J. Cole has something to say. KOD, the title of the reigning king of conscious rap’s fifth studio album which surprise-dropped last week, stands for one of three things: Kids On Drugs, King Overdose or Kill Our Demons. Apparently the terms are interchangeable, illustrating the ever-darkening atmosphere of anxiety and dread enveloping America (and specifically, black America) in a post-Trump world. The kids aren’t alright, Cole posits, and through pensive rhymes about addiction, crime, racism, greed, and violence, KOD sees him continue his legacy of contemplative, heavily-layered hip-hop.
The thing with J. Cole, though, is that there’s always been something slightly performative about his work, like he’s presenting an homage to conscious rappers of the ‘90s and 2000s instead of trying to find new ways of presenting his verses within the current political climate. It’s kind of like watching people on Facebook compete in comment battles to see who is the most woke, and on a lot of KOD, Cole almost comes off like that archetypal hip high school guidance counselor rather than a maverick artist who lives on rap culture’s cutting edge.
On the album’s lead single, “ATM,” Cole raps on the hook: “Count it up, count it up, count it up, count it / Can't take it when you die, but you can't live without it.” That’s about as deep as it gets, and it’s a shame — the track is buoyed by a chorus of distorted voices straight from the cross-section of Parliament and OutKast, and Cole’s fluid, machine-gun flow expertly drives the track through its motions. “Choose wisely,” a female voice purrs at the beginning of the song, as if she’s some sort of sphinx at a crossroads, prompting the listener to choose the Righteous Path or the Dark Road. It's this kind of pseudo-philosophical tone that unfortunately permeates not only “ATM” but the album as a whole.
This doesn’t mean KOD is a bad album, or that J. Cole isn’t an important figure in hip-hop’s current landscape. It’s just that, when you look at his peers (Kendrick Lamar’s military-grade sniper bars, or Chance the Rapper’s pop appeal), it’s hard to exactly ascertain who KOD was made for. The world is spiralling out of control, but the album’s messages feel dated when they should feel dangerously relevant. Even the album’s artwork looks like an inner-city playground mural from the mid '90s: J. Cole is seen dressed as a king, with children hidden under his ornate cloak, smoking blunts and sipping lean. In 2018, one does not need to resort to almost D.A.R.E.-level platitudes to get the point across that American society is in dire need of a moral compass.
But when Cole does hit on an emotional core, it’s devastating. “Window Pain (Outro)” begins with a recording of a little boy recounting an extremely disturbing account of violence at the hands of his community. “My mom had heard three gunshots,” he says, “It was to my cousin [...] He had been shot right through the face, right in the neck / And he got shot right in the stomach.” The boy recites these details as simple fact, and the track uses his numbness as a jumping-off point for Cole’s own relationship to crime and death: “All I wanna do is see my granny on the other side / All I wanna do is kill the man that made my momma cry.” When Cole drops the self-mythologizing and gets straight to the point, the results are wholly arresting. “Window Pain” is KOD’s crowning achievement, a portrait of loss and mourning and salvation that shows glimpses of why Cole holds so much clout within the backpack rap scene.
“BRACKETS” is another highlight, beginning with a stand-up set by Richard Pryor, his generation’s standard for a successful black entertainer who refuses to compromise on his identity for profit. It’s like looking back in time through the wrong side of a telescope — when Cole spits “Maybe we'll never see a black man in the White House again,” it’s in stark contrast to Pryor’s bit about explaining his newfound wealth to his elderly father. Could it be that we’re actually going backwards? It’s a chilling thought, and the track’s ongoing refrain of “Whoa whoa whoa whoa / Yeah, yeah” has the shuffling resignation of workers filing into a factories and offices across America, paying taxes to ultimately keep them oppressed.
At the end of the day, the problem with J. Cole is this: he knows his limitations, and he just doesn’t care. He’d rather be the self-appointed voice of a generation than dig that little bit deeper and deliver his message in a way that might be more exciting, more innovative, more out-there. Although, given that KOD has now beaten Taylor Swift’s record for the most opening-day streams on Spotify, he is definitely doing more good than harm, and if he ends up playing a hand in avoiding his dystopian visions and getting another black man in the Oval Office, then perhaps KOD’s mission will have been fulfilled after all.
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