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J. Cole's 'The Warm Up' kept my love of words alive when life almost killed it

Keith Nelson Jr

 // Jun 18, 2019

Isaac Brekken // WireImage

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.


The year 2008 was a terrifying time for words.

The recession gutted the finances of legacy newspaper brands, subsequently causing journalism to drop in the ranking of one of the most desirable post-collegiate careers. TV and film writers were on strike for higher pay. Blog writing was emerging and offering creative freedom, but that industry was still so nascent at the time that financially supporting yourself while in it was not likely.

Thus, slowly but surely that English degree from Syracuse University I was close to getting was looking like a death certificate. Then, 2009 arrived and J. Cole came into my world.

Yes, 23-year-old Jermaine Cole had been speaking his dreams into existence since 2007 when his The Come Up mixtape dropped. But, in my NahRight/2DopeBoyz/MissInfo/OnSmash blogosphere, Cole didn’t really exist until early 2009 when word got out that he would be the first artist signed to JAY-Z’s Roc Nation. He didn't have a celebrity past, his rapping voice wasn't exaggerated and he was crafting punchlines out of student loan debt, and The Lion King characters. He was an average guy...who could rap his ass off.



The Warm Up sounded like a love letter to words, a grand statement that the pen is mightier than the clout. While every rapper was biting Big Sean’s "Supa Dupa" flow and were “blowing up, balloons,” Cole was instructing listeners to “tell those haters to rehab, kick rocks.” The mixtape even included an interlude of Cole explaining how a random guy’s displeasure with his rhymes on JAY-Z's "Dead Presidents" stuck with him for so long that he decided to do two new verses to prove to himself and the guy that he could do the beat justice. He even put his "On Da Spot" freestyle on The Warm Up mixtape because it was the first time his song had been played on the radio and he wanted to "have that special moment live on," according to longtime Dreamville producer Elite. Cole's words aren't just pieces of him, they're his entire identity.

J Cole OnDaSpot Freestyle (Day After Signing To Jayz) - Invasion Radio Classics
Team Invasion

The MC graduated from St. John's University two years before The Warm Up was released. So, he wasn't far removed from the reality I was still in as a college student, as I listened to his bars on perseverance. He wasn't the rapper so divorced from real life that he was rapping about riches, while the world was going through the worst economic recession in decades. He was the rapper complaining about how "them 15 credits had a nigga off track" and then driving the point home by boasting he's "the best rapper since Lil Wayne in classes, the best bachelor since Bruce Wayne with his bachelor's." Lines like those go from purely braggadocios to motivational when they perfectly mirror where someone else is in their life. As I sat in my fiction writing workshop, I definitely felt like the best writer since James Baldwin. You almost had to in order to muster up the courage to make words your livelihood. Cole on The Warm Up was a walking, flame-spitting example of post-graduate success that was predicated mainly on being exceptional with words.

He didn't reinvent the wheel, but he rode by at the perfect time when my faith in words needed a lift. Kanye West’s college-themed trilogy amazed me. But, I was entering my second year of college by the time he dropped Graduation. Lupe Fiasco was the best word sorcerer alive by 2009. But, the resonance for his music seldom went deeper than an appreciation for his lyrical prowess. There was Naledge from Kidz In The Hall, Phonte of Little Brother, Blu, and a blog universe of highly skilled MCs who were eschewing sensationalized personalities. Cole and The Warm Up just mirrored who and where I was better than any rapper at the time.



A "Dolla and A Dream" wasn't just the song title of a standout track on The Warm Up. It was often what I had left on my college meal plan during all-nighters to finish an English final. Those are the moments of sobering solitude where hunger gives way to delirium and all the worst case scenarios of your future feel as real as if you've already lived them. Hearing Cole say he used college to get to New York City and pursue his dream at the end of "Last Call," and seeing the career that four-year decision blossomed into kept those delusions of failure out of my mind.

The Warm Up came out in the middle of my last summer in college. Thanks to Cole and that project, I'm living off of words instead of worries.


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