North Carolina artist J. Cole has been a fixture in the Hip hop scene for years now. His last two projects “2014 Forest Hills Drive” and “4 Your Eyez Only” were met with huge commercial success, the former infamously going double platinum without any features. His new surprise release “KOD” comes almost a year and a half after “4 Your Eyez Only” and is primarily concerned with pain, self-medication, and addiction. Despite a few sharp songs and pointed verses, J. Cole’s “KOD” fails to captivate listeners across its runtime, as a number of forgettable moments and the project’s muddled concept prevent it from delivering.
“KOD” begins with the short track “Intro,” which features a very low-key instrumental and a voiceover which cryptically explains the thematic premise of the album. With various allusions to pain and suffering, the voice beseeches the listener to “choose wisely” in terms of how they cope with this pain. Even at this early stage in the album, it’s difficult not to roll one’s eyes a bit. The track isn’t particularly mysterious and the listener can certainly piece together that at some point the album will contrast “good” and “bad” decisions and their impact on life. The titular song “KOD” sees Cole rapping over a pretty trendy instrumental by his standards, complete with 808s and high hats. However, the instrumental doesn’t have much impact or bite and ends up sounding like “diet trap.” Cole seems to be rapping as a character on this track, trying to satirically drop ignorant bars about Bentley’s and Actavis. The problem with this track is that Cole doesn’t fully commit. On the one hand, Cole is channeling a totally different lyrical style, but on the other he’s whining about how critics want him to add more features to his albums. How can the listener tell what is satire and what is Cole whining over what sounds like the tamest Ronny J (producer of “Ultimate,” “Audi,” and “Gospel”) beat of 2018? The song “Photograph” is even worse, as it melds another highly derivative flow with an unsettling narrative of Cole falling in love with a girl who doesn’t know he exists over Instagram. The beat is run-of-the-mill and boring, while the vocal inflections Cole makes on the bridge verge on irritating and comical. “The Cut Off” isn’t nearly as grating, but suffers from a vocal “feature” from kiLL edward, Cole’s alter ego. The singing on “The Cut Off” is practically atonal, and the lethargic delivery halts any momentum Cole generates on the verses.
While the album fails to get off to a strong start, there are some undeniable highlights on the second half that see J. Cole living up to his potential for an entire track. “ATM” is the most immediate and catchy song in the tracklisting. Cash machine sound effects and eerie piano chords add some color to the instrumental while Cole brings some much-needed energy to his vocals. There is still some sub par singing scattered throughout the track, but the hook and flow are undeniable. Although the biggest weakness of “KOD” is its failure to fully explore its themes and issues, there are a few moments on the record where Cole is as sharp and perceptive as ever. The second half of “BRACKETS” is especially good, as Cole is contemplating the government’s failure to use his tax dollars meaningfully in his community. “Once an Addict – Interlude” is the high point of the album, displaying Cole’s full narrative potential. Telling the story of his mother and her struggle with alcoholism and other drugs, Cole explores feelings of guilt and anger in a very moving and powerful way. While Cole’s constant warnings to “choose wisely” may come across as preachy and self-evident to some listeners, “Once an Addict” connects with listeners in a visceral, human way. It’s moments like these that show Cole at his best. Too often, he feels the need to shove heavy-handed imagery and half-baked wisdom down his audience’s throat (as in the album’s introduction or the voiceovers throughout) without giving them enough credit to simply sit with what they’ve heard. The final track, “1985 (Intro to ‘The Fall Off’),” generated a lot of controversy because of claims that Cole was dissing the new generation of rappers, but the track is actually very well intentioned. Cole dissects the dilemma of the new wave of hip-hop, and trendy artists in general, quite well. A particularly striking moment on the track is when Cole meditates on white hip-hop listeners and how their concern for the humanity of the artist is lost in the rockstar persona cultivated by artists such as Smokepurpp, Lil Pump, and more: “They wanna see you dab, they wanna see you pop a pill / They wanna see you tatted from your face to your heels.”
Cole’s latest effort is a deeply flawed release with a number of undeveloped ideas and several empty “revelations.” From faux-deep condemnations of drug use to some downright terrible front to back songs, “KOD” is definitely a mixed bag. However, the occasionally potent moment is enough to make this project worth a listen. Hopefully J. Cole’s next project will see a greater focus on conveying messages through storytelling and contemplation as in “Once an Addict.” Until then, we’re left with another frustrating album that shows glimmers of Cole’s potential but is ultimately weighed down by weak tracks and a tenuous and clunky album concept.