Anyone who has casually paid attention to J. Cole maneuvering through rap’s ecosystem could foresee a prolific album such as KOD on the horizon.
The anointed lyricist has grown increasingly reclusive over the years; simultaneously stepping out of the spotlight that JAY-Z shone on him early in his career while toying with the emotions of his loyal fanbase. His free-flowing dreads and beat-up Air Jordan 1’s represent his relentless attack on materialism and hedonism — the same vices that have permeated his music to apologetic proportions since his sophomore album, Born Sinner.
So the trichotomous KOD (billed as “Kids on Drugs,” “King Overdosed” and “Kill Our Demons”) arrives at such a CRUCIAL time in the beloved Hip Hop culture. We are at a crossroads. Never has the music enjoyed such financial success — but it often came at the cost of clever songwriting and layered song subjects. And the evolution of drug usage has artists in a position where their influence is strictly for being under the influence.
Given his platform as semi-elder spokesman, Cole goes miles beyond simply chastising the younger generation for being druggies and junkies. He magnifies the “Kids on Drugs” portion of the album by soapboxing from personal experience. On “Once an Addict (Interlude),” he vividly illustrates his mother’s battle with the bottle through lyrics like, “I gotta leave this house ’cause part of me dies when I see her like this/ Too young to deal with pain I’d rather run the streets than see her kill herself/ So ‘Ville became my escape from a feeling I hate…” thus, explaining his destiny to flee to NYC in efforts to become a career MC. The message comes full circle on the adjacent “FRIENDS” (with assistance from his drearily voiced alter ego, Kill Edward) where masterful rhyming lays out a plausible treatment plan overtop a dreamy kick-n-snare combo.
KOD is also remarkable because it shows Cole with a heightened sense of urgency — and energy — within the records. Seemingly taking heed of the notions his art is largely “boring” (his last project 4 Your Eyes Only played possum to an underlying theme underneath a bevy of docile beats), the Villematic One adopts today’s popular staccato delivery to “Kill our Demons” and drops gems without being a preachy jeweler.
The hypnotic reverb felt on “Photograph” works wonders as Cole touches on the smoke and mirrors a simple Instagram like can create, while “ATM” serves as one of his catchiest records to date, as the compounds of several bridges, refrains, and a speedy flow equate both a turn-up anthem and financial help module.
We’re living in a time when today’s Hip Hop heroes are embracing new levels of adulting and Cole (as King Overdosed) allows listeners into his money world like never before throughout the album. “ATM” was just light work; handout hounds are disconnected on “The Cut Off” but the telling “BRACKETS” is a masterpiece awakening, as the storyline concludes with the certainty that death and taxes are an eternal strife. (We see what you did there, Jermaine. Salute.)
King Overdosed then passes out the final exam on “1985 – Intro to ‘The Fall Off’,” a backhanded well-wish to a particular young gunner whose slander breached Dreamville County. Regardless of who the rhyme-laden bounce directly targets, it’s a one-size-fits-all forewarning that riding Hip Hop trends will eventually take artists down a dead-end street.
It’s unquestionable that J. Cole is a rap king — and also a king of imperfection. His self-produced soundbeds have eclipsed the level of serviceable but still don’t reach a golden benchmark to declare any instrumental classic in its own right. And the medial track “Motiv8” stumbles on its mock trap exoskeleton, preventing it from reaching its potential as absolute inspiration. But whether it’s reveling in a “crooked smile” or owning up to the life of a philanderer on the auto/biographical “Kevin’s Heart,” J. Cole has a gift in turning tears into teaching tools and KOD is a concise, leather-bound audiobook of invaluable life direction goals.