J. Cole – KOD
J. Cole is perhaps the most well-meaning rapper in the game. Every one of his albums has had wide ambition and ability, gaining him tons of fans and propelling him into the discussion of modern greats. Cole’s raps have always been serious and argumentative, providing often personal views on both his own world and the world around him. So while his vignettes of modern life can be interesting in small doses and are certainly well-meaning, Cole often gets too deep into what he’s saying and thus lets his sheer ambition get ahead of itself. He’s got heaps of skill and acknowledgement of his predecessors, and he loves to explore concepts and themes throughout his albums. Take his immensely personal 2016 album 4 Your Eyez Only for example, which took its theme of death and mortality and spun several interlacing vignettes and viewpoints throughout to tie it all together. While it worked at some places and resulted in some of the best tracks of his career, it often got too caught up in what it was trying to accomplish and ultimately resulted in quiet, uninteresting stretches. Cole’s fifth studio album KOD falls into this trap as well, exploring themes of addiction and abstinence from acts like smoking, drinking and infidelity. Sometimes, he’s convincing, but just as often, he comes across as a little too sanctimonious.
Even for such a skilled technical rapper as he is, Cole has never abstained from openness. Most of the time, Cole is frank with his topics, except for when he has a tendency to insert cheesy punchlines in at just the wrong time, which he thankfully avoids for much of KOD. “Fell in love through a photograph/I don’t even know your name/Wonder if you follow back, I hope to see you one day”, he sings quietly on “Photograph”, addressing the prevalence of social media in modern dating. “Love today’s gone digital/And it’s messing with my health”. He likens greed for money to a devil’s pie in “ATM”, tackles taxes on “BRACKETS”, and fights temptations on “Kevin’s Heart”, in a sly reference to the comedian’s infidelity record, who later starred in the track’s official video a few days ago. Nothing here is subtle; Cole is upfront and straightforward about the topics on KOD.
The good thing about KOD is that the open nature of the album causes Cole to abstain from the overbearing ambition that he gets caught up in far too often. The production, all self-done, is minimal and sustained, allowing room for Cole to go full throttle on some of his most personal and direct topics yet. However, this is also what causes the album to drag. With the full focus being on Cole’s harsh, truthful lyrics, and such distant production, KOD can be a difficult and demanding listen, even with its succinct running time of 42 minutes. The biggest example of this is “Once an Addict (Interlude)”, a chilling, emotional look into his mother’s addiction and how it affected his youth. It’s not easy to listen to, and feels almost a little too personal, as if we’re looking into his life à la The Truman Show. We almost get a feeling that we shouldn’t be listening to it, that it’s a little too personal for its own right, which is what makes it such a demanding listen.
Shreds of optimism are few and far between, and even when they do pop up, they’re bittersweet and complicated. “Meditate, don’t medicate”, Cole murmurs on the bleak “FRIENDS”. “All I want to do is kill the man that made my mama cry”, he offers on “Window Pain (Outro)”. It’s definitely hopeful, but in a cracked, bittersweet kind of way. KOD doesn’t offer any solace in the things it discusses. Rather, it’s a bleak, brutally honest look into our vices, and how even small things can affect us negatively. It’s a little too one-sided for its own sake, offering much room for interpretation, often because Cole is so intent on getting his point out there that he focuses mainly on one side of the story. But even when its ambition and the things he’s trying to accomplish get ahead of themselves, KOD still can be a gripping, intriguing look into our everyday lives and how we’re affected by common vices such as addiction, alcoholism and infidelity. It’s when Cole conceals the deeper parts of the story, such as failing to make distinctions between different types of drugs and self-medication, that the album becomes less than the sum of its parts, and becomes much more caught up in its own ambitions and turns into a show of sanctimony, a show that attempts to be much more than it turns out to be. KOD is a difficult, conflicting listen, but if anything, it further separates Cole from the rest of the crowd and establishes him as one of the most interesting rappers of our time.
Photo courtesy of Interscope Records