KOD: an impressive return, but not a triumphant victory for J. Cole

Matthew Harvey, Contributing Reporter

When North Carolina rapper J. Cole announced on April 16 that he was releasing an album on 4/20, fans on social media were sent into a frenzy about what the cryptic title “KOD” could represent. Some, however, were bitter skeptics of what Cole might have in store. For myself, this skepticism was based on the critical failure of his 2016 showing, ‘4 Your Eyes Only.’ Though it would go on to become his second straight featureless Platinum album, the melancholic yarning of a story with clear personal significance to the artist was snooze-inducing for listeners. With no proof of any musical evolution since, “KOD” was poised to be an extension of the unsavory legacy of its predecessor.

On the morning of Friday, April 20, J. Cole reminded fans and skeptics alike, of what it was, exactly, that earned him the virtuosic reputation that he holds in hip-hop. With its stellar lyricism, subpar hooks, essentially solid production, and unmistakable message, “KOD”— interchangeably named ‘Kids on Drugs,’ ‘King Overdosed,’ and ‘Kill Our Demons’ according to a tweet by Cole himself— is peak J. Cole.

Throughout the album, Cole takes aim at many of the issues that plague contemporary society, with the culture of drug abuse being at the core of most of the songs. He approaches the subject most often from the angle of how that drug culture manifests in hip-hop specifically, in various ways.
The most impressive of these is his mimicry of the flows heard most typically in the music that tends to exemplify the culture which he’s criticizing.

“ATM” is probably the most explicit of these conscious parodies. In the first verse he raps “A million dollars, I count up in intervals/ Without it I’m miserable/ Don’t wanna fall off so I’m all in my bag/ Thankin’ God like it’s biblical/ I know it’s gon’ solve every problem I have” over a piano-driven trap music inspired instrumental. Though the voice, message, and lyrics are unmistakably J. Cole, the flow can easily be placed as a mock-up of a new-wave trap artist. This method of delivery not only serves as a clever way to get his message across in a digestible way, but also makes the albums 12 solo tracks much more bearable, in contrast to his previous featureless efforts that were doomed to sonic monotony.

The album only fails in it’s neanderthalic pursuit of its message. Cole uses the sultry voice of an unnamed woman to basically narrate the message in a way that turns it from deep to elementary. These unrequested Cliff’s Notes often negate the cleverness of the aforementioned use of flow, and takes the meaning from subtle in delivery, to corny. It’s almost as if he thinks that listeners are too slow to get it unless it’s spoon-fed.

Overall, “KOD” is an impressive return for the Grammy-nominated hip-hop artist. Though it’s a far cry from his previous featureless studio albums in terms of delivery and sound, it still feels very true-to-form for J. Cole; and— in typical J. Cole fashion— the album’s only critical failure, however minor, is its own doing.

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