So, I’ve been listening to this album nonstop. J. Cole is one of hip-hop’s elites. He has been for quite some time. While his success is clear, he remains a debatable figure among hip-hop heads. Cole is a conscious rapper, which separates him from most rap acts today. His only peers seem to be Kendrick Lamar and Drake, though he stands apart from them sonically. Jermaine is as transparent an emcee as they come. Although his content packs substance, I’ve found a lack of craftsmanship in his songwriting approach. I love Cole’s delivery and message. His talent is unmistakable. However, time and time again his albums leave me wanting more. Platinum-selling Forest Hills Drive started a movement. Cole proved he was worth the hype. Yet this pop triumph led to something troublesome. “Double platinum with no features” became a thing. And J. Cole never looked back.
Despite a lack of features, Forest Hills Drive held its own. The singles made waves all of 2015. Additionally, the filler tracks were more than competent. A few of them stunk. Yet they didn’t ruin the overall vibe of the record. Fast forward to late 2016, and J. Cole was at it again. His fourth studio album 4 Your Eyez Only took his art to a dark place. Following the passing of a close friend, Cole dedicated the album to both his and his friend’s daughter. As a new dad, Cole felt an extra layer of pain for their family. I found this sentiment incredibly endearing. Disregarding some production overlaps, 4YEO marked a progression in the Carolina rapper’s artistry. Moreover, having no features was the right move. No one else could emote the pain inside his soul.
As much as I respect his last album, I wanted J. Cole to switch things up on his next one. Unfortunately, he did not. This didn’t surprise me, though. Why would he change? When Cole announced his fifth album KOD, anticipation spread like wildfire. Though I prepared myself for zero guest artists, the art direction presented here stirred up hope. The album’s title supposedly has three meanings. KOD stands for: Kids on Drugs, King Overdose, and Kill Our Demons. Once I heard that, I started to worry just a bit. Three meanings? Is that really necessary? After countless listens, I’ve concluded the answer to be No. The titles are not irrelevant however. Quite the contrary, actually. My main gripe with this album as a whole is its lack of focus. It’s like the album can’t decide what it wants to be.
One minute it wants to emulate current trends. The next it wants to denounce them entirely. Sonically, this is Cole at his most chameleon. Even though trap sounds and J. Cole don’t seem to match, the title track here goes hard. I loved his opening decision. Giving the people what they want right off the bat, a certified banger, was a smart move. He wanted us to know KOD would bring more energy than his last project. Conversely, every time this album gains momentum, it stumbles soon after. “The Cut Off” (featuring Cole’s alter ego or conscience named kiLL Edward) makes me cringe. Its concept is solid yet its execution lacks vision. Furthermore, the inclusion of the kiLL Edward character nearly ruins this album. It feels rather pointless. Cole shifts his vocals down a tone or two and stamps a feature on it.
This screams “Are you happy now?” to me. The awful pitching of his voice strips both respective tracks of their replay value. “The Cut Off” gets the skip treatment from me without question. Despite every single one of J. Cole’s verses here being stellar, his hooks continue to underwhelm. Also, his singing voice, while improved, has a long way to go before I consider it pleasant to the ear. One song featured solid vocals nonetheless. “BRACKETS” is my favorite track of the bunch. Cole speaks on the current taxation system in America. As a wealthy man, he wishes to choose where his taxes disperse. I mean, it’s his money, right? He’s happy to pay his taxes, but he doesn’t want his tax dollars to fund evil. This is admirable to say the least. His second verse on this song blew me away.
On top of that, his intro vocalizing on the track attached itself to my brain. This and the outro of the “Once an Addict” interlude stuck with me the most. However, as a whole, this album’s forgettable production palette and underwritten hooks hold it back from true greatness. Contrary to popular belief, KOD is not a classic rap album. For a top-selling artist, there aren’t enough hits here. Just because Cole spits about more real shit than most rappers doesn’t mean all of his songs are super deep. Most of the time, they’re surface level. And at this point in his career we know his perspective. Cole’s raw emotion towards the back end of the album boosts its overall potency. Nevertheless, “ATM” and “1985” are the only songs here with genuine longevity. J. Cole super fans will drool over this album.
Yet, considering Cole’s limitless potential, I need more dynamic songwriting and instrumentals to deem this a great album. J. Cole as an individual is great. He released great songs in the past, and still does. But his stubborn album-making formula keeps his art from reaching its pinnacle. I’m not asking for six features or even a Kendrick verse. All I want are two: one rapper and one singer. If it were up to me, I’d enlist Joey Bada$$ and Miguel. Cole’s line in his title track “Only gon’ say this one time and I’ll dip / Niggas ain’t worthy to be on my shit” rubbed me the wrong way. Features expand an album’s sonic point of view. Plenty of artists are worthy to be on your album, man. Don’t act like your shit don’t stink. Because sometimes it most certainly does (see “Hello” from Forest Hills Drive).
Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of aspects to love about KOD. However, the amount of hype surrounding J. Cole’s music supersedes the resulting product. One wild tidbit I received is a fan theory. Apparently, if you examine the album closely, there is a cohesive narrative when its played backwards. Sound familiar? Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. functioned similarly. Nevertheless, when I played DAMN. in reverse, it didn’t flow well. It felt clunky to me. Conversely, KOD flows beautifully in reverse. Whether Jermaine meant to do that is unknown. However, coincidences this fitting usually aren’t by chance. Round of applause, good sir. I appreciate the attention to detail. But, at the end of the day, the songs here fail to advance Cole’s artistry no matter which order they’re in. Execution is equally as important as ambition. KOD suffices yet slightly misses its skyward goal.