Review: J. Cole, ‘KOD’

J. Cole tackles brilliant conceptual ideas but lacks the musical experimentation needed to create an outstanding body of work.

Jermaine Cole is one of the most elusive figures in hip hop. If he’s not putting out music you will not hear from him. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as staying out of the spotlight allows for his art to do all the talking. Perhaps this is why it’s taken a year and a half for J. Cole to collect his thoughts and figure out what he wants to say. Everybody knows Cole as the “conscious” rapper with substance and a message, but the message did not resonate with fans on his last album, 4 Your Eyez Only, which was a skeletal album attempting to be complex. KOD is another surprise release that will aim to correct those wrongs and potentially add a classic record to Cole’s discography.

On KOD, Cole is aiming for a clearer conceptual focus – reflecting on the glorification of prescription drugs in youth and hip hop. When paying attention to the lyrics, KOD is a clever portrayal of the highs and lows of using drugs, but these concepts suffer from Cole’s continuous attempts of being a one-man band.

Throughout the majority of the album, the drug concept remains intact, something that’s necessary if an artist wants to pull off a concept album. The jazzy “Intro”, which is reminiscent of Kendrick Lamar’s Overly Dedicated intro, understands that drugs are usually taken to numb some sort of pain, but still informs the listener to “Choose wisely”. The title track is rapped from the perspective of King Overdose (one of the subtitles for the album name) who represents your typical Xan-taking trap rapper. Its tongue-in-cheek presentation makes the song one of the most enjoyable points of the album.

These clever ideas continue on songs like “Photograph”, which seems to not fit in the drugs concept until it becomes clear it’s a song about addiction to social media. It may not be a physical drug, but Cole’s point is that it can be equally damaging to youth by separating a person from reality – just like being high can do. “ATM” is one of the few upbeat moments of KOD, which again continues King Overdose’s typical rapper obsessions – first drugs (“KOD”), now money. It’s not an exceptional song, but stands out in the tracklist.

There’s all these brilliant lyrical ideas that tie together well enough, but Cole revisits his usual production tricks that is to the album’s detriment. KOD is sonically tedious, using the same musical templates of 4YEO and 2014 Forest Hills Drive. On one hand, it allows KOD to have a relaxing, laidback listening experience, but leaves a lack of replay value. We’ve already heard enough of laidback Cole, and we’ve seen that he can bring upbeat energy when he chooses to (“Fire Squad”, “Immortal”).

The uninspired production is also mixed with bland hook-writing. Tracks in question include “Motiv8”, which feels like a 2-minute filler track that doesn’t add anything to the story besides parodying the repetitive structure of SoundCloud rap (“Motivate, motivate, motivate, motivate”). The piano melody on “The Cut Off” (rapped by J. Cole’s alter-ego, kILL Edward the addict) is pretty, but has a presumptuous hook that should have been delivered differently. Instead, Cole chooses to stay in his safe zone, indulging in no musical experimentation that would have allowed the song concepts to shine brighter.

There’s moments where Cole decides to sidetrack from the concept, like on “Kevin’s Heart” and “Brackets”. These tracks make the story too patchy for a concept album where every track should fit the theme. Although they seem distant from the concept, they are still good tracks. “Brackets” is a classic Cole track that touches on the important topic of taxes, particularly on verse 2 which may be best verse on the album.

Cole’s message about drug use is clear, but you rarely feel any emotion from him on the matter. The only moment you hear real emotion is on “Once An Addict (Interlude)”, a song about his own mother’s addiction to crack cocaine. It’s a bitter track which ends in Cole’s faltering voice, but is the most emotionally effective song on the topic of drug use.

The album officially ends with “Window Pain (Outro)”, which is lyrically solid just like the tracks before it, but doesn’t feel like much of a conclusion to the story. No “demons” have appeared to have been “killed” as the album name suggests. The additional track “1985” targets the new SoundCloud rappers, and is subtitled “Intro to The Fall Off“, which could be a reference to Cole’s next album or signifies the beginning of the end of these rappers’ careers as – according to Cole – they are not making music with longevity in mind. The observations made in the song is something that hasn’t been addressed by any mainstream rapper, so it’s refreshing to hear J. Cole speak his mind in an educational way rather than a bitter way.

KOD is an improvement on 4 Your Eyez Only, but is far from the perfect body of work that J. Cole set out to deliver. The lyricism and lyrical themes are impressive, but not executed to their full potential due to Cole’s lacklustre production and slight thematic inconsistencies. In the current streaming age of music, replay value is essential in maintaining listeners attention, something that KOD sacrifices. KOD is a typical Cole album with great content, but doesn’t lay out a fresh blueprint to elevate Cole’s artistry.

Rating: 6 / 10

Best tracks: “Brackets”, “Once an Addict (Interlude)”, “ATM”, “Photograph”