Jermaine Cole is many things — moody, corny, underwhelming — but he’s not a bad artist. Unlike several mainstream rappers such as Tory Lanez, Big Sean or Jaden Smith, J. Cole isn’t copying other artists’ styles. Cole is his own MC. In a time when rappers with no distinguishable qualities like Rich the Kid and Famous Dex are dropping generic projects and saturating the market, Cole looks to be a detox.
With his newest release, KOD, Cole attempts to be an antidote to the new wave of SoundCloud rappers who promote rampant drug use in their music — artists such as Lil Pump, Lil Xan and the late Lil Peep, who overdosed on fentanyl and Xanax this past November. These type of rappers don’t try to make deep music, they try to make fun music. This is the appeal of SoundCloud rappers — people like to turn their brain off and enjoy dumbed-down music. To Cole, this is anathema. He wants listeners actively turning their brains on and listening to what he’s saying. So this Friday, on 4/20 a day many people dedicate to smoking marijuana, Cole dropped KOD, an anti-drug album that rejects the drug culture of SoundCloud rappers.
Cole explained that the title of the album has three meanings: Kids on Drugs, King Overdose and Kill Our Demons. By doing this, he is essentially saying he has taken a look at this issue from multiple viewpoints and is qualified to make an album on the subject matter. While the album isn’t as nuanced as Cole thinks it is, KOD has managed to be his best album.
This is largely due to his improved lyrical content. Cole has a reputation for writing absurd, ridiculous bars that are impossible not to roll your eyes at. In 2011, he dropped the gem “I let you feel like you the shit, but boy you can’t out-fart me.” On his 2016 release 4 Your Eyez Only, he spits “Plus the head game is stronger than a few Excedrin,” and he continues to meet the laughable-lyrics-quota on KOD with the line “But I’m still all ears like a Bassett Hound.” Surprisingly, Cole keeps bars like this to a minimum on the album, keeping listeners engaged.
The lyrics on KOD far exceed anything on his past projects. They aren’t as catchy or melodically pleasing as those on 2014 Forest Hills Drive, his biggest record, but they hit harder.
The track “BRACKETS” details how taxpayers don’t have a say in where their money is spent and how this impacts the disadvantaged communities of color that he comes from. Cole sounds annoyed in his verse, as he is disturbed by his lack of agency with his money, especially as he realizes it’s going towards industries like the NRA. He explains this with forthright bars like “Better that than letting wack congressman I’ve never seen / Dictate where my money go, straight into the palms of some / Money-hungry company that make guns that circulate the country / And then wind up in my hood, making bloody clothes.”
The next two tracks on the record continue to discuss the maltreatment of his community not only from the government but by its own inhabitants.
On “Once an Addict — Interlude,” Cole tells an autobiographical story recounting his mother’s alcohol abuse and how it unintentionally passed depression onto him. In the lines “Little did I know how deep her sadness would go. Lookin’ back, I wish I woulda did more instead of running,” he details how he wishes he would have stopped this from happening, commentating on how people in his community don’t address their depression and drug abuse that comes with it.
This discussion continues on the next song “FRIENDS” where he reinforces the idea that childhood trauma leads to depression and addiction. With the bars “There’s all sorts of trauma from drama that children see / Type of shit that normally would call for therapy / But you know just how it go in our community / Keep that shit inside it don’t matter how hard it be,” Cole brings us back to the story he told on the previous track. And while the sentiment on the track is laudable, Cole stumbles at the finish line when he tries to offer a solution to addiction when he says “Meditate, don’t medicate.” He’s forcing one solution on everyone, but a single method won’t cure everyone’s problems. The song would have been better if he didn’t try to solve the world’s problems with a blanket solution.
The track also would have been improved if it didn’t feature Cole’s alter ego kiLL edward. Cole is notorious for never featuring other artists on his projects — his fanbase incessantly boasted about how he went platinum with no features to the point of memory. He explains why on the trap banger “KOD” when he raps, “Niggas ain’t worthy to be on my shit.” But kiLL edward is so annoying and grating that Cole is exposing himself as not being worthy to be on the level of his contemporaries.
kiLL edward exemplifies Cole’s lack of innovation. kiLL edward is simply just a dark version of Cole, but the execution of this character is so corny. He’s just using a voice modulator to make his voice sound demonic as he doesn’t say anything poignant. This is such a skeletal way to create a character and it shows how much better an artist like Kendrick Lamar is. On Lamar’s 2014 masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly, he used several different vocal inflections to play different characters in the narrative he told. But Cole can’t do the vocal gymnastics that Lamar or even Young Thug can. Cole has no sense of auditory pleasure, so he ends up creating a project with minimal sonic appeal.
Tracks like “Photograph” and “The Cut Off,” which are half of the first four songs on the record, give listeners enough reason to stop listening without finishing the album. There’s nothing enjoyable about them, as “Photograph” is just a creepy love song about an Instagram stalker, and “The Cut Off” feature’s kiLL edward’s tedious crooning that belongs in the trash.
Despite these lackluster moments, KOD doesn’t quite belong in the dumpster. Yes, it’s an underwhelming project, but what Cole album isn’t? His fanbase has actively promoted him to be the Einstein of rap, claiming you need “a certain level of intelligence” to comprehend his music. So he’s been elevated to the status of a “woke” rapper of quality and whenever there’s an artist of merit a greater meaning is forced upon their work. This consistently happens with Cole’s LPs, and even when he tries to tell a narrative on an album like 4YEO, he falls short. The story on that album didn’t come together and his failure to weave together a coherent story continued on KOD. KOD has its highlights with great storytelling tracks like “Once an Addict — Interlude,” “BRACKETS” and “1985 – Intro to ‘The Fall Off'” but only a few of the songs actually fit the theme of addiction and drug abuse. However, this was the closest Cole has come to putting together a cohesive conceptual album.
Contact CU Independent Arts Writer Joseph Mason at firstname.lastname@example.org.