PATIENTLY HATING #1: J. Cole on "Planez"
Revisiting the worst verse of the decade
A spectre is haunting criticism – the spectre of Poptimism. Whether or not poptimism as it’s currently understood is responsible for the decline of popular culture into a sort of soulless, algorithmically-generated slop is incidental to the fact that it has become the default critical posture during the exact moment that all culture became pop and all nearly pop became bland and uninspiring. The once-radical instinct to identify, uplift, and take seriously strains of the outré or the transcendent in pop culture has morphed into a sort of widespread knee-bend of the critical class at the sword of PR firms. If you can’t ignore event albums, at least you can gawk at them. Where “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism” is a fundamentally true insight that has also enabled hedonistic solipsism, so too has poptimism’s mantra: “let people enjoy things.”
There is spiritual and critical value in hating. Haters are often tarred as misanthropes, philistines, snobs; there is some truth in every smear. But haters also provide a certain public service: they are friction, cynical or not, in a world dedicated to becoming frictionless. Still, a toxicity and stigma overpowers hating in the moment. Criticism, whether serious or reflexive, threatens to be interpreted as close-mindedness or contrarianism. It’s safer to hold on to your hate. To let it mature, ferment. PATIENTLY HATING is a space dedicated to this kind of hate: the hate that, with time, has taken on a life of its own.
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In a decade that saw R&B music fade away from the popular and critical spotlight – its mainstays relegated to hooks on event albums, Frank Oceanic boutique pop, or general irrelevance – Jeremih’s Late Nights: The Album stands in almost unparalleled triumph. The record, long-delayed and meticulously worked, was far more than an announcement of seriousness from the artist then-best-known for the foolish if catchy “Birthday Sex.”1 Late Nights is lush, moving, and deeply felt, as soaked in regret as it is in the yearning and promise that always precedes it. As much as a body of music, Late Nights is a world to be inhabited, striking above all for its emotional familiarity and authenticity.
The record is strongest at its poles, from its outstanding four-song-open to the blissed-out sigh of “Paradise.” But it is the standout album-opener, “Planez,” that endures. “Planez” is Late Nights at its best in one track. Against the claustrophobic instrumentals so in vogue at the time, “Planez”’s 808s build a cavernous, palatial architecture. The beat approaches structural perfection: drenched in heavy bass, its syncopated drums puncture a surface through which the wind whistles. “Planez” is a private jet, a space to inhabit unto itself.
It’s this space through which Jeremih’s voice dances effortlessly. “Catch me rolling through the city,” Jeremih implores, as if you weren’t riding with him. “Planez” is the rare song where an artist’s dedication to the conceit (or, if you will, commitment to the bit) delivers real rewards. Jeremih’s voice soars, sputters, shoots into falsetto, slides into the night sky. It’s a song that almost defies categorization – what lazy people call vibes, what YouTube commenters hear as an invitation to reminisce.
And then, like a drunk uncle stripped of all his charm and authenticity, in saunters J. Cole. There is a rich tradition of “it-rappers” bricking guest verses – in many an occasion, this bricking has a certain charm. You hear French Montana bleat his way through a guest spot on Chris Brown’s “Loyal (East Coast Version),” for instance, and feel a certain proud amusement – proud that the rapper has made himself necessary in the eyes of A&Rs, amused that he was too high to pretend to care. Cole’s verse is not that. On “Planez,” Cole shrugs off any sympathy, good faith, or generous smiles. His performance, equal parts lazy and vulgar, would in any just universe land him on the no-fly list.
Where Jeremih’s sensuality on “Planez” is rendered logical through his vocals and almost charming insistence upon wedding sex to aviation (“Have you ever read ‘The World Is Yours?’ Jeremih asks, “on a blimp?”), J. Cole’s sex puns are lazily, pointedly vulgar. When I hear “Planez,” I feel a pang of longing for moments I’ve not yet experienced; when J. Cole heard “Planez,” he thought it made sense to bark about his dick.
“Cole World,” he offers by way of warning. “I got it, I got it, I got it: listen.” You spend the rest of your life wishing you had not. Cole’s verse is a lead zeppelin, threatening to singlehandedly drag Jeremih’s buoyant, airy masterpiece into flames. “You need a ***** that’s gon’ put it in your mouth,” he raps, unconvinced. “Dick so big, it’s like a foot is in your mouth.” The rare listener who hasn’t recoiled can even hear Cole laugh – whether in shame or in disbelief at what he’s gotten away with, the effect is the same. After eight slovenly, phallic bars, Cole slips into his more traditional rhyme delivery, a flow that sounds somehow lazier for the wear. “Compared to Cole, boy, you’re softer than a sofa, and so far, my new shit’s so fire,” he suggests. There’s a radical sort of honesty somewhere in his verse, in that even he doesn’t believe what he’s saying.
When you get past the initial affront, Cole’s verse has a magnificent sort of comedic sensibility. The horny guest verse on the horny R&B song is nothing new, but the idea that J. Cole is the type of artist to call for it certainly is. Cole’s verse is, in a way, exactly what you’d expect from a rapper whose most famous sex song is called “Wet Dreamz.” It’s also perhaps the par exemplar rebuttal to the notion circulating around the time of “Planez”’s release, first as sincerity and then as meme, that you need a certain intellect to understand J. Cole’s music. It’s a verse with nothing to get – too lazy to be horny, too vile to be moving. It is undercooked, sloppily delivered, and expected to be forgotten by the listener as quickly as it was by Cole. Were it not sullying such an otherwise unimpeachable song, the task would be easy enough.
J. Cole’s verse on “Planez” is the type of turbulence that forces even flight attendants to their seats. Like any bout of turbulence, it possesses a sense of inevitability. Could it have been avoided?
In April 2015, a remix of Planez featuring production by Lido & Chance The Rapper’s “The Social Experiment,” including a guest spot from Chance himself, made its way onto Soundcloud. The remix does too much in the way of reinventing the song’s bones, transforming its thick instrumental canvas into a jazzy, campy uptempo. It’s a reworking with heart and some sense to it, as the original’s fog would have swallowed Chance’s verse (allegedly recorded and performed live before Cole’s) entirely. And yet Chance, too, misses the mark entirely – it’s intentionally wacky where Jeremih’s playfulness is considered, a jot of insincerity from a rapper whose sincerity is about the only thing going for him. “Fuck the airfare, we should have an affair,” Chance raps half-heartedly before stumbling into a borderline free-associative eight bars. Worse yet is the near-final line: “you make me optimistic.” High school English teachers preparing their ‘show, don’t tell’ units would be wise to take note.
Whether “Planez” is the sort of track that resists the obligatory guest verse or whether Jeremih just had the misfortune of calling two of the corniest rappers for his tremendously evolved, authentic single, the effect is the same. There’s a sense in which “Planez”’s catastrophic guest feature helps preserve the song, a sort of testament to the obstacles that great art can overcome. “Planez” sounds like how it feels to look into someone’s eyes, whether in love or lust; it’s a sensation so powerful that you might even be able to ignore J. Cole in the corner, spilling shit all over the carpet.