The discourse surrounding J. Cole’s music is that it has the unmatched ability to lull listeners to sleep as soon as they give it the time of day. The two most polarizing elements of his output—handling his own production and hardly ever having any featured artists on his albums—have created a fissure between witty critics who cite those as reasons for how uninteresting he is, and staunch supporters who believe his self-sufficiency is more praiseworthy than the majority of his peers. It’s an antagonistic exchange between timeline critics that, at this point, have turned a more-than-capable artist into a digital punching bag that gets jabbed at the very insinuation of him releasing new material.
But the wilding-for-retweets approach to Cole’s music didn’t happen unwarranted. At the top of this decade, The Warm Up and Friday Night Lights mixtapes earned him being dubbed as a new generation’s Nas. His debut album did nothing to uphold that type of crowning, and his follow up with Born Sinner dragged for most of its duration. And since, he’s fallen somewhere in the middle ground of being thought of as an upper echelon rapper and someone damn near incapable of holding people’s attention for an entire album. People tend to only see J. Cole in these extremes. You either can’t wait to hang on to every word, or you can’t stand to listen at all. But as someone who barely spends time engaging with the social media universe, it’s never been clear how the North Carolina rapper takes this all in—and if he does, how it informs his music thereafter.
The intro to Cole’s newest album, KOD, is a manifesto of sorts: “Life can bring much pain. There are many ways to deal with this pain. Choose wisely.” The album’s cover art, upon initial observation, could be a trigger for anyone fatigued by the dialogue around how rap’s new guard is a stain on the genre’s legacy. In it, the Fayetteville native is imagined as an eerie, pupil-less king with lean-sipping, blow-snorting, and blunt-smoking children coming out of the opening of his heavy cape. But a key detail in the image is that it positions J. Cole as an elder offering embrace to these poor lost souls, rather than casting them away. That framing is upheld throughout much of KOD, which proves to be one of J. Cole’s engaging projects due to its attempt to guide listeners on how to cope with vices and obstacles without hardly ever stepping into the condescending preacher territory.
One of the earliest examples of pain explored on KOD is the wire-thin line between internet-based admiration and obsession. “Photograph” tells the story of a guy who develops feelings for a woman he follows online (presumably Instagram), hoping that she’ll follow back. His anxiety is mostly fueled by the fact that he is either too afraid or too prideful to make a move on her in fear of rejection. “Without it I’m miserable. Don’t wanna fall off so I’m all in my bag,” is how Cole discusses money often being used as a crutch for people who obtain riches on “ATM.” Comedian and documented adulterer Kevin Hart is not-so-subtly used as the inspiration for “Kevin’s Heart,” a song that considers the thinking behind a man’s unfaithfulness. The fact that the song goes its entirety without the offender once blaming his spouse for his actions is a serious “whew” moment. Here, Cole frames temptation as a habit that needs kicking.
All of the different forms of addiction that J. Cole tries his hand at making sense of on KOD equally stand the chance of resonating with listeners due to their universality, but there are very few moments on the album that feel particularly personal.
That takes a swift turn when the album rolls around to how substance abuse can put a strain on personal relationships—a place from which Cole’s energy gets a clear jolt. “The Cut Off,” on first listen plays as a soundtrack for weeding out friends who seem incapable of reciprocating the care that he’s given to them. But when considering parts of the song’s hook (“Give me drank, give me dope / Bottom line, I can’t cope”), it seems as if a significant factor in these soured friendships is how addiction can change someone close to you. That’s especially apparent on KOD’s lone interlude, “Once an Addict.” It’s Cole’s most spirited effort on the album as it revisits every grueling step of his mother’s alcoholism—spearheaded by his stepfather’s infidelity—that he had to witness as a child growing up in Fayetteville.
What resonates most about the song is that it conveys the universal pain of helplessly watching a loved one deteriorate before your eyes. For some, that’s witnessing a grandparent’s physical and mental decline as time goes by. For others, it’s being subjected to the backlash a family member dishes out from living their lives in regret, rendering them incapable of true happiness. Others, like Cole, have watched addiction eat away at their parents. This is all especially hurtful when you have vivid memories of that person during their better days. On the song, Cole remembers reluctantly taking his mother’s drunken calls while in college and staying out late as a teen in hopes of avoiding seeing her in her transformed state. “Seein’ my hero on ground zero” is his gut-wrenching articulation of the ordeal.
Maybe the internalized trauma from those experiences is why Cole chose to close KOD out as Big Brother Jermaine. Since the album’s release on Friday, its sign-off track “1985 (Intro to ‘The Fall Off’)” has made the most traction in internet rap circles. It’s here that he addresses rap’s new generation of artists who, like many when they start out, are primarily concerned with money, jewelry, cars, and women. He reminds them to adopt more self-awareness, considering that the intersections of race and fame can cloud how non-black fans of their music look at them as indirect representations of their racial group. This is Cole’s emotional self talking. History teaches that no matter how buttoned up and politically correct a black person presents themselves, if non-blacks have a negative image burned into their heads from birth, subduing one’s self will make no difference in racial progress.
There are other moments when J. Cole falls short in his elder statesman efforts. His suggestion to “meditate, don't medicate” on “FRIENDS” is extremely tone deaf especially when multiple artists have died from substance abuse over the past calendar year. “ATM” at times feels like a parody of contemporary rappers when his elected flow and content are considered along with each. On “Photograph,” he unabashedly uses XXXtentacion’s “Look At Me” flow, just as Drake did on More Life’s “KMT,” but even with those perceived jabs, KOD is J. Cole firmly planting his flag in the “grown up” rap territory. The draw of JAY-Z’s 4:44 was that rap fans claimed to want to hear mature content from a guy nearing 50. But what about the guys in rap nearing their early-to-mid-30s? If artists like Mozzy and Payroll Giovanni can make albums that could very well be read from beginning to end as a manual on how to transition from a life on the streets to one making legit money, it should be equally expected that an artist like J. Cole would want to inspire change in a genre that has given him the opportunity to change his life. Yes, there are times when he seems a bit out of touch on KOD, but what translates most successfully here is compassion and concern, not contempt.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.