A Review of J. Cole’s KOD: Meditate, Don’t Medicate

As someone who can recall memories of listening to J. Cole’s The Warm Up while throwing my leg over my bike seat and riding off to school at 5:30am for a workout, it’s crazy to think that almost a decade ago the conversation around J. Cole is about the same as it is now. Furiously writing on message boards on 2DopeBoyz, I used to defend the “you needed to have certain intelligence to understand his music” side of the the dichotomy that is J. Cole’s music. Others wanted (and still do) Cole to be a surface-level rapper with a little depth and some ridiculously hot punchlines.
But by the time he released his first album, Cole World: The Sideline Story, J. Cole was nearly sidelined by the rap greats and his original fans because it lacked the substance he had on his previous mixtapes. He merely rapped about how he attained success at that point in his career and how he’s destined to be one of the greatest to ever do it.
His career followed an unexpected trajectory, in which he stopped caring about that potential status amongst his hardcore fans and had to rebuild himself, to an extent, for a different audience. He made music for any audience who would listen instead of making music for the masses. He seems to have found the right formula in these shorter, featureless albums that are no longer about him being hungry to be the best, but instead about him passing on wisdom—whether to his children or all of the children—living and surviving, finding what matters, and finding himself.
KOD is ultimately no exception to the formula. Although I think this album is hot, I find that I’m not feeling it like I was with 4 Your Eyez Only or 2014 Forest Hills Drive. KOD seems to remove some of the personal elements and puts the focus to the problems of younger rappers, or the “kids on drugs.” And in the process, he loses some of the personal, punching moments that his prior albums had.
I personally felt that it wasn’t until “BRACKETS” that I felt J. Cole, both as a rapper and as himself, reappeared on the record. The rest of the time, it feels as if we’re just getting J. Cole The Rapper. That’s fine, but after so many years and different projects, each with their own issues, I find that the only reason I really find myself always going back to 2014FHD and 4YEO was because both sides of Cole were always on display, and unfortunately, that is not the case here.
So 12 hours later, and after my second playthrough, each song will receive my gut reaction from start to finish. I hope J. Cole doesn’t let some of you down. Word to Nas.

kod

1. “Intro”

My excitement is through the roof as this jazzy trumpet flows over J. Cole’s voice-altered, yet elegant crooning. The woman’s voice is speaking of the ways a newborn baby communicates. Laughter and crying. I assume these are supposed to be a deeper meaning in showing how people cope with certain issues, just like babies. Laughter is happiness, crying is pain. But hell, babies cry because they they’re tired of sitting on daddy’s lap and want to sit on mommy’s. It’s a nit picky thing, I know, but I didn’t really connect with the foreshadowing of an album about people coping with their demons through drugs. Cole’s voice is echoing the phrase, “Choose wisely” and preaches how you are supposed to deal with pain. I wanted to skip this song and just get to the good stuff, but this song is essential to understand the project as a whole.

2. “KOD”

Haven’t you heard? “Niggas ain’t worthy to be on my shit” is what Cole says in the first verse of track two of his featureless (kind of) album. It already sounds like a banger. His flow on the track makes you bounce, almost reminiscent of “No Role Modelz.” From this point on, we’re back in 2014FHD territory and left the classic boom-bap beats from 4YEO. I can’t even tell you what the song is about, I just like the flow and the beat. Perfect formula for a hit title track song

3. “Photograph”

I know most people would hate on this song because it’s a slow follow-up to a pretty hard-hitting song, but I fell in love with it from the first time hearing that pitched up guitar sample. I was hypnotized by his melodic singing. Well, J. Cole can’t really sing. Rapping with style?

This song watches a lonely young man fall in love with a beautiful woman through her social-media profile. Probably an Instagram model. But what he’s missing from the rush of infatuation is the sense that they’ve ever met or even spoken. He’s in love with a feeling he gets when he creeps her page. Dude, just DM her! I don’t know much about the digital age of matchmaking (married almost 2 years now), but maybe he’s trying to make the eeriness of the song purposeful? Creep on a picture, double tap it, and on to the next without any real interaction? I caught a Teddy Perkins vibe while listening.

4. “The Cut Off” ft. kiLL edward

Uh-uh, Mr. Cole. You lied! You said you would have no features on your album! But you can’t fool us, Mr. Cole. We see through you. This kiLL edward guy is just you with the vocals pitched down. The opposite of Lil Cole! (see “Brackets”). That first line of the song, “I know Heaven is mind state, I been a couple times,” really hit me. I didn’t get it at first, but he could be saying the high of drugs is like feeling a heavenly sensation, thus leading the comparison of being high to being in heaven. I definitely will be playing this song with the summer’s dusky sky overhead as I creep slow in the whip. I love how the production gives way to the vocals and the slower flow. This is a very dark version of a Drake song to me.

5. “ATM” – (Link to the new video)

Does anyone else get Kendrick vocal effects vibes on the into/bridge? This song warns of the side effects of chasing money over a beat that kicks and whirs with the sound of a cash machine. The video is a surreal cross between an old Busta Rhymes/Missy Elliot video and the Greek myth of Icarus. His energy is on 100 here. This is a song that I feel could be a hit with a great guest feature. Although there are no “hit singles” on this album, this and “KOD” come the closest. It sounds like J. Cole is moving out of his comfort zone and making something he usually doesn’t, and I think it’s working for him.

6. “Motiv8”

The song has a video game-esque production on it. It also has parts from his bonus tack off Born Sinner called “Is She Gon Pop.” There’s not much I can say about this one. A classic candidate for a track for me to skip. I think he’s trying to motiv8 me to “get money” as the sample from Junior Mafia suggests. But all this song did was motiv8 me to go to the next song with a video game type beat. Also, why this song wasn’t track 8, I am not sure…

7. “Kevin’s Heart”

I wonder if this is about Kevin Hart being caught cheating on his wife? Or just using Hart’s story of infidelity to send a message about it? Cole’s singing…uh I mean rapping with style, sounds good again. I thought every song was going to have a reference to doing drugs. I couldn’t find it here. Unless he’s trying to personify marital infidelity as a sex addiction since he’s contemplating cheating. I hope this album is structured to make us confront these themes and not to glorify them. I wonder how much of this is true to his life; a lot of guilt can be heard on this one. He talks about the temptation of other women in “Runaway” off of Born Sinner as well.

8. “BRACKETS”

This is definitely my favorite track…so far. Let’s see after a few more listens. The song begins with a clip of a Richard Pryor stand up. The song is contemplative and poetic, like a man who is imparting wisdom on our simple souls. My main criticism of this song is that his ideas of how taxes should work are flawed. He may need to do a little more research before he writes a great, yet inaccurate record. However, this song sounds like an extension of “High For Hours,” another song that I love.
This is also when we get our first appearance from Lil Cole (his voice pitched up) since the end of “Forbidden Fruit.” in 2013. He calls his “Uncle Sam” to tell him that he got his money he promised him (paying taxes). He finds out that Uncle Sam wants half of his earnings. This upsets him and send him on a diatribe into the masterful second verse. Cole isn’t happy with how the government spends his tax money. He then goes on to explain why he isn’t satisfied. His wordplay is crazy. He hits home for me with some of the lines (Maybe ‘cause the tax dollars that I make sure I send/Get spent hirin’ some teachers that don’t look like them). Coming up in school, I can count how many teachers I had who were non-white on one hand. With some more refining, Mr. Cole would have made a pretty good social science teacher. Maybe his act two after hip hop?

9. “Once an Addict (Interlude)”

J. Cole uses “Once An Addict” to detail the development of his feelings concerning his mother’s relationship with alcoholism. Cole uses this interlude to show that he also deals with drugs and substances, like alcohol, in his personal circle. He ends up reminiscing and wishing that he had interfered more. This is where this song hits home for me. Cole finally connects to the people. This is where he gets vulnerable, and in turn, allows his listeners to be vulnerable as well. I have a poem called “She Say, I Say” about how big the impact of the storytelling in hip hop can have on someone. This is the J. Cole I wanted. Maybe not what others want, but what I needed. I wonder how much of this album is inspired by the trauma with his mother. What an introspective song. Is this woman’s voice on the album supposed to be 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. I love the beat, but was hoping J. Cole would go hard over this beat to display his lyrical skill. But instead, he and his low-pitched alter-ego are entranced. I am loving this flow on top of the swinging percussion though. “I wrote this shit to talk about addiction.” He’s talking about his friends, whose names are reversed in the song. He did this on 2014FHD as well.

J. Cole will likely be called to the forefront as your run-of-the-mill, self-righteous conscious rapper talking down from his high horse about pharmaceutical drugs and mumble rap. This can put people off, as it did for me, but I get the message. J. Cole is suggesting meditation over medication. I can see this becoming a hashtag or a t-shirt soon. (#meditatedontmedicate is mine. Use it, just give me the credit 😉 Meditation over medication is the message he’s been building up toward. I wonder how the message will be received by his fans and on social media.

11. “Window Pain (Outro)”

Is this J, Cole or Pastor Cole? Here he goes preaching again. Well, he actually has some little kids doing it for him. I get the song is supposed to be heartfelt and possibly about the kids from The Ville, but I can’t get passed his preachiness. God is being mentioned by the voice of a child and how He will teach humanity a lesson in preparation for a rejuvenation once society has a sufficient comprehension of evil. I don’t want to get into my personal beliefs, but I feel that he should have stayed on the subject of addiction here with this one.

12. “1985” (Intro to “The Fall Off”)

The year J. Cole was born, I assume. This song is another textbook preacher’s tall tale. It attempts a backhanded peace-making gesture after the harsh attack on young artists Cole called “fake drug dealers turned tour bus trappers” in 2016’s “Everybody Dies.” The tone is considerate but haughty, like a church pastor crudely providing life advise at the altar knowing good and goddamn well that you saw him at the bar with some other woman last week.
Cole thinks the generation of rappers behind him should know that there are white listeners who use their music to approach blackness at an even keel. He thinks this is a bad thing…however, how upset can he be? He himself is a bi-racial man. He grew up with a single mother who happens to be white. Why does it matter that white people like rap music? When did hip hop become a coterie of snooty black men who think the music will only be just for them? I don’t care if a white person listens to Kendrick and their adrenaline doubles. If they’re vibing to it, what’s the problem?

Cole also plays into the damaging criticism that suggests trap/drug music is a lesser, immature form of hip hop music. In the song he says, “One day, them kids that’s listening gon’ grow up / And get too old for that shit that made you blow up / Now your show’s lookin’ light cause they don’t show up / Which unfortunately means the money slow up.” T.I.’s 2003 album Trap Muzik was released over 15 years ago. UGK have been rapping about lean for decades. J. Cole even has a song called “Bun B for President.” Is it hypocritical for him to condemn a type of music when:

  1. It has been a staple in hip hop for long time.
  2. Some of his idols are the originators of the genre.

Despite my heavy criticism of J. Cole and the last song of the album, I have to admit that the Love and Hip-Hop bar at the end had me falling out of my seat.

kod trailer

KOD Final Thoughts:

J. Cole’s lines and flows show that’s he’s been influenced a lot by the new rappers that he seems to condemn. He has that start-stop flow in verses of “Photograph” that invoke XXXTentacion’s “Look at Me”. He spits quick triplets of rhymes in “ATM” and “The Cut Off” like Migos do in all of their songs. If J. Cole hates “mumble rap” or the “SoundCloud rappers” so much, why is he boasting an album full of cadences of the new rap wave? As I stated before, it’s possible to celebrate the growth and changes in hip hop music without worrying about stagnation or the saturation of inauthenticity. I see that Cole is trying to uplift his fellow rappers to new heights, but how can he do that when he keeps praying that they’ll fall off?

It should be okay to praise J. Cole when he does well and challenge him when he doesn’t. And his woke, yet feature-conservative brand makes KOD just be an average project. If J, Cole is trying to kill other rappers’ careers, this project will not leave him with a hefty body count.

I give the album 3/5 stars.

★★★☆☆

#ButStayWoke

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