If you don’t listen to rap music, or you’ve lived under a rock for the past decade, J. Cole is an impressive, if a bit overrated rapper who is best known for going double platinum with no features on his major label debut, 2014 Forest Hills Drive. His 2016 follow up, “4 Your Eyez Only,” was a genuinely admirable effort which established Cole as one of the leading voices in the recent movement of “conscious rap.” However, “KOD” breaks the J. Cole mold in many ways, which are made clear by the title track, which falls second on the list, and aren’t explained until the last couple songs.
“KOD” is a bit of a shock for many long time fans. Whether it’s the uncharacteristically aggressive delivery, or the oddly braggadocios lyrics, Cole seems to be on a different wavelength than we’ve ever heard. While “Photograph” and “The Cut Off,” return briefly to more Cole-esque instrumentals, the lyrics and delivery are still distinctly different. Each of these songs, partly by virtue of their strangeness, and partly due to a lack of form, fail to capture listeners in the early minutes of the project.
This changes, however, with “ATM,” which sees Jermaine finally feel at home in this new style. It also sees him, hopefully intentionally, biting the types of quick and internal rhyme heavy flows which have recently risen to prominence in the Florida scene, with artists like Denzel Curry and XXXTentacion. This track, I would imagine, tips off most careful listeners that some kind of trick may be afoot. And by the first vocals of “Motiv8” the gig is up.
Again, J. Cole is mimicking a popular rap style, this time that of the online, Soundcloud scene, and putting it to use in a really effective way. “Kevin’s Heart” continues this trend and is one of the most intriguing tracks on the entire project.
With “BRACKETS,” however, Cole returns to form to deliver a very thoughtful commentary on the systematic issues which plague people of color in this country, a topic which he is quite well versed in. The odd, pitched-up voice which speaks on the bridge serves to create a funny skit/interlude in the song before Cole comes back with one of the best verses he’s crafted throughout his career. It’s emotional, it’s intelligent, and it’s what most fans were expecting when this record was announced.
The “Once an Addict” interlude is similarly emotional, this time speaking to his mother’s alcoholism, and his early introduction to the idea of using substances to numb one’s pain. “Friends” and the “Window Pains” outro follow this formula of one long, lyrically thick verse sandwiched between dark, catchy hooks, and its a formula that fits Cole’s style of writing quite well.
The record closes with “1985 (Intro to “The Fall Off”)” which has set the internet aflame since its release with talks of the many disses toward the young rappers of the day. While my opinions are a mixed bag on the actual politics expressed in the track, and I may write at another time to discuss my views on this verse, there is no denying that J. Cole’s flow and lyricism are impressive on this track as they are on the project as a whole.
This project is an interesting addition to Cole’s discography. On the one hand, his penchant for keeping young rappers in their place consistently is refreshing, and likely necessary to insure that hip-hop, which is by far the most vibrant and impressive genre alive today, doesn’t go the way of its predecessors and over-commercialize to the point of dullness. However, some criticism my be in order for Jermaine as well, as he doesn’t seem to challenge himself to grow and change as much as he challenges the younger generation. Cole’s evolution has been fairly minimal since 2014FHD and that doesn’t show any signs of changing. So while he spends much of his time performing the much needed task of rap’s “gatekeeper,” artists like Kendrick Lamar, A$AP Rocky, and Danny Brown are continually growing and the additions of brand new rappers like Denzel Curry threaten to leave him in the proverbial “dust.”
This album itself is fun, but it ultimately suffers from being disjointed. The first half, full of J. Cole mocking the flows of popular rappers could likely have been trimmed down to a separate EP or even just a few singles to be released before the real album dropped, which should’ve either stuck closer to the sound of the second half, or even experimented with more progressive sounds and flows. The second half is, however, far too enjoyable to allow this project to receive too low of a rating.
HEAR THE ALBUM: https://open.spotify.com/album/4Wv5UAieM1LDEYVq5WmqDd