J. Cole - "KOD" Album Review
There was a time where rappers like Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Wale, and Wiz Khalifa were the young upstarts that everyone was talking about. The highly touted prospects of the Rap game, the prodigies that would lead the eventual evolution of the genre. While Wiz and Wale are still profiting, they’ve cemented themselves in a niche that may keep them stagnant. Kendrick and Drake, on the other hand, have been breaking records and accumulating accolades, achieving feats even their Golden Age contemporaries never came close to. Then you have J. Cole.
Cole has been at it for a long time; he came up with the aforementioned artists and was billed as the next big thing, the blue-chipper that would hold the spot that Lamar eventually snatched with the clear intent of never letting go. In a little over a decade, Cole has amassed an incredibly loyal fanbase and crafts best-selling records with a regularity that Wale and Wiz haven’t been able to match.
It is because of that, that Cole manages to secure high anticipation for his releases without doing too much actual promotion; all he did was a surprise show in New York and London. So as one can imagine, the world was eagerly awaiting what J. Cole had in store for his fifth studio album. His last effort, 4 Your Eyez Only was an ambitious project that ultimately failed in its execution of an intriguing concept. This time around, Cole brings forth a thematic album about addiction and its rippling effects throughout society and the people in it.
This is explored conventionally on “Once an Addict (Interlude)” where Cole delves into familiar, but still true, themes of depression and addiction within the black community, including his mother’s issues in the narrative. Cole displays an emotion in his verses that are a highlight, as he emotes more pain with every line he utters, the sorrowful strings that end the track are fitting as well. “Photograph” depicts addiction in a little more unconventional way; the addiction of social media and the artificialness of “likes” and “hearts”. The song is simply depressing and has a gust of creepiness surrounding that’s accentuated by the subtle changes in the production and Cole’s own desperation in the verses and refrain.
J. Cole’s flows and rhyme schemes have noticeably improved and he flaunts his ever-growing skills as a rapper on tracks like “KOD” and “ATM” where he sounds more confident than on albums past. “KOD” especially bumps and Cole displays a charisma that carries the track making for a ringing opener: “If practice made perfect, I’m practice’s baby/Platinum wrist ridin’ in back like Ms. Daisy/Platinum disc and I own masters, bitch pay me/Y’all niggas trapping so lack-sical-daisy”. “ATM” is a banger, Cole’s flow is captivating as is the production around it is subdued for the rare vigor that comes from Cole himself. It somehow complements each other rather well as it makes for the catchiest track on KOD.
“BRACKETS” contains a standout verse where he questions the allocation of his taxes and suggests a new method. What makes this message so potent is the realness within it: “And the curriculum be tricking them, them dollars I spend/Got us learning about the heroes with the whitest of skin/One thing about the men that’s controlling the pen/That write history, they always seem to white-out they sins”. Cole gives more with less on the hook - the best one on KOD - as his “whoa’s and yeah’s” sound haunting and make sure never to leave the brain. "Kevin’s Heart" examines infidelity and the addiction of lust as well as the struggle of consistent monogamy. The track wastes no time adding drugs as a catalyst to cheating and is very self-punishing in its perspective: “I’m a fake nigga and it’s never been clearer/Can’t see myself when I look in the mirror”.
“1985 (Intro to ‘The Fall Off’)” serves as a sonning to the rappers of the current generation. It's not a diss, but an advice record to the rappers who are trying to make a name for themselves as he once was. Cole here speaks prophetically on the phases of their fall off, from fandom maturing to declining concert sales, to the consequences of bad money management. He also acknowledges another bitter truth: “They wanna see you dab, they want to see you pop a pill/They wanna see you tatted from your face to your heels/And somewhere deep down, fuck it, I gotta keep it real/They wanna be black and think your song is how it feels”. On the other side, Cole admits that he was on the same things when he was younger and that these kids need to grow before so much judgment is passed off onto them.
But that's about as layered as Cole gets on this album. A lot of this is his, Cole’s, perspective – and why not? He’s the writer and storyteller – but it hinders the impact of this album because there’s barely any parts where the other side gets a word in. Even the kiLL edward character is an anemic device to support J. Cole’s narrative of virtue. It’s a nice idea: the dichotomy of Cole, on the narrow, altruistic path and kiLL edward, the figment, the distorted voice inside that is telling him to do distorted things.
The issue is that kiLL edward is a contrived idea; it’s just J. Cole’s own voice pitched down, which admittedly, doesn’t sound bad on "The Cut Off", manages to quickly overstay its welcome and doesn’t sound dynamic or complement the songs at all. It doesn’t do a good job at all of convincing that this is an alter ego or some evil within. This sense of colorlessness is exacerbated since kiLL edward barely says anything of note to make this supposed character stand out. Not to mention that Cole pitches down his voice on other tracks where kiLL edward wasn’t featured on, so this effect doesn’t even stand out or have an identity.
kiLL edward reappears to ruin the hook on “FRIENDS”, a track where Cole shows empathy towards addicts, and the people who ignore his advice of sobriety. Here, he offers a solution: meditation. Now, while meditation is a great solution, it still isn’t something that is guaranteed to work for everyone. As a result, it feels like cheap therapy to offer one thing as the end all fix to an issue too large to solve by just meditation.
But that’s Cole's grand strategy throughout this album: offering one-off solutions. This undermines the difficulty of addiction, the fact that there’s a process to not only rid oneself of habit but the difficulty of withdrawal as well as life after dependence. There’s no indication of these kinds of issues on KOD so it makes these tracks feel underwritten, at the same time removing any kind of nuance they may have possibly had.
The time where Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Wale, and Wiz Khalifa were the torchbearers in wait is clearly long past. Not everyone gets to hold the crown and not everyone is meant to sit on the throne, but the life of a king consists of repelling the people who want that seat. What brought Cole to the dance in the first place was his ability to explore deep themes with wit, but expressing it in a way that was never too abstract. It’s why he remains a candidate to capture Rap’s kingdom with every release.
KOD is ambitious for exploring many types of addiction that people tend to overdose on like religion, drugs, money, social media, love, trust, women, pain, and alcohol. Cole’s approach to healing is to slay personal demons using meditation and positive coping mechanisms - addressing the issues - instead of depending on drugs and alcohol. It’s a nice sentiment, but Cole - who more often than not just ends up stating the obvious throughout KOD - doesn’t analyze the issues deep enough to make it as viable a solution as he wants to make it seem.