J. Cole

Dreamville Records / Roc Nation / Interscope Records, 2018


REVIEW BY: Daniel Camp


Hip hop, party music from its very inception, has historically been about sex, money, drugs, and life on the streets. It’s music designed to keep the party bumping, to impress a girl, to establish your reputation. Even the most socially conscious mainstream rappers, like Public Enemy and Common, dropped their most famous political diatribes on a foundation of more palatable material. Hip hop is permitted to speak to big issues, but it shies away from outright preaching – after all, goes the thinking, we’re here to have fun.

So with that as a backdrop, J. Cole can come across as a bummer sometimes. Having established himself as mainstream hip hop’s conscience, he has set himself apart from his peers by cautioning listeners against drug use instead of glorifying it, by warning against greed instead of counting his stacks, and by crying out against violence instead of inciting it. J. Cole is the kind of rapper parents wish their teenagers would listen to – which, of course, drives those teenagers away from him in droves. In a genre full of recklessness, J. Cole is the voice of maturity.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Thankfully, he has talent to go along with it, slick rhythms and pulsing beats to pair with his messages. It is the music that prevents KOD, his fifth studio album, from descending into a tired series of sermons. J. Cole isn’t here to start a party, but to make you think. Backed by some strong songs, he mostly succeeds here.

Bookended by spoken word pieces over jazz which talk about the various ways one deals with pain, the album’s central theme is made clear from the get-go: KOD is about the different kinds of suffering faced by the African-American community, with J. Cole offering alternative prescriptions from what he sees being pursued.

The title track, also the album’s lead single, relies on trap music and a nonstop flow of rapping to talk about the perks of drug dealing before ultimately concluding that these riches are empty of real value. Similar ideas are explored with a slower, less propulsive backing in “The Cut Off” but are most effectively and personally addressed in “Once An Addict (Interlude)”, which sees J. Cole angrily telling the story of his mother’s own addiction and its effect on her life and his.

“ATM” and “BRACKETS” deal with money and greed, both on the part of individuals and the federal government. Whether because of the subject matter or the catchy beats backing the insightful lyrics, these are two of the strongest tracks on the album; this is where you see J. Cole really seeming to get into his message.

Other issues are addressed, from love in the age of Tinder (“Photograph” and “Kevin’s Heart”) to self-medication (“Motiv8”), but it all culminates in “FRIENDS,” which has J. Cole almost apologetically telling listeners “I understand this message is not the coolest to say / But if you down to try it I know another way / Meditate, don’t medicate.” This is the heart of the rapper’s message in KOD: he sees too much pain, and he’s tired of watching others hurting themselves when he’s found peace.

Such a message is naturally going to rub people the wrong way unless 1) the hurt he sees is real and 2) his message is delivered well. In KOD, J. Cole mostly succeeds in the latter regard, with an album for mature listeners willing to put the bong down and listen up. It’s not a sexy message, but perhaps it’s an important one.

Rating: B

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


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