North Carolina rapper, J. Cole, famous for his poetically colourful and hard-hitting lyricism, as well as his smooth charisma, comes through on KOD to tell his tales of addiction and drug abuse. In contrast to his previous release – the critically-acclaimed, commercially successful, and highly political 4 Your Eyez Only – J. Cole focuses a lot more on personal stories, experiences, and life lessons, putting his politics on the back seat. This change in thematic focus is reflected in the instrumental and vocal arrangements of the album: the vocals are often subdued and distant; the samples are calm and atmospheric; the beats feel more laid back. On some tracks he makes use of a female narrator, who brings the deeper concepts of the album to the forefront, elucidating ideas about life, suffering, and how it is important to ‘choose wisely’ when deciding on how to deal with this suffering.
The only listed features on this album are from kiLL edward, performing on the songs ‘The Cut Off’ and ‘FRIENDS’. He generally does the songs justice, especially his part in ‘FRIENDS’, which is outstanding, but his delivery of the hook on ‘The Cut Off’ does come off a little awkward, and the performance is also a bit messy at times.
This actually seems to be a pervasive problem with this album: the recording of the vocals feels rushed. The lyricism and production are as strong as ever, and, in my opinion, the themes are the best J. Cole has ever touched upon. Unfortunately, however, there are a few moments in which immersion into the world J. Cole is trying create becomes nearly impossible. Vocal performances which are way off key and/or sloppy ruin the moody atmosphere that the songs are trying to convey.
“There are moments where immersion into J. Cole’s world is nearly impossible”
A good example of this would be ‘Once an Addict (Interlude)’: muffled electric pianos playing moody chords open the song, instantaneously immersing you. But then, out of nowhere, a vocal line, so off key it would even make your drunk friends at the karaoke bar cringe, pulls you right out of that immersion. “Something’s got a hold on me”, Cole croons in a pitch that sounds way too high for his register.
Another problem this album suffers from is that none of the songs are particularly memorable. There is a severe lack of strong hooks throughout this record, save for one track, ‘ATM’, which stands out quite clearly as the strongest song. It is, unsurprisingly, the only one that has gotten the video treatment so far. There are no songs like ‘Deja Vu’, ‘Neighbours’, or ‘No Role Modelz’ on this record.
Cole’s bars are as powerful as ever and his charm still shines through, and this saves a lot of the record, in my opinion. But none of this really matters when the songs are fundamentally uninteresting and unmemorable. Were it not for the themes he touches upon and the relevance of these to the culture we live in at the moment, I would have to give him a much lower score. The surface stories about drug addiction and social media romances serve as a gateway to much deeper philosophical ideas about life.
Also, rather surprisingly, J. Cole heavily censors his own words on this record, using tape stop effects to blur out profanities. At first this put me off, but I now think it was done for a good reason: Cole tries to portray himself as a father-figure in the hip-hop scene on this record, even more so than on 4 Your Eyez Only. By removing the profanity he can avoid the ‘parental advisory’ sticker on his album cover and thus reach a younger audience. In a culture of increasing nihilism and a greater sense of aimlessness, young people will look for strong father figures to point them in the right direction.
The last track on the album, ‘1985’, is a sort of diss track aimed at all the new, up-and-coming SoundCloud rappers (Lil’ Pump, 6ix9ine etc.). I call it a ‘sort of diss track’ because it isn’t aimed at anyone specifically, but rather sees J. Cole trying to mentor younger artists in the ways of the music industry, warning them about the dangers of excess and chasing trends.
I have very mixed feelings about this album. While the subject matter and the lyrics, as well as J. Cole’s personality, are as great as ever, there are sore spots on this record which cannot be ignored. Artists of Cole’s caliber shouldn’t make the kinds of mistakes that he makes on this release. Apparently he recorded this album within a timespan of two weeks. It shows.
Artist: J. Cole. Label: Dreamville. Top Tracks: ATM; Kevin’s Heart; Window Pain. For Fans Of: Kendrick Lamar; Joey Bada$$, Jay-Z. 42 minutes