The J. Cole — Kris Kristofferson Connection
A lot has been written about J. Cole, who was recently announced as a nominee for the Grammy Award for Best New Artist. But, shockingly (or maybe not that shockingly), not one person has investigated J. Cole’s doppelganger-like relationship with Kris Kristofferson. That is, until now.
When I was in Nashville this summer, my friend Brendan Winger told me an incredible rock ‘n’ roll legend about Kristofferson’s rise to prominence.
And this weekend, my friend Casey Devlin told me another incredible legend, this time about J. Cole’s rise to fame.
Kristofferson, the son of a two-star general, was born in a South Texas town. Like most military brats, he moved as a kid. His family finally settled down in San Mateo, CA, where he went to high school.
J. Cole, the son of two military parents, was born in Frankfurt, Germany. Like most military brats, he moved as a kid. His family finally settled in Fayetteville, NC, where he went to high school.
Kristofferson graduated summa cum laude from Pomona College and was awarded a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford.
J. Cole attended St. John’s University on an academic scholarship. He graduated magna cum laude.
After school, Kristofferson became a helicopter pilot in the U.S. Army. He wanted to fight in Vietnam, but the military understood him to be too valuable an asset and transferred him to West Point to teach English. Kristofferson refused the transfer, quitting the military in 1965 and moving to Nashville to try and make it as a country singer.
The man who had graduated summa cum laude from Pomona College and who had earned the rank of captain in the service began boozing and bumming his way through Nashville, struggling to make it in the industry. He took a job as a janitor at Columbia Studios and flew commercial helicopters in the Gulf of Mexico.
In a remarkable Rolling Stone piece by Ethan Hawke, Kristofferson says that when he lost his job in the Gulf, “I thought I had hit the bottom.”
In a last ditch effort, Kristofferson landed a National Guard helicopter on Johnny Cash’s lawn.
Cash explained the scene in Hawke’s article: “I was taking a nap and June said, ‘Some fool has landed a helicopter in our yard. They used to come from the road. Now they’re coming from the sky!’ And I look up, and here comes Kris out of a helicopter with a beer in one hand and a tape in the other.”
Kristofferson refused to leave the property until Cash listened to his recording. The song on the tape, “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” changed Kristofferson’s life – Cash’s version won the Country Music Association’s Song of the Year.
J. Cole did not join the military; he never flew a helicopter onto the lawn of his idol. But after graduating, Cole did set up camp outside Jay-Z’s studio for a few hours. He had recorded his first mixtape and thought that if Jay heard it, he’d sign him to his label.
But as Cole explains in a Nov. 1 interview with NPR, the encounter did not go as planned: “I reach out my hand like, ‘Yo, Jay, here you go!’ He just looked at me like, almost disgusted, like, ‘I don’t want that.’”
J. Cole continued recording music and supported himself by taking a job as a bill collector in New York City. He snuck into recording studios to record tracks and posted his mixtapes online.
In 2009, J. Cole was the first rapper signed to Jay-Z’s new label Roc Nation.
Kristofferson is a legend; a gruff poet, schooled in William Blake and the Army Ranger Creed. He is one of the great songwriters in history; his songs have been recorded by over 500 artists.
Kristofferson used to dream of writing the great American novel – instead he wove countless verses of dirt-poor anti-Americana tales. “Just the Other Side of Nowhere” and “Sunday Morning Coming Down” illuminate the fate of the cowboy in the modern world – they are Bukowski novels set to music.
And on top of everything else, Kristofferson has acted in numerous films, winning a Golden Globe for best actor in a musical/comedy in 1977.
His is an unfathomable story – it seems like three or four lives, almost seems like grandiose fiction.
J. Cole is not a legend, far from it actually. He is just an up and coming rapper in a dilapidated rap game.
But, like Kristofferson, he is a highly educated military brat who believes in the power of lyrics. And he is a man confident enough to seek out his idol and talented enough to succeed in making him his mentor.
So though in all likelihood Cole will never be Kristofferson, there is an uncanny resemblance in their stories. Kristofferson’s is admittedly grander than J. Cole’s, but that’s just the way it goes for our generation.
Kristofferson remembers the helicopter scene differently than Cash, explaining in the Rolling Stone piece that Cash has a knack for adding flourish to a story. But the legend outlives the truth, which is a wonderful thing about top-rate fiction.
It would have been great if Jay-Z had claimed that Cole had camped outside his studio for two weeks instead of two hours. But even if he had, I doubt that anyone would believe it. True legends died the day the Internet was born.
In the Rolling Stone article, Willie Nelson says of Kristofferson: “He kinda brought us out of the Dark Ages.” He used his lyrics to change the face of country music; his sophistication pushed the entire scene to write differently.
J. Cole has not yet written anything close to a masterpiece. He’s lyrically intriguing when judged against Drake, T-Pain and the rest of the rap that tops the Billboard charts, but that is not much in the way of a compliment. But if his intentions are sincere, J. Cole will utilize his intellect and try and change the rap game.
I truly hope he uses his time in the spotlight to prove that lyrical hip hop isn’t dead. I would love it if he brought about a Renaissance that ended mainstream rap’s current Dark Age.
But sadly, it is far more likely that he will put out club trash and make millions. It’s a damn shame, but there may never be another man like Kris Kristofferson.
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