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What Is Cool?

With the American rock star falling by the wayside, rappers have become the ultimate arbiters of cool. Some, though, do it better than others.


"What Is Cool?" will be a recurring column in which we look at what it means to be cool in American culture, who or what is cool today, and what that all says about us.

The idea of “cool” defies easy qualification: if it didn’t, it wouldn’t be cool. Cool involves mystery, an aesthetic effortlessness (or extreme, obscured effort, in some cases); it requires innate charisma that can seem cosmological rather than borne of substance. There’s been much written and researched on the idea of cool, but it never centers on one definition, which is sort of the point. As Dick Pountain and David Robins wrote in 2000’s Cool Rules, “Cool [is] a phenomenon that we can recognize when we see it, from its effects in human behavior and cultural artifacts—in speech and dance, films and television shows, books and magazines, music, clothes, paintings, cars, computers or motorcycles.”

What I’m interested in is who (or what) is cool in 2013 American culture, and why: who are our icons, and what do they say about us; what do they say about the culture they represent? Because a culture without artistic giants is a culture without character, and whatever the problems with America’s soul, a lack of character is not one of them.

A culture without artistic giants is a culture without character, and whatever the problems with America’s soul, a lack of character is not one of them.

Properly launching a discussion about cool requires starting with music, the most consistent arbiter of cool there is. Film creates a loftier, deified version of cool, and it’s often of a purer substance than that of music—this has to do with auteur theory, which we’ll deal with later on—but the rock star is the archetype of cool in a media-based culture, the perfect provocateur. Except, in case you haven’t noticed, we live in a culture that has—literally—killed off its rock stars. A vacuum wants to be filled, though, and the position of “rock star” now has two usurpers: rappers and pop singers.

IN THE LAST MONTH, we’ve had the opportunity to see a particularly intriguing scramble for the throne among a few of our most visible rappers: Kanye West, J. Cole, Jay-Z, and the duo of Killer Mike and El-P. Because of its social ascendancy, hip-hop no longer assumes edginess or rebellion by rule. Some rap bangs on doors; other rap couldn’t be less threatening to society if it came in the mail with your tax returns. Kanye West is one of, if not the only, rapper who has somehow managed to reach the highest rung of celebrity fame—not necessarily synonymous with cool; ubiquity is often very uncool—while retaining that potential for danger, the unpredictability that makes art intellectually violent and unique. His sixth solo album, Yeezus, a weaponized burst of thickly intricate beats and West’s own frenzied, virile voice, accomplished this to a greater extent than any of his previous records.

West is the coolest man in America at the moment, and that’s partly owed to the fact that some people find him boorish or distasteful; he’s brave and intelligent enough to stake out creative and intellectual ground and not cede it just because others are upset, which sounds simplistic but is actually rare as hell for a figure of his stature. And Yeezus, which has taken fire for being misogynistic and reductive toward civil rights, is the epitome of this. While the album does show West’s own problematic personal history with women, it also takes on the concept of black cultural masculinity, particularly among its most famous figures, with nuance and sophistication, and much of the criticism stems from the assumption by critics and lay people that West is too stupid to recognize the allusions he’s making.

He’s not: Yeezus is a work of many voices and positions, and the conflation of civil rights signs with hardcore sex acts and illegitimate children isn’t done unknowingly: it’s West indicting culture, and himself, for chasing ass to self-destructive effect. Similarly, the perceived misogyny of the album often shows more the misogyny of its critics and society; when, on “New Slaves,” West talks about coming on the blouse and in the mouth of a “Hampton spouse,” he’s not just using a prop: he’s tapping into one of the longest-running tropes in American racial politics, that of a black man being wanted by a white woman, because he recognizes that, in our still-racist society, that remains threatening. And, of course, he’s right: the complete misreading of that line by spectators—the assumption that there’s no way that poor white woman could want him there—validates him. It would be wrong to say that the album is not misogynistic at times, but this is a problem for our culture at large to deal with; singling West out as an extreme example of the sickness feels like a dodge.

West is cool because, in addition to his confidence and charisma and brilliant shit like this, he has an agenda that he’s pushing; he stands for something intellectually and emotionally. Compare this with J. Cole. Cole’s album, Born Sinner, has outsold West’s since its release despite being so bland and voiceless that it’s basically a cipher—you can listen to Born Sinner start to finish and retain nothing, not even the feeling of having listened to music. Cole’s story itself should be interesting: hailing from Fayetteville, North Carolina, aka the Fayettenam, Cole hustled until becoming the first guy signed to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation. Even though he’s technically capable, Cole is a bad rapper, a qualification that ace rap critic Noz covers here; Cole has nothing to say beyond the scope of his own self-obsession: he might as well exist apart from any culture. For consumers looking to listen to rap without considering any aspect of themselves or society or anything apart from the fact that they want to listen to rap, the all-encompassing blandness of Born Sinner provides a perfect vehicle. While the widespread knock on Kanye is that he’s a selfish lunatic who can’t deal with others’ success or the idea that some people, gasp, might not like him, at least he cares. Listening to Born Sinner, you’d be hard-pressed to figure out anything that Cole cares about except himself. It’s an empty room with white walls that you can enter for a bit and then leave. In the hierarchy of cool, Cole barely registers; even considering his sales and the relative success of his album, he’s still an unknowable personality who has changed the thinking and feeling of no one. His impact is negligible; he’s an artistic child.

This sets us up perfectly for Jay-Z. At this point, Jay makes us consider what it means to actually be cool in 2013. Jay is unquestionably cool, but pinning down exactly why is like trying to pick a dime up off the floor, not least because of the data-mining fiasco that is new album Magna Carta Holy Grail. In a weird, concrete way, the scope of the album’s failure artistically—number one, it launched as a promotion for a B-list cell phone company; number two, it’s musically a mess and lyrically a retread of concepts Jay has said better and more enjoyably in the past; number three, it exists to sell phones—solidifies Jay’s status. He has left the orbit of music to become a part of the American stratosphere: he is the rare entertainer who is legitimately more interesting for what he does separate from his entertainment, whether it’s his relationship with our country’s president, his marriage to Beyonce, his daughter Blue Ivy, or his budding sports agency, than what he does in the realm of what made him great. Jay-Z is dad-cool, which is fine: everyone still likes him. And he’s furthering the modicum of success for what a poor black kid from the projects can accomplish, which is important. But Jay’s art is no longer his art; it’s his life. There’s no risk for Jay-Z anymore, and when you’re a part of the establishment, you can no longer represent the vanguard.

Then, in the woods and dirt of rap, we have Run the Jewels, a fantastic album by two thrilling creators. Killer Mike and El-P are, for their integrity and defiance and confidence and capability, cool as shit, but they’re also exclusionary characters—their appeal is inherently limited. The former’s a fat black dude from Atlanta who had rapped on his last album, “I’m glad Reagan’s dead”; the other is a goofy white dude who always wears sunglasses. And most of all, they’re hilarious, self-deprecating, and hyperbolically confident at the same time. It’s hard to say exactly why these two can’t be more famous: partly it’s the strangeness of the music, which is abrasive and alien and demanding; partly it’s the conviction of Mike and El, a demanding feature that has the exact opposite effect of a guy like J. Cole. After listening to Run the Jewels, you feel like you just listened to Run the Jewels. When you leave that much of a mark, and you aren’t already a famous man, i.e. Kanye—and yes, “man” is intentional there; for a woman, basically any non-sexual impression is considered non grata by the entertainment industries—you’re a risk. Mike and El will never be truly famous, but that’s part of their particular cool. There’s no obligation to have a thought on Run the Jewels: instead, they force you to it. You’ll know it once you hear it.