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“KOD” – J. Cole as you’ve heard him before

in Arts by

 

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.

Textural hills, valleys, and more in alt-J’s new album

in Bailey's Beats/Campus Journal/Uncategorized by

Let’s just face it: there is no next Radiohead.

That aside, alt-J’s sophomore album “This is All Yours” holds up to the expectations set two years ago by their debut “An Awesome Wave.” This last feat was a surprise success for the then four-piece band hailing from Leeds. In just five years, the group climbed from writing in their dorm rooms and recording on GarageBand to winning a coveted Mercury Prize.

Two years later, the band manages to navigate a broad emotional and sonic landscape without sacrificing character. Employing everything from warped sitars to church bells, “This is All Yours” is unified by Joe Newman’s distinct vocal quality and the sense of power that looms even in the most vulnerable tracks. The band seems to have shored up its sound, enabling it to traverse a greater range of feeling in its second album.

Even more than “An Awesome Wave,” “This is All Yours” is better understood as soundscape than as songcraft. There are no verses and choruses; rather, there are textural hills and valleys, defined by asymmetrical structures that often don’t make sense when the tracks are taken out of the context of the album. For that reason, it’s best to listen to the whole thing straight through.

Perhaps most impressive is that the album is so successful after losing founding bassist Gwil Sainsbury. Sainsbury left after realizing that the realities of life on tour and in the studio didn’t suit him.

His absence is most noticeable on the first track written after his departure, “Hunger of the Pine.” It’s the the sparest in terms of production, feeling more akin to Rhye or James Blake with its heavily reverbed trumpets and minimal beat. The Miley sample, “I am the female rebel,” from post-transformation track “22,” is jarring at first. But after several listens, it begins to make narrative sense in the song. In fact, this may be the most narrative track on the album, one of few able to stand alone convincingly.

There’s an ethereality in this album, but it’s more human than the work of otherworldly superstars like Björk and Grimes. Rather than the magic of another world, it’s a hauntingly primal space that comes through Newman’s alternately barked and wailed vocals. “Intro” powerfully demonstrates the band’s compelling mysticism.

This first track is followed by four minutes of somewhat boring melancholy in “Arriving in Nara.” Despite the title, there’s very little sense of arrival in this track. But not to worry — the momentum returns in “Nara.” With piano lines reminiscent of Muse’s classical reprises and subtle “Toccata in D Minor” vibes, the track builds irresistably into some of the album’s most successful sounds, marked by aggressively punctuated “alleluias.”

Less convincing is the duet “Warm Foothills,” with two voices exchanging the melody as frequently as every other word. While the poetic implication here is cute, the effect is somewhat jarring and removed from the otherwise peaceful texture. Newman’s voice is better left as it is on most of the other tracks: a textural element. His vocals work better as an instrument than as a narrator.

Many critics see alt-J as a guy with a stupidly weird voice singing stupidly weird lyrics. And it’s true — the lyrics are weird, and not always in a meaningful way. But there’s something oddly satisfying in that. Despite the grim verdicts of Ian Cohen at “Spin” and Kitty Empire at “The Guardian,” I think there’s a refreshing frankness in lines like “I want to turn you inside out and lick you like a crisp packet.” It’s not romantic. It’s not sexy. And as far as we can tell, it doesn’t mean anything beyond the gross sticky-slimy feeling that it leaves us with. But maybe that’s enough.

As for the now-infamous Radiohead comparison, the main difference is that Radiohead is a much more intellectual band. They are philosophically more sophisticated and musically better thought-out. “This Is All Yours” is an experiential album. It’s almost impressionistic; its beauty lies not in poetry or in form, but in the visceral impact of the textures. You’re not going to get any references to Faust. The closest you’ll get to grappling with Mephistopheles is the O-M-G in “Left Hand Free.” But that doesn’t mean it’s not powerful in it’s own right.

So stop overthinking it. Don’t listen to the words too closely. Just let yourself steep in the angst, the warmth, and the glorious weird of this resonant sophomore effort.

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