Divisive rapper’s expert, thoughtful rhymes held back by forgettable production
As a popular rapper, is it possible to “keep it real” and not sound boring? It’s the debate that has followed around Jermaine Cole his entire career. Cole’s dedicated legion of fans would surely answer with, “YES, YOU UNINTELLIGENT BANGER-CHASER.” Countless other rap fans (many of whom are not unintelligent) might say, “YES, BUT J. COLE’S MUSIC IS LITERALLY AUDIO-NYQUIL.” Frustratingly, J. Cole’s fifth album, KOD– while being yet another solid, admirable statement from the man- does little to bridge this divide.
I say “frustratingly” because it’s obvious to anyone with eardrums just why Cole is the beloved major artist that he is. More of a world-weary deep-thinker than a bragger, Cole has always refreshingly portrayed himself as a down-to-earth real dude, one who just happens to be damn good at rapping. He clearly puts a lot of effort into saying *MEANINGFUL* things on his well-crafted albums, including personal material like whole songs about trying to lose one’s virginity as a high-schooler and the joys of folding clothes with a significant other. In this way, he’s more relatable than his two closest peers, Kendrick “I am a prophet through which God speaks” Lamar and Drizzy “I’m on top of the world and life is awesome but it’s also been a minute since I’ve gotten a message from that Hooters waitress I was seeing a while back so I’m kind of sad” Drake.
On KOD, Cole is back with more honorable themes to explore, this time served with a stacked sense of ambition. He’s stated that the title’s acronym stands for Kids On Drugs, King OverDosed, and Kill Our Demons. The eye-catching album art reflects all three of these themes while displaying the words, “This album is in no way intended to glorify drug addiction.” A little heavy-handed? Maybe, but Cole attacks his subject matter with focus and heartfelt conviction. “You running from yourself and you buying product again / I know you say it helps and no I’m not trying to offend / But I know depression and drug addiction don’t blend / Reality distorts and then you get lost in the wind,” he desperately advises his homie and us listeners on “FRIENDS.” It’s not just drugs either; he skillfully examines his and society’s hang-ups with social media (“Photograph”), money (“ATM”), and bad-for-you relationships (“Kevin’s Heart”). And to cap it off, he goes out on a clever warning to the younger generation of turn-up rappers on “1985,” advising them that they better be smart with their wealth and success while they still have it. Suffice to say, KOD will offer long-time J. Cole fans nothing but further evidence of his greatness.
For the rest of us who don’t feel that our hearts share the same DNA as Jermaine’s, though, what Cole has failed to accomplish more often times than not in his career is produce a sound worthy of his lyrics. I had hoped that the truly fantastic 2014 Forest Hills Drive was a turning point for him as a beat-maker (hey did you know it went platinum with no features??), but since then he’s only grown more reserved and humdrum. Besides the one-for-the-masses swagger of the KOD title track, the satisfying bounce of “ATM” and maybe “Motiv8,” trying to find sonic excitement on this album is like searching for buried treasure with a metal detector. Most of the beats just kind of…lie there, establishing a basic tone and structure for Cole’s vocals but not adding anything engaging or distinctive to the songs. Listen, we’re not asking Cole to make club bangers; we just want to not feel like we have to be looking at RapGenius in order to enjoy his work.
It’s cool that J. Cole doesn’t make room for features on his projects. He’s proven with his immense talent as a rapper and songwriter that he can carry a quality, cohesive album all on his own, and KOD is no exception. However, it’s Cole’s decision to self-produce all of his music that is verging on stubbornness at this point. With the towering status that he’s achieved in hip-hop, he could enlist any producer on the planet to help him push his sound to a deeper level. It’s tempting to imagine the results if, say, he let No I.D. bring to him the soulful vibe that he lent to Jay-Z’s confessional 4:44 album. Hell, even the righteous Kendrick let Atlanta trap maestro Mike Will Made-It whip up beats for him on DAMN. J. Cole will always be a hero to his loyal fanbase, but until he opens up to some collaboration, he’ll most likely remain a respected but confounding musical enigma to everyone else.