We all know the ‘Parental Advisory: Explicit Content’ warning that graces the front of certain albums – an especially iconic badge of honour in hip-hop – but J. Cole has a far more precise disclaimer for his listeners on the cover of his latest record: “This album is in no way intended to glorify addiction.”
‘KOD’ – the North Carolina rapper’s fifth studio album – tackles drugs, demons and addiction for the majority of its 12 tracks, with Cole seemingly keen to caution his fans, rap peers and society at large about this delicate and pertinent set of topics. He’s already delivered three separate definitions for its acronymic title – Kids on Drugs, King Overdosed, Kill Our Demons – leaving us in no doubt about this project’s focus.
Cole has emerged this decade as one of the US’s finest rappers. He’s a confident lyricist with an ear for a hip-pop hook, a willingness to address difficult subjects and an ability to weave compelling stories through his music, creating what he and his many, many fans (including Barack Obama) refer to as his ‘Cole World’. After his feature-heavy 2013 album ‘Born Sinner’, Cole pared down his Cole World by releasing the follow-up – ‘2014 Forest Hills Drive’ – without any guest vocals whatsoever. The formula worked: that album is still his biggest-selling album to date, while it broke streaming records (just as he’s done once again with ‘KOD’), elevated his superstar status and spawned the popular meme ‘J Cole went platinum with no features’. That album has since gone two-times platinum, and the arrival of ‘KOD’ has been widely expected to continue his hot streak.
There’s a spoken-word warning in the hazy, ambling jazz that serves as the record’s introduction: “There are many ways to deal with this pain. Choose wisely.” The title track then ticks into gear as Cole delivers an earworm of a hook about dealing, before he – or ‘KOD’’s narrator – confesses to a previous reliance on the cough syrup-laden vice lean: “Sipped so much Actavis, I convinced Actavis that they should pay me”.
‘Photograph’ takes the foot off the gas slightly, but continues the record’s theme of addiction with social media cast as the villain. Cole depicts himself in the throes of an online crush on a girl, but he knows that that’s not always a healthy option to pursue: “Love today’s gone digital / And it’s messing with my health”. Following tracks ‘The Cut Off’ and the zany ‘ATM’ up the ante though, completing a four-track salvo that exemplifies Cole’s wizardry both on the mic and in the production booth. The rapper produced or co-produced nearly all of the tracks on ‘KOD’ – if he doesn’t have any guest features, why would he need to bring in a huge team of producers?
The aforementioned trio of ‘KOD’ meanings significantly rise to the surface as the album passes its forgettable half-way point (‘Motiv8’, ‘Kevin’s Heart’), with particular poignancy arriving in ‘Once an Addict (Interlude)’ and ‘Window Pain (Outro)’. The former sees Cole painfully reminisce about his mother’s struggles with alcohol addiction when he was growing up, while the latter features a harrowing conversation between the rapper and a child who’s been sponsored by his charitable Dreamville Foundation. “God is trying to warn us, or teach us a lesson we need to learn,” the girl says in explanation for why “bad stuff happens”. “He’s coming back to see us and take us home, and re-do the world.”
But, rather than sign off with that ominous prediction of a forthcoming rapture, ‘KOD’ instead ends with its best track in ‘1985 (Intro To “The Fall Off”)’. Here Cole flexes his muscles for all to see, as he takes on his detractors in a similar vein to his 2016 diatribe ‘Everybody Dies’ (where he took aim at the “bunch of words and ain’t saying shit” rappers, including “Lil’ whatever – just another short bus rapper”). In fact, he picks up on that trail of thought once again by going for the younger breed of rappers who, according to Cole, are subject to “everybody [saying] the music that they make is dumb”.
“To tell them what they should do, who the fuck am I?” he asks, before, well, doing just that. “Come here lil’ man, let me talk with ya,” he implores to (if the internet is to be believed) Lil Pump: “See if I can paint for you the large picture”. Cole then puts his arm around the face-tattooed tyke before delivering some sage, been-there-done-that advice: “I must say, by your songs I’m unimpressed, hey / But I love to see a black man get paid / And plus, you having fun and I respect that / But have you ever thought about your impact?”
Cole’s incisive, mic-dropping end to ‘KOD’ reiterates his importance to the rap game in 2018 and, if you’re the speculating type, could even serve as a taster for an imminent full-length follow-up. His fans can and will dream about that – and you should too.