Life in the City Runs Fast and Hard
J. Cole hits it heavy, with fast funky lyrics and beats that make your body move, in such great songs as “Work Out,” and this dope track from February 2014, called “She Knows.” He samples old-time singers, weaving them seductively into a production that amplifies over the course of its 5 minutes flawlessly, creating a tension that steadily builds and builds over the course of the track, to a thrilling crescendo about 2/3 of the way through. Like Ice Cube’s classic “It Was a Good Day,” the video for “She Knows” reads as a ‘Day in the Life’ of a black urban male, but with far more genuine struggle than the glib optimism of the ’90s classic.
The protagonist is a young male in his late teens to early twenties, navigating life in the big city. Hehas white-collar parents and a close male friend his age. The monochromatic palette of the video emphasizes the ever-present fear of local authorities that seems to be standard in the city. It’s a foggy day in what appears to be California, where the city stretches for miles in post-apocalyptic urban sprawl. “Damned if I do, damned if I don’t,” J. Cole spits, from the first line, and launches into a rhythmic, adrenaline-rush line of lyrics like a firey rap demon. And as he launches into the song proper, the drably colored video suddenly shifts into heart-thumping plot developments and casually stupendous musical embellishments. And the real kicker is that the video SO PERFECTLY bobs and weaves to the high-intensity tempo of the song.
The kid and his friend are laughing and joking in an empty lot, sipping a forty in a paper bag, when a policeman shows up, chasing the boys through a chain-link fence. One gripping his skateboard, the other barely clutching his backpack, the boys sprint to a safe distance. J. Cole’s lyrics reflect the desperation and intensity of the moment. But this is no “good day” for the young protagonist, as he walks into his house to stumble upon an act of infidelity by his mother. It’s the sort of thing that flips your heart around, tossing the boy’s conceptions of familial stability into dust in a hot second. Anyone can sympathize with the emotions and confusion that this might inspire in the young man. The video splices in interludes of powerful dialogue, showing struggle and confusion, and as Cole loops lyrics referencing the American Dream, the emotional effect is intense. How can one struggle to succeed in a challenging environment such as this, and cope with understanding the hypocrisy of his family life? It would be a ground-shifting experience for anyone to undergo.
The video is a whirlwind of poor fortune for the boy but he exudes strength in every scene. The song ends with a jarring but masterful segment of prayer to God and blessing before the family’s meal, drawing the video to a coldly ironic close. In its depiction of city life and effortless but masterful pairing of video and lyrics to music, this is an amazing concept executed perfectly. Kudos to J. Cole and to the team behind this video.