Sunday, October 2, 2011

Critical Analysis of J Cole's "Lost Ones": Unplanned Pregnancy and Other Chaos

This review from DJ Booth says of "Lost Ones" that it is one of "the kind of lyrically driven, emotionally honest and often intensely narrative tracks that places him so far above his average peers." 

I think it's really important that complex issues aren't just talked about through academic analysis in journal articles (and blog posts), so I feel a need to point out legitimate conversation when it takes place in pop culture. 

And this is, for sure, a conversation starter. 

The song has three distinct points of view: a male's perspective after finding out his girlfriend (or casual partner) is unexpectedly pregnant, the female responding to his suggestion that she abort, and a more general male perspective angrily reflecting on the way unplanned pregnancies generally affect relationships. (Note: There are a lot of unedited quotes below. If profanity offends you, you might want to skip this post. Also, I have a complicated rhetorical relationship with the n-word, which I don't use in my own speech, but which I include in quotes below.)

The Man Talking to the Girlfriend

Rhetorically, this verse is pretty interesting. As the speaker tries to convince his girlfriend that they aren't ready for children, he couches his concerns in very inclusive language. "Frankly I feel like we ain't ready"/"we still kids ourself"/"How we gon raise a kid by ourselves?"/"Where the hell we gon live?" 

The focus on "we" reflects on the impending parenthood as a joint endeavor, and it also demonstrates a man who recognizes his responsibility in the pregnancy itself. 

Then there's a shift. Immediately after the line "Where the hell we gon live?" is the line "Where am I gon get that money?" This indicates that not all of the responsibility is shared, at least from this man's perspective. He sees the money as his responsibility, and then he uses this burden as his reasoning for aborting: "I refuse to bring my boy or my girl in this world world when I ain't got shit to give 'em." Gone is the language of inclusion, and with it the kinder, gentler tone. The mention of money has shifted the perspective. He doesn't feel like he can hold up that responsibility, and that failure is unacceptable. 

But bookending this verse are lines that further complicate things. It opens with "Baby girl, I can't imagine what it's like for you/I got you pregnant, now inside there is a life in you" and ends with "So girl you gotta think about how the options weigh out/What's the way out?" 

With these lines, the speaker demonstrates an understanding that the choice is not his, and neither is the pregnancy. 

The Woman's Response

This entire verse is literally the woman's response, even though it is rapped by Cole. I wish--both because female hip hop artists need more powerful outlets and because it would increase the meaningfulness of the song and add authenticity--that it had been voiced by a woman. That aside, here's some of what's going on in this verse. 

Positioned against the male speaker from the first verse, this woman is angry. Unlike the male speaker, this woman has not had time to formulate a rhetorical strategy; her response is pure emotion. 

Without pause, she runs through a series of reasons she is not having an abortion, starting where the previous verse left off: it's her choice, and hers alone: "This my body nigga, so don't think you finna force shit!" Then she starts blaming him for putting her in this position: "Knowing all the right things to say, I let you hit raw, motherfucka." Here she's placing blame on him from the beginning, a stark juxtaposition against his initial position of joint responsibility. 

Next she defends her decision not to abort from a moral standpoint: "Tryin' take away a life, is you God, motherfuka?" Soon after, she says "this new life here I'ma love it." Just as the question of money was a turning point for the male speaker, this concern of love seems to be a turning point in the woman's narrative. 

She immediately begins a rant on the cyclical nature of this pattern ("my mama raise me without no motherfucking help from a man" and how the man hates his father "cause he left your mama when she had you"). Though the main point of the verse is to demonstrate her anger at being left alone and to declare her right to choose to keep her pregnancy, it also serves as a self-affirmation; she is convincing herself that she can do it on her own ("I ain't budging, I just do this by my motherfucking self"). 

The Distant, Third Person (Male) Perspective

While the first and second verses represent the genuine struggle of individuals in the situation, the third verse represents a more distant perspective. The voice here speaks directly to the man, demanding "Man if that bitch really pregnant tell her to get a abortion, but what about your seed nigga?" 

Though this line acts as both a conclusion and a summary of the problem as a whole, it clearly takes a different tone. Referring to the woman as "bitch" (when the speaker himself referred to her as "baby girl") drastically changes the tone of the relationship to one of misogyny and anger. This whole verse suggests that this woman (and women in general) are manipulators looking to trap men into marriage.

While Cole raps all three sections of this song, these are three distinct speakers. The first verse does not have the overtones of paranoia and anger present in the third, and I don't think this is the same voice. Who, then, does this third voice represent? 

The lines "All his niggas saying these hoes be trapping niggas/Playing with nigga's emotions like they some action figures/Swear they get pregnant for collateral" gives some hints. While the first verse represents the perspective within the relationship itself, this third verse represents a broader view: the way this unplanned pregnancy (and unplanned pregnancy in general) is viewed by a larger community. While the speaker himself may not intend to disrespect the woman he impregnated, he is part of a community that does so without apology. With that in mind, it's easy to see why the woman's response in verse two was so immediately enraged. She is responding not just as one person in a relationship, but as someone who must face the judgment of a whole society while simultaneously making a difficult decision about her body and her future life. 

There's a lot going on in this song (as this essay-length post might suggest), but there are a few things I think we can take away:

  • Placing sole financial burden on men both unfairly alleviates their role as caregivers (notice it's the woman who talks about "love") and shifts their perspective on what fatherhood means (and whether they think they can succeed at it).
  • Pitting women as manipulative conspirators denies them the genuine emotions at stake in their pregnancies and life decisions, creating a climate where honest discussion is nearly impossible.
  • The outside perspective on an intimate decision is almost always oversimplified and non-applicable to real, specific people.
I don't have any real answers on how we work through these competing perspectives, but I sympathize with Cole's chorus: "And I ain't too proud to tell you that I cry sometimes, I cry sometimes about it."

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting after i heard the song i wanted to read someones analysis immediately to see other opinions your post helped me see the different angles each verse took.