In a world where mumble rap has a glorified stance against the raw energy of true artistry, J. Cole’s recent album KOD, attempts to revamp the order with a tone of morality and a reminder that addiction should be in no way glorified.
When J Cole announced the arrival of KOD on a day known to some parts of the World as Smoke Day (4/20), there was a major sense of attention given to the track-list. Indeed, our attention was caught by the appearance of an unknown artist kiLL edward. The last time J. Cole featured an artist on his album was Born Sinner (which remains an unforgettable piece of work if you ask me). 2014 Forest Hills Drive broke a Spotify streaming record previously held by One Direction and the phrase “J Cole went platinum with no features” turned from an endlessly repeated boast to internet meme and eventually an anthem by Cole fans. However, the presence of kiLL edward on the album was all a façade as kiLL edward is Cole, with slowed down vocal.
The album artwork serves us with a striking illustration of the rapper as a hollow-eyed king in a cape concealing children smoking weed, popping pills, sniffing coke and sipping lean. The cover speaks a thousand volumes and is profoundly haunting to the frail minds blinded by the side effect of addictive drugs. The message behind the artwork goes to show how much kids idolize their favourite artists and how much their art resonates through their minds and ultimately their actions. Above the rapper’s head is a statement, more of a disclaimer that says “This album is in no way intended to glorify addiction”.
— Music Plug (@MusicPlugAfrica) April 24, 2018
As a musical piece of work, two of KOD’s most emotionally impactful lyrics are labelled as interludes and outros. The interlude Once an Addict turns out to be an insightful situation of Cole’s mother’s alcoholism and his inability to intervene or help. The outro Window Pain is a conversation with a child who attempts to recreate a situation of hope in the event of her cousin’s shooting by believing it was part of a divine masterplan by God that gives us a sign that Jesus is coming soon to unite everyone “so we can rejoice with him and have our time”.
Ten tracks from KOD portrays a series of characters at various stages of dependency to drugs, sex, money and the internet. Photograph, the third track paints a situation about how a lonely young man becomes attracted to a beautiful woman through her social-media profile, although he is missing from the rush of infatuation in the sense that they’ve ever met or even spoken. He is in love with the pictures he sees when he creeps at her page; he can never figure out how to say so.
ATM is set to muted, jazzy piano chords over a beat that ticks and whirs like a cash machine, spewing warnings about the sad part of pursuing money too adroitly. Kevin’s Heart is strongly alluded to comedian Kevin Hart’s admission of marital infidelity as it is also an example of sexual unfaithfulness. It pretty much feels like the story of a broken man admitting his guilt and taking responsibility for it, like Jay-Z in 4:44.
The title track KOD sounds more like a flip-flop union between being a beautifully stoned track or a satiric mimicry of the trap order. Similar to KOD, Motiv8 takes a trap beat and revolves round a keyboard figure and background cry of ‘get money’, a carefully sampled Lil Kim’s ‘get money’ from her guest appearance on the 1995 Junior MAFIA hit of the same title.
In BRACKETS, Cole started off by sounding troublingly like a rich man concerned about his tax spending. He however, ends by taking a different role by hitting at the US government spending tax money on weapons and makes an indictment of racial concerns in the government spending.
It won’t be wrong to opine that the last album closing tracks, FRIENDS and 1985 left their marks as standout tracks from the album. In FRIENDS Cole gets real with stories of a neighborhood kids fighting their anxiety with weed and pills. He preaches the gospel against addiction: “You running from yourself, and you buying product again / I know you say it helps, and no I’m not trying to offend / But I know depression and drug addiction don’t blend / Reality distorts, and then you get lost in the wind.” He seems to endorse soul-searching as the final solution with the closing refrain of “meditate, don’t medicate”, thus opining that the mind is a better fighter than any drug.
1985 he takes the tone of a rap lecturer, schooling the ego of the younger generation of trap rappers. He says: “Lil’ whatever—just another short bus rapper/Fake drug dealer turn tour bus trappers,”. “I must say, by your songs, I’m unimpressed, hey,” Cole says in the new verse, “but I love to see a black man get paid.”… “These white kids love that you don’t give a fuck, ‘cause that’s exactly what’s expected when your skin black… They wanna be black and think your song is how it feels”.
The tone of this track is daring and like a pastor giving an unfriendly sermon, hoping to prick the ignorance of his listeners. Cole asserts that the newer generation of rappers behind him should understand that these white listeners use their music to imitate the black man’s gig. This isn’t the first time this is occurring in hip hop, similar to when Public Enemy blew suburban teenagers’ minds on the Beastie Boys’ tour in 1988, and when white listeners started calling 50 Cent “Fiddy” because that’s how they thought the hood pronounced it.
He further criticizes the longevity of trap as a lesser, disposable art when he says, “One day, them kids that’s listening gon’ grow up / And get too old for that shit that made you blow up / Now your show’s lookin’ light cause they don’t show up / Which unfortunately means the money slow up.”
Jermaine Cole has always been known to be conscious of the beats he samples in his album, and KOD packs with it some classic samples revamped to show how good a body of work it is. The album sets the tone with a muted, Miles Davis-style trumpet intro. KOD interpolates the hook from College Dropout opener “We Don’t Care” in the opening moments of “1985.”
“BRACKETS” samples one of Cole’s longtime influences, Richard Pryor, and closes a loop started on his début; he first planned to sample Pryor on the* Sideline Story* cut “Never Told” but couldn’t clear it.
“Motiv8”, as recounted earlier samples Junior M.A.F.I.A.’s “Get Money” and Crime Mob’s “Knuck if You Buck.”
The piano riff on “The Cut Off” is reminiscent of Jay-Z’s “Dead Presidents,” which Cole is known to have rapped over.
But will KOD register itself as a classic, a timeless material in the shelf of classic hip hop?
Maybe, or maybe not, but one thing is certain…
It was an album that was built on concept, and that makes it a notable work of the arts.