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).