J Cole’s new album is a brutally honest reflection on addiction, depression, and race.
Since the relentless rise of trap music and ‘mumble rap’ in the hip-hop industry, the community has been arguing endlessly over the same topic: who is the king of conscious rap? In other words, who is the ‘last hope’ for fans of the genre who want to listen to tracks that are thought-provoking, not just a soundtrack to turn-up to? If you’ve ever come across this debate online or overheard it in discussion, you will know that it usually returns to the same two names: Kendrick Lamar and J Cole.
Of course, conscious rap isn’t actually dead just because artists like Future and Lil Pump (unconscious rappers?) are popular. There are countless artists making music today that are pushing the boundaries of hip-hop forward, both lyrically and sonically, but few have received the critical praise or mainstream attention of Kendrick and J Cole. And it’s easy to see why they’re so frequently compared to one another; they’ve both demonstrated their technical prowess with a variety of flows and styles, they both make political music that touches on similar themes of poverty and black identity, and they both bring an aggressive energy, intricate wordplay, and love of storytelling into their craft. They have also collaborated on the Black Friday project, where they each remixed a song from the other’s album, proving that they have a mutual respect as well as a competitive relationship.
J Cole’s new album, KOD, leaves no confusion about who the rapper believes to be the king of conscious rap. The cover art features Cole in robes, jewels, and a crown. But his expression looks ghastly, as if he has been possessed, and escaping from his billowing robes we see skulls and children taking an assortment of drugs. He may be the king, but something is clearly not right in his kingdom.
The album kicks off with Intro, where we are greeted by Cole’s distorted voice crooning about the feeling trapped inside his mind over a jazzy instrumental. A relaxing female voice appears to explain that new-born babies have two modes of communication: laughter (“I love this”) and crying (“this frightens me; I’m in pain”). She leaves us with the advice that “there are many ways to deal with this pain, choose wisely”, and then the vocals loop and fade into a heavenly saxophone solo. This track sets the tone and relays the message of the album in a dreamy style that is not dissimilar to the intro track from Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly – Wesley’s Theory.
Highlights from KOD include The Cut Off, a track where Cole discusses his reliance on drugs which is laid over a melancholy piano melody. Featured on the song is a mysterious ‘kiLL edward’, who is allegedly Cole’s alter ego and appears on another highlight from the album, FRIENDS. This downbeat track returns to the subject of addiction, and Cole talks about the friends that he left behind that lack motivation, while he also addresses the institutional problems in US politics and society. The track ends on Cole’s solution to the problem: instead of taking drugs to deal with life, meditate. The hardest banger on the album is without a doubt ATM, a fast and energetic cut that doesn’t disappoint.
Perhaps the most shocking song on the album is Window Pain – outro, where a little girl recounts the murder of her cousin over a disturbing, screechy sample. The final track, 1985, is Cole at the top of his game: it’s vicious and witty. Cole addresses a young rapper coming up on the new wave of rap, at first congratulating them on their success but slowly turning on them for their bad life decisions and shameless exploitation of a trendy sound. The song also touches on the issue of black performers living up to stereotypes (“they wanna see you dab, they wanna see you pop a pill”) to cater to a white audience of teenagers. This is a topic that Cole has covered in his music before, as well as in interviews. Although the blanket use of racial terms feels quite reductive in framing the question of why white audiences have taken so strongly to a historically black genre, there is a valid issue of voyeurism and the glorification of violence that is raised. The issue is a controversial one, but thought-provoking at the least.
However, there are some flaws with KOD: for example, the title track KOD has a good beat and Cole gives a blistering performance with a high-speed flow, but the hook is neither interesting nor memorable. Motiv8 suffers from this problem too, as does Kevin’s Heart, which feels especially repetitive towards the end of the track. But all in all, this is a solid effort from Cole with a variety of meditative, confessional, and hard-hitting tracks. It doesn’t have the eclectic vibrancy or coherence in the story as classics by Kendrick such as good kid, m.A.A.d city, however, so Cole shouldn’t assume that he’s snatched the crown for good.