J. Cole is somewhat of a strange entity in the world of music. His hardcore fanbase seems to genuinely believe he’s the most profound, well-spoken dude in the game, whereas music nerds have made somewhat of a joke of how hollow his lyricism can actually come across. Meme culture has made this spread like wildfire, and I can’t even mention J. Cole without someone else chiming in and reiterating how fake deep he can be. Although I see where these people come from, this can make it difficult for the average listener to take in the core of his message and judge his work fairly. It puts a cloud of bias over everything that we have to break away from, no excuses. If you take anything away from this review, make it that.
2014 Forest Hills Drive is generally regarded as Cole’s masterpiece; a down to earth project that displayed his experiences growing up in Fayetteville. It didn’t try to present itself as a bigger deal than it was, and the jazzy, easygoing style of production made perfect sense with its lyricism. It also showed off one of his greatest strengths: the ability to tell a story. Nevertheless, from my perspective this is the pinnacle of his career. Most core elements to his material are pretty average, whether you’re looking at the rapping, beats, lyrics, etc. They could be found nearly anywhere else, which is tough to ignore, especially in the rest of his discography.
The listening experience of KOD is almost entirely overshadowed by this and even thrown a bit into questionable territory. Cole’s sonic and lyrical appeal is stripped from the first half entirely; the beats are a lukewarm mix between jazzy and trappy and so one-dimensional it hurts. Not only are the topics complete deviations from the album’s intended themes, but his vocabulary is so cliche that it’s almost difficult not to regard as “fake deep”. If I could get the same shit scrolling through a Post Malone parody account on twitter, why should I listen to what you have to say?
Even looking past this, KOD is J. Cole’s most pretentious project by a landslide. Just look at the lone feature on this record Kill Edward being himself with an obnoxious vocal effect slapped on. It’s not only bitter and disrespectful of valid criticism, but ironic considering it only makes the album less enjoyable (The Cut Off’s repulsive hook being a prime example). Not only that, plenty of lyrical moments are morally questionable, which the record definitely couldn’t afford at this point. Nearly everything is working against him other than a few high points in the latter half.
The introduction track would work as a decent tone setter if not for the following 6 being a jumbled mess; I have no idea why you’d make people this confused about what they should take as the record’s message. Still, it does raise an interesting point that becomes relevant later: something as simple as choosing the wrong way to deal with life’s inevitable pain can ruin your life. The next cut diverts into more mindless fun, and as far as the trap side of things go is pulled off decently well. The minimal production with heavy 808 bass works with a hook this catchy, but Cole apparently can’t go a single track without fucking something up. His pretentiousness shows in the reminder that he doesn’t need features because he’s something of a god who can do it all himself, and closes with a reminder that love is the strongest drug of them all blah blah blah this is #deep #shit man are you paying attention?
More cuts in the first half bring up drastically different ideas; Photograph trails off into Cole’s infatuation with a girl based on her online presence. It stops at nothing to remind us she’s not like other girls, she doesn’t get caught in rumors, she’s sexy but doesn’t show too much, etc (qualities you can find in most girls, which aren’t even defining factors in someone’s character, but hey, what do I know). The Cut Off is even worse; lines like “The punishment for you is that you’re not with me” are uncomfortably possessive, and “I never fantasize bout murder cause I’m still sane / but I can’t fight this urge to make you feel pain” is clearly morally questionable. I don’t get it, is no one else hearing this? And the track’s production is ruined by the mixing; had the keys been amped up instead of being so drowned out by other elements, it may’ve at least earned replay value. ATM feels similar, a track whose lack of message points to its clear intention being instrumentally pleasing. And with there being tracks on the album like Motiv8 which feel derivative of the very worst of modern trap, those songs were my only hope.
But thank god things start looking up from here; the album’s first lyrically compelling verses appear on Once an Addict and Brackets. Once an Addict paints this picture of how Cole growing up in a household of addicts damaged him emotionally as he recollects a moment where his mom calls him intoxicated, which is genuinely heartwrenching. His frustration and exhaustion is obvious; it’s an idea the project should’ve touched on more based on how clearly passionate he comes across. And Brackets is a thinkpiece on how he can’t choose what his tax dollars fund, and their potential to directly harm black youth. But he takes away from the statement’s weight a bit by bringing up “picking where his dollars go from an app on his screen because it’s 2018”; again, the criticism of the digital age feels irrelevant and has no place on the song. It’s not a topic he expands on, and feels thrown in last second because he realized it fits. God fucking dammit.
Window Pain and 1985 do grip me in and warrant slight improvement; the former tells this story of the trauma a little girl experienced from her cousin being shot. It all goes over well until he attempts to ask this profound, all-encompassing question about why bad things happen in the first place. It’s so general and surface-level that it comes across as cliche to listeners despite maybe being a legitimate concern of the girl.
And while it’s a new topic, 1985 definitely works as the album’s closing note, giving an unnamed up-and-coming rapper some advice about how to stay in the game. He does make some great points, and bars like “I must say by your songs I’m unimpressed, but I love to see a black man get paid” or “These white kids love that you don't give a fuck, 'Cause that's exactly what's expected when your skin black / They wanna see you dab, they wanna see you pop a pill / They wanna see you tatted from your face to your heels” are actually heavy, thought-provoking statements. But despite there being some validity to his argument, Cole still brings his trademark touch of ego without a doubt. He does come across like he’s talking down on the guy, despite explicitly trying to clear himself of it. But at the end of the day, he’s clearly no god of hip hop and should stop mentally putting himself on such a pedestal.
So essentially, J. Cole really knows how to fuck a good thing up. KOD doesn’t feel like a progression forward at all but rather a jumbled mess that grossly puts his ego on display. Even the beats feel thrown together last-second and fail to save it. Hopefully his next effort will be better, but I’m not holding out much hope at this point. Gonna go bump 2014 Forest Hills Drive now.