I’d suggest new fans of Cole and KRIT take a trip into their respective discographies. For Cole, I’d recommend The Warm Up and Born Sinner; The Warm Up, Cole’s second mixtape, shows a hungry, bourgeoning Cole who is eager to show his skills — and does so expertly. Born Sinner, conversely, is Cole’s first studio success, displaying a grittier version perhaps developed via his time in New York that helped him persist and stand firm within a treacherous industry he has come to love (and hate). As for KRIT, I’d always suggest any and all of his mixtapes. KRIT came on the scene making beats on his PlayStation; I’m not sure if that’s something you’ve ever tried, but you simply cannot pass on that level of talent and dedication. 4Eva n a Day and Better This Way are two personal favorites, based in their range of instrumentation and subject matter, but Krit Wuz Here gives chills once you hear KRIT nowadays. It is never not inspiring to hear the growth.
Perhaps KRIT and Cole’s differences are more a cautionary display of the turmoil one may go through in life without his or her father, or at least the dearth of spiritual and mental confidence that prevents someone from more easily engaging with difficulties and pain without being destroyed by the conflict. Nonetheless, both their styles intend to empower the listener and inspire them to find happiness in the future’s potential of redemption and renewal. Their projects are meant to spotlight the issues plaguing black America — and, truthfully, Americans as a whole. With vivid detail, enthusiastic candor, and — frankly — better philosophical fluidity than most of today’s elected officials, their bars provide a genuinely sound logic for everybody: for teenagers seeking their purpose, students struggling with academia, politicians trying to make the world a better place, and parents simply hoping to connect with their children. The broad approach of their art makes the similarities clear, but make no mistake: J. Cole and Big KRIT will teach you vastly different things about yourself.