KOD (released April 20, 2018)
Man it can be frustrating to be a J. Cole fan sometimes.
I’ll fight anyone who disagrees because it’s facts – Cole is unquestionably one of the most important artists of his generation. At his best, he blends lyricism, humor, an eye for detail and wisdom well beyond his 33 years in a package that, yes, harkens back to the formative years of Nasir Jones.
But often – sadly, much too often – that package is muddled by plodding production, unfocused direction and a weird obsession with poorly sung hooks.
That’s the paradox of J. Cole, arguably the greatest rapper in the game at the moment without that coveted classic album on his mantle.
And sure, he’s come close. Despite lingering issues with both, 2013’s Born Sinner and 2014’s Forest Hills Drive are in the conversation. But for every win, there’s an unfocused Sideline Story or meandering 4 Your Eyez Only to wound his legacy.
I been Team Cole World for a decade, I want that man to win. That’s why I was so excited for KOD, Cole’s fifth solo release. On paper, this should have been the album that finally put him over the top.
If you feel a “…but” coming on, there’s a reason. We’ll get to that later.
Conceptually, KOD knocks it out of the park. Not so coincidentally released on 4/20, KOD allows Cole to tear down hip-hop’s current glamorization of drug addiction. Trap is now mainstream, so Cole copy/pastes the entire trap sound – from the flow to those inescapable trap drums – to examine the darker side of the game. It’s similar to what Lupe Fiasco tried last year, but with much better results.
We get our first taste of Trap Cole on the title track and he maneuvers over the predictable trap drums pretty well. But what rises the song above the usual depths of druggie rap mediocrity is Cole’s storytelling:
How I grew up, only few would’ve loved
‘Member I got my first view of the blood
I’m hangin’ out and they shoot up the club
My homie got pharmaceutical plug
I smoke the drug and it run through my vein
I think it’s workin, it’s numbing the pain
He’s not drugging because some rapper dressed like a pack of Skittles told him it’s cool, he’s doing it to offset the pain of his surroundings. It’s STORYTELLING, people, that’s the depth we’ve been missing.
“ATM” might be KOD’s biggest shot at mainstream success, thanks to Cole’s simplified hook and ridiculously addictive delivery. But Cole quickly raises the bar on the second half of the set, shifting away from the debauchery of the first half to delve into the aftermath of addiction.
“FRIENDS,” one of two tracks featuring Kill Edward (…um, you tryna tell me something Cole?), pushes the message of “meditate, don’t medicate” as he breaks his silence to heal an ailing community:
Without the drugs I want you be comfortable in your skin
I know you so I know you still keep a lot of s*** in
You running from yourself and you buying product again
I know you say it helps and no I’m not trying to offend
But I know depression and drug addiction don’t blend
It’s a sobering, but necessary message. “Window Pain” also put Cole in the role of counselor, leading into the album’s greatest win, “1985 – Intro to ‘The Fall Off’.” Cole targets an unnamed druggie rapper (assumed to be walking Crayola disaster Lil Pump) in a subtle takedown of the mumble rap genre that offers as much support as it does shade:
I must say, by your songs I’m unimpressed, hey
But I love to see a black man get paid
And plus, you havin’; fun and I respect that
But have you ever thought about your impact?
These white kids love that you don’t give a f***
Cause that’s exactly what’s expected when your skin black
They wanna see you dab, they wanna see you pop a pill
They wanna see you tatted from your face to your heels
And somewhere deep down, f*** it, I gotta keep it real
They wanna be black and think your song is how it feels
That level of backhanded complimenting is typically reserved for old church ladies and grouchy uncles. I
kinda love it.
Sooooo, let’s get back to that “but” I mentioned earlier.
As great as KOD is conceptually, it STILL suffers from the same flaws that have crippled Cole’s most
The drowsy production. The meandering hooks. The off-key men’s choir crooning.
Let it be known: Cole is NOT a boring artist. But his arrangements are dripping with Nyquil.
“Photograph,” which features Cole Insta-stalking some young lady, nearly lulls you to sleep. It legit sounds like a lullaby. I know Cole revels in his “no features” persona but “Kevin’s Heart” REALLY needed a legit singer to push it to the next level. Anderson.Paak, Gallant, I mean, somebody DM Glenn Lewis or something! Cole’s poor man neo-soul vocals kill it right out of the gate.
“BRACKETS” is most frustrating – an intriguing song about Uncle Sam’s chokehold on the black community that can’t reach the next level due to Cole (probably literally) sleepwalking through the hook.
That’s the frustrating part of being a J. Cole fan. Few artists are skilled or even willing enough to document their mother’s struggle against alcohol as Cole does on “Once an Addict.” He’s not afraid to use his experience to heal others. But those messages are so often diluted with his Drowsy D’Angleo act.
Simply put, KOD is a good album that should have been a great album. The Cole conundrum continues.
Best tracks: “1985 – Intro to The Fall Off,” “FRIENDS,” “KOD”
3.5 stars out of 5