J. Cole - KOD
by Thom Vigor
KOD, aka Kids On Drugs, aka King Overdosed, aka Kill Our Demons, is the fifth studio album from Fayetteville rapper J Cole. KOD sees Cole adopt a trap influenced musical style in a kind of parody of the genre, as he imitates a SoundCloud rapper who glorifies drugs, money, sex and other such vices. This departure from Cole’s familiar, traditional hip-hop instrumentals and old school delivery is certainly a welcome surprise, as many criticised his last project, 4 Your Eyez Only, for being a bit stale in this regard. If you’d told me two years ago that J Cole, arguably hip-hop’s largest SoundCloud rap antagonist, would be rapping over trap beats with a triplet flow, I’d have laughed and turned up the volume on my stereo as I blasted Love Yourz. However, it’s clear that trap isn’t a new career path for J Cole – by the end of the album he’s already reverted to his normal sound.
I honestly don’t know what to think about the new sonic direction of this album; on the one hand, there are some great trap bangers that are perfect for parties, or even just private listening if you’re in the mood for it. But there’s a sense of irony to J Cole making music that openly opposes itself, despite its satirical content; people are going to bump ATM in clubs alongside the likes of Lil Pump and XXX, and they sure as hell aren’t going to be listening to its core message. Moreover, it doesn’t seem like Cole particularly enjoys producing this kind of music, only making it as a mockery of mainstream hip-hop because “trap drums is the shit that’s hot now”. It’s abundantly clear that Cole wants this album to be heard by SoundCloud rappers and their fans, especially those who promote or partake in the vices that surround that genre (hence KOD’s 4⁄20 release date), so that they might heed the album’s warnings about that kind of lifestyle. But whether the album succeeds in this regard remains to be seen.
While KOD sets itself apart from J Cole’s previous works with its sound, it still suffers from many of the same problems: it’s inconsistent, unfocused, and unstructured. Once again, the project has fantastic concept that’s clearly had a lot of thought put into it, but the moments when the album really shines feel like diamonds in the rough. Thankfully, however, there seems to be more diamonds and less rough this time around – KOD has quite a few bangers, as well as classic Cole tracks where he spits straight wisdom, such as Once an Addict and 1985. Despite its stylistic range the album also maintains a creepy, macabre tone throughout. I feel grateful that J Cole has given us some fire tracks and a solid record with a powerful and pertinent message, but from a critical standpoint I can’t help but feel that KOD feels full of lost potential. Some tracks like Photograph and Motiv8 don’t sound great and also don’t add much to the album conceptually. But in the same breath, ATM is a straight banger and 1985 is peak Cole.
J Cole is to didactic songwriting as Kendrick Lamar is to storytelling and Eminem is to wordplay in hip-hop. People don’t just listen to Cole’s music for its ambience or vibe – often they want to hear what Cole has to say about a certain topic as he’s become associated with wisdom, so much so that it’s become a bit of a meme, viz. “you have to have a very high IQ to understand J Cole”. And it’s true that on KOD much of this wisdom is thoughtful and well delivered, e.g. “33 years, damn, I’m grateful I survived / We wasn’t s’posed to get past 25”, which references Jesus, Kanye, and the short life expectancy of black men in American society in just two lines. This is where KOD shines, when J Cole makes layered, nuanced statements on topics consistent with the album’s theme. However, sometimes Cole comes off as self-righteous and frequently his message becomes convoluted as he struggles to discuss complicated topics with brevity and impact. This can be seen on BRACKETS, as J Cole’s argument about taxation exploiting black people is undermined by his focus on himself as the victim rather than the whole African-American community, as well as some vacuous statements about the IRS and democracy.
Perhaps J Cole’s lyrical style will forever come across as somewhat preachy and egotistical to critics, but his fans hold on to every word, and his music seems to genuinely captivate many of his fans. And with great power comes great responsibility, so Cole should work on improving his ability to consistently argue the with finesse and impact that he is known for. He’s clearly capable of it, as seen in the better half of KOD. J Cole is perceived to be amongst the elite in the hip hop industry, however his music doesn’t quite reflect it.