“Don’t take drugs” —Almost Famous
For the third time, J. Cole has released an album shrouded in secrecy. Only those who attended private listening events in New York or London have any idea of what to expect from KOD, the album’s acronym-friendly title. I’m fine walking in blind, the anxiousness of not knowing has become apart of Jermaine’s mystique; his dedication to confidentiality hasn’t wavered since exchanging traditional releases for curated surprises.
Cole’s method displays a belief that albums are a collection of ideas that merge into singular portraits when played together. He approaches them as movies, a screenwriter posing as a rapper. For Cole, 2014 Forest Hills Drive marked the introduction of the album as an entire project rather than a series of clips from the same film as singles. From the look of KOD’s fantastic cover, as well as information that leaked from the private listening events, this may be his most conceptual and concise project yet.
Creating a “classic” is what Cole said he set out to do during the making of KOD, an interesting goal considering a frequent critique of the North Carolina MC is that he doesn’t have a universally acclaimed album in his catalog. He’s come close, though. 2014 Forest Hills Drive is to his discography what Take Care is to Drake. After intentionally avoiding the GRAMMYs—indifference in the pursuit of a hit—and seemingly unbothered by critics, the stature of an undeniable classic album would satisfy whatever artistic milestones Hollywood Cole has left.
In usual 1-Listen fashion, the rules here are the same: no skipping, no fast-forwarding, no rewinding and no stopping. Each song will receive my gut reaction from start to finish. Today is my mother’s birthday, so I dedicate this review to her. J. Cole better not let her down, word to Nas.
I’m brimming with excitement. Instruments soft as Rihanna’s skin. Very elegant. A singing voice. This intro is very 4 Your Eyez Only. Cole would be a jazz-man in a past lifetime. A woman’s voice. She’s speaking of newborn babies and how they communicate through laughter and crying. Her voice isn’t very comforting, but the instrumentation and Cole’s harmonies in the background are tipping the scale. She’s talking about dealing with pain, a hint that she’s coping with demons through drugs. How she hovers on the word “pain” is foreshadowing. This intro is giving me some serious Section.80 vibes. Choose wisely how you deal with pain. I’m preparing myself for the most fire PBS special of my lifetime.
Sounds like the making of a banger. I’m loving the bass. The drums just charged in like an end lineman blitzing the quarterback. They’re hotter than a mouthful of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Cole’s modern flow could be sold as sauce. It’s smooth. This bounce is the most fun I’ve heard Cole have since “GOMD.” We have departed from the 4YEO vibes that opened the album. Sounds like Cole’s going through a laundry (no pun intended) list of what he’s typically asked. Ha. So that’s the mention of not having guest features that everyone foreshadowed. “Niggas ain’t worthy to be on my shit.” The first verse is cool, not spectacular but this hook and the bounce alone is an infectious combination. Could be a hit.
Verse two. A mention of the club being shot up. Started slow but then it switches up. Flow fast enough to beat Sonic The Hedgehog running through Green Hill Zone. I love that Cole is evolving into a surgical MC. His focus is laser sharp. There’s no more wasted lines or forced punches. “My life too crazy no actor can play me.” Jesus, this is a simple yet strong hook. A voice naming a bunch of vices. Fame was included with all the drugs. Not a coincidence. The strongest drug of all, love.
Slow build up. Interesting vocal pitch. The vocal pitch is going to replace Auto-Tune. Melodic singing. His voice sounds like a self-conscious zombie who hordes pictures of the homecoming queen. I love how strange this production is. Makes me wish Jermaine and Organized Noize did something. Cole’s flow has stepped into the times. I’m being heavily reminded of Ab-Soul’s These Days…, the concept of how he gave his view of the world through rap’s modern sound. Cole is doing the same by putting his spin on the trap, the sound, and flow. He’s doing the “Yea” delivery. This concept is interesting, he’s looking at the digital age of matchmaking. I like the melody, but the hook is eerie, no Teddy Perkins. I wonder if his intent is to sound lifeless, almost robotic. I’m not sure if I see the intent behind this song other than acknowledging how social media is the hopeless place love is found. We fall in love with pictures and double tapping is not good for our health. Amen.
4. “The Cut Off” ft. kiLL edward
Big vocal change. Sounds like Cole, but slightly pitched. I guess this is edward. I really like that opening line, “I know Heaven is mind state, I been a couple times.” I’m seeing visions of Lupe’s The Cool. Whoa. Okay. I love how the vocals are stacked in this verse. Or bridge? I don’t know. But so far this is the most interesting song through the first turn. I wish the production was as inventive as the attention paid to the vocals. Cole’s voice. Slower flow. He’s talking about people who owe him apologies.
This is a very dark version of an Aubrey song. I can’t wait to see how social media is going to dissect this album. Just based on the subject matter, KOD will make for thoughtful discourse. Sheesh. Cole’s verses aren’t bar filled, he’s just soul spilling. His singing on the hook, though… I’m feeling it. Drums and keys are twirling. So many thoughts. At his most introspective, Cole has never felt so… cold. He’s rapping and singing with ice in his veins. I feel like the temperature is dropping in the room. He brought winter back before spring could get comfortable.
4YEO was the test run for KOD. More singing. Cole is giving me flashbacks of To Pimp A Butterfly with all these vocal effects. None of them sound the same. The bridge had a very EarthGang-esque vibe. Bounce, bounce, bounce. I’m loving shades of trap Jermaine. Swift flow. He’s water whippin’ in the pocket. I’ll say, I haven’t heard many bars that caused me to sit in awe, but what he’s saying is captivating. His energy is on 100. I need a Jeezy ad-lib. Through five tracks, there are no “hits” on this album, but “ATM” is a contender for a party starter at shows. This is where I acknowledge the pristine mixing on this album. Money counter. I didn’t know I needed J. Cole rapping over a money counter, but it has brought so much joy to my life. I really need to know what influenced some of Cole’s creative choices. He’s way out of his comfort zone but sounds very comfortable.
“ATM” is an early favorite. Video game-esque production. Cole sounds like he just bought his first bottom grill and has decided to try and rap. I’m assuming he sampled hot grease for these snares. This may be the most Southern I’ve ever heard him sound. This is Hustle & Flow music. I feel motivated. He’s doing SO MUCH. I don’t think Cole has ever been this vocally ambitious. I’m not sure how I feel about it. I’m not about this concept; are all these songs just vignettes to be viewed separately? WOOOOO. I may be a bit puzzled by the concept, but this beat is slapping harder than Black Chyna fighting at Six Flags.
7. “Kevin’s Heart”
Ha. I wonder if this is about Kevin Hart being caught cheating. These chords. Cole’s melodic singing sounds good. I believe every song has a reference to doing drugs. Repetitive. I can’t tell if he’s just inserting drugs for the sake of the theme. This verse sounds the most vintage Cole I’ve heard on the entire album. He’s contemplating cheating. Part of me believes this album is structured to make us confront these themes. None of these themes glorify the actions. He called himself fake, a hilarious confession. I really like the production. These chords are magic. I wonder how much of this is true to his life; a lot of guilt can be heard on this one. There are some great melodies being executed. Catchy. Grabbing. It’s easy to enjoy the music and not meditate on the message.
A skit about show business. Familiar comedian. I can’t place the voice at the moment. [Editor’s Note: It’s Richard Pryor.] I wish there was a bit more knock to really give these drums some kick. Solid first verse. He’s contemplative. There’s a lot to take in that will either make the album enthralling or off-putting. He sounds very old and poetic, like a man who has lived a long, hard life. He’s too young to be sounding this old. Cole’s voice but with a higher pitch rather than low. Uncle Sam just called him. I love how Sam’s voice is just mumbling. From Sallie Mae to Uncle Sam, cold world. Complaining about tax money. Cole is talking about history. This sounds like an extension of “High For Hours,” a song that I love. I’m here for complaining Jermaine. Whoa. Verse two is flawless. He’s bleeding these feelings out. Cole would have made a great teacher. Maybe his act two? When he’s talking about life in this matter, with an informative skepticism of society, and with a touch of storytelling, is when he’s truly in his Jansport. A standout. Not just on the album, but his career.
9. “Once an Addict (Interlude)
Another slow builder. He’s made a conscious decision to allow each song a moment to breath in-between. He never dives right into it. The woman’s voice! Talking about pain again. He mentions God. Singing. The voice sounded like it could be coming from the void. WHOA. Cole just came in with a voice full of conviction. The emotion is stinging. He’s talking about his mother. This is deep. His straightforward storytelling has reached a level over 9,000. It’s quietly the strength he should lead on more. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. The mention about leaving for college and escaping his alcoholic mother. I’m catching chills. Especially with today being my mom’s birthday. More singing Cole. I don’t know if his voice has gotten any stronger but his singing has become far more pleasant. I wonder how much of this album is inspired by the trauma with his mother. What a song. Is this woman’s voice his mother? That would be a plot twist
10. “FRIENDS” ft. kiLL edward
“Copped another bag to smoke today” is being repeated. Production is very quiet in the background. He’s entranced. Pitched down vocals. I’m loving this flow on top of the swinging percussion. “I wrote this shit to talk about addiction.” He’s talking about friends whose names are reversed. Okay! This verse is going to be dissected like frogs in 8th-grade science. Pointing blame in all directions. If Drake raps Instagram captions, Cole is spitting subjects that inspire Facebook debates. This verse is raw, though. He’s digging into the drugs as coping mechanisms. Woke Jermaine. He’s truly rapping with all his soul to reach someone. I love the passion. I love the conviction. This bridge and these scales are also very EarthGang-esque. The influence is rubbing off on the boss. J. Cole is suggesting meditate over medicate. Meditation is the message he’s been building up toward. So many thoughts. I don’t think there are enough trees for all the forthcoming think pieces on this song. Word to the internet. I wonder how the message will be received.
11. “Window Pain”
It sounds like the loop is malfunctioning. Like it overheated. The sound of a child. He just mentioned gunshots. His cousin was shot. Jesus. Cole’s singing. Heartfelt. OHHHHH. This could set off the fire alarms. Gotta make the stank face when the drums drop. More introspective bars. I never thought Cole suffered from PTSD until now. He seems deeply bothered by the state of The Ville. He always has been, but these last two albums have shown how much he wants to see a change at home. Technically, this verse is incredibly strong. One of the strongest on the album. He’s mentioning some girl he met this summer who told him a tragic story. Oh, man. The level of empathy expressed in his music shows how much Cole absorbs from the world. Empathy is the heart of this album. God is being mentioned by the voice of a child. I don’t believe God has been heavily mentioned in Cole’s music. I guess this kid is Cole’s cousin Carl.
12.“1985” (Intro to “The Fall Off”)
The year Cole was born. He’s energized. It sounds like he just drank five Monsters and played six games of Call Of Duty while listening to The Marshall Mathers LP. Boy, if these drums drop like I think they will… AHH. That wasn’t hard enough, but they’ve got that ballerina swing. This is hyphy. Sounds like J. Cole is digging into some rapper who dissed him like a father lecturing a disobedient seed. “I got some good advice never quit touring.” *Insert 2Chainz Truuuu*. “By your song I’m unimpressed, hey, but I love to see a black man get paid.” This is… a lot. He’s not a bitter rapper but he’s in full lecture mode and he’s floating while doing so. OG Jermaine. This might be the most respectful disrespect ever laid on wax. Some mumble rapper is in the studio right now recording “Fuck J. Cole” 50 times. I disagree with his observation but the Love & Hip-Hop dig was a bar.
KOD Closing Thoughts:
In an interview following the release of Section.80, Kendrick Lamar told Billboard, “I’m making music that represents my generation, their struggle.” Like Section.80, J. Cole’s KOD was crafted to represent and display the struggles of an entire generation. With this desire in his heart, Cole has crafted his most ambitious album.
Cole is at his very best when his contemplative lyricism is inspired by his life. Musing on taxes, his mother, and friends back at home really drive home how celebrity, fame, and money doesn’t remove you from present reality and past traumas. But when he tries to nail this generation’s trauma-coping through self-medication, he doesn’t always hit the bullseye. The effort is commendable, encouraging people to confront their pain rather than bury it, but his solution—meditate before medicate—just doesn’t sit well with me. I’m supportive of positive alternatives, but there are many nuances to consider here that aren’t addressed.
KOD is obviously an album that is hard to fully grasp in just one listen. Not as much as To Pimp a Butterfly, but there’s plenty to ponder, dissect, and muse upon that will require multiple listens. Musically, and technically, I enjoyed all 12 songs. There are moments (“Brackets,” “FRIENDS”) where Cole is at his absolute best. He found a way to have fun on an album where the overarching theme is rather serious. Modernizing his sound allowed Cole to build on the potential that was showcased with “Neighbors.”
The production has the punch 4 Your Eyez Only was missing, and Cole’s maturing skill set is only getting stronger. This is the most well-rounded he has sounded as a rapper, singer, and songwriter. It’s fascinating to watch an artist becoming better at their craft, displayed through attacking subjects far more challenging than past material. Grown Simba showed up.
At its best, KOD is the concept of These Days… but executed at a higher level. At its worst, it’s the PBS version of Section.80. What extreme it leans closer toward depends on each individual listener and how he or she receives his message and the artistic language it’s told through. Albums are for saving lives, and J. Cole is trying to save many. The man who made “No Role Modelz” made his most earnest attempt at being one.
By Yoh, aka Yoh On Drugs, aka @Yoh31