It’s sort of a good thing that J. Cole has so many dedicated fans. Well, it’s good for him. The rest of us I’m not so sure about. You see, because J. Cole fans are so vehement in their insistence that he’s a legend, an icon, and one of the top three rappers in the game today, he’s been lulled into a false sense of security, a sort of complacency that mistakes “platinum with no features” for “universally beloved” and “too good to mingle with the rest of these rap plebs.”
K.O.D. has been billed as Cole’s most creative, most sonically experimental album yet. The cover suggests he’ll spend the duration of the album addressing rap’s current fascination with pills and lean and cloud rap turn ups and he does. Unfortunately, K.O.D. is also exactly what you’d expect from a Cole effort attempting to imitate trap or mumble rap: It’s condescending, failing to understand the underlying tenets of those genres because he thinks he’s too good for them, it’s half-assed, only partially attempting to make a go of utilizing the booming 808s and rollicking, rumbling synths of trap, and then, halfway through, Cole simply gives up on the conceit and goes back to making a standard J. Cole album. Oh, and regardless of all appearances to the contrary, hip-hop doesn’t actually have a drug problem after all.
While he’s a great person, his musical endeavors have been middling, but hyped into commercial successes, which has caused a dissonant reception from critics and fans, a sort of “you have to separate the art from the artist” reasoning in reverse. Look no further than the rollout for Cole’s latest offering, K.O.D.; no music videos, just clips of fans lining up at his secret listening sessions in New York and London and reacting rapturously afterward — which you’d expect them to do, because they are J. Cole’s most staunch supporters.
It starts off intriguingly enough, with “KOD,” the most earnest effort of J. Cole’s recent career to appeal to fans across the imaginary divide between “real hip-hop” and mumble rap. Cole sounds rejuvenated, inspired, and to be honest, mad as hell like he was fed up with the “audio NyQuil” jokes over a year ago and spent the majority of 2017 stewing over it. He’s lyrically sharper than ever, more insightful, more incisive, more clever than you’ve ever heard him, and his flow throughout the album’s 12 tracks are its brightest spot and saving grace.
If the rest of the album had made a sincere attempt to continue the sonic reinvention of “KOD,” the song, K.O.D., the album, would have been a far more engaging affair. Cole could have shaken off the image of a high-handed, neoconservative backpack rapper and finally earned his spot on the rap Mount Rushmore that currently includes his erstwhile friendly rivals Drake and Kendrick Lamar. I really, really, really wanted to like this album.
Instead, it very rapidly swerves back into 4 Your Eyez/Forest Hills Drive territory both musically and thematically. If there is any defense of J. Cole’s sound, it’s this: He has nowhere earned the level of internet derision for monotonous production that he somehow picked up along the way to being the lowest-key millionaire among rap’s upper echelon. He’s always tried different sounds, varied tempos, and unusual samples, it’s just that people have tended to focus on his ill-advised swacking of traditionalist Outkast and Tribe retreads (which I honestly never thought were as bad as people said).
However, that experimentation only ever extended so far, and past “KOD,” nothing here really tries to expand that boundary, other than “ATM.” Cole’s musical palette, while broader than he’s been given credit for, still sounds constrained. He’s like a millionaire on house arrest; yes, he’s got full run of a massive estate, but there’s an invisible line keeping him grounded to that one plot of land. However much space he’s had to explore, he’s never really left his comfort zone.
This is most evident in the bumptious “1985 — Intro To ‘The Fall Off'” — even the title is overbearing and awkward. It’s a straight-up throwback, ’90s boom-bap missive that finds Cole narrating a fictional conversation — a lecture, really — with a straw man mumble rapper whom he can’t help but patronize with respectability politics, essentially giving him a stern, lyrical “pull your pants up” speech. It’d be laughable if it weren’t so infuriating. This was not the thoughtful, experimental album we were promised; it’s just another J. Cole album we’ve already heard before in new clothes.
I get where Cole is coming from. I truly, genuinely do. We’re the same age, we come from similar situations, and we grew up on the same type of lyrical, throwback rap, idolizing the Black Stars and De La Souls of the world. That’s why it’s so sad to me to see him still trying to pull the same ham-handed, double-speaking criticism of the worst backpack rap clichés of our shared youth.
It doesn’t work any better now than it did then. You can’t tell the kids “I’m feeling your style” on one hand, then turn around and tell them everything you think they’re doing wrong on the next — especially when you think everything they’re doing is wrong. You turn off the very young, up-and-coming rappers you claim to respect and want to see successful, while ultimately preaching to the choir.
K.O.D.‘s biggest drawback is J. Cole’s greatest strength: His fans. As much as they support and uplift him to heights previously unseen by a rapper of his calling and stature, they hold him back by not taking him to task for his crotchety, backward-facing stance on modern hip-hop. They won’t hold him accountable to innovate, they won’t ask more of him than what he’s already done, and they’ll viciously attack anyone and everyone online in an effort to defend him from critique — the “you need a certain level of intelligence” argument that gets trotted out so often, despite the fact that it’s often the most intelligent and impassioned hip-hop critics calling out his lyrical laziness. Really, they’re not hating on him, they’re just disappointed in him and want better from him. If you can rap rings around the competition then you can do better and have no reason to not. The fact is that he knows he doesn’t have to because his fans will always have his back.
Even K.O.D.‘s threefold title meanings perfectly illustrate the J. Cole conundrum. According to him, it alternately stands for “Kids on Drugs,” “King Overdosed,” and “Kill Our Demons,” while he leaves the rest “to your interpretation.” He wants it to sound deep. His fans think it sounds deep. It just doesn’t hold up when you think about it critically for more than ten seconds. Despite the grand ambition behind the triple abbreviation, like much of the music he’s made lately, it’s just a needlessly complicated metaphor that ultimately really means nothing at all.