It’s ironic that social media jerks tease Jermaine Cole with “J. Cole went platinum with no features.” Once seen as an understudy to generational talents like Kendrick Lamar and Drake, the North Carolina musician didn’t reach artistic fruition until 2014 Forest Hills Drive, when he abandoned the typical cameo-heavy big-budget formula for an idiosyncratic, self-produced organic sound that plumbed his neuroses and uncertain beliefs. His subsequent work – 2016’s richly soulful 4 Your Eyez Only and, now, the fractious, accusatory K.O.D. – is both brashly hermetic and carefully tuned into mainstream rap’s never-ending turmoil, whether it be the controversial loosie “False Prophets” (which tacitly criticized pop hyphenates like Kanye West and Wale) or K.O.D.’s indictment of celebrity and drug culture.
K.O.D. magnifies Cole’s current status as a deliberate outsider, well versed in pop music’s machinations even as he refuses to take part in them. His righteous, substance-over-style image is enormously appealing – when K.O.D. dropped on April 20th, it broke Apple Music’s 24-hour streaming record. But he remains a divisive figure, with some critics loudly deriding him for his production choices and, uh, his lyrical reliance on bodily functions. Not unlike Nas during his early-Aughts God’s Son phase, Cole often focuses on delivering his messages at the expense of refining their details, whether it’s producing anodyne but effective beats like 2014’s chipmunk soul throwback “Wet Dreamz” or comparing his dick to a big foot during his hilariously over-the-top cameo on Jeremih’s 2015 sex invitation “Planez.” As a result, the debate surrounding Cole’s ranking in the rap Olympics has too often overshadowed the generally high quality of his work.
J. Cole has said that K.O.D. has multiple meanings: Kids on Drugs, King Overdosed and Kill Our Demons. (Some will note that Kansas City chopper-style specialist Tech N9ne used the acronym K.O.D. first in 2009, defining it as King of Darkness.) Cole takes aim at addiction in all its manifestations, often from the inside. On “Photograph,” he plays the online junkie, lusting after social media avatars. “Fell in love through photograph, I don’t even know your name/Wonder if you follow back, I hope to see you one day,” he sings in a low rumble over a sped-up, bluesy loop. “Love today’s gone digital, and it’s messing with my health.” He equates money hunger to an intoxicating devil’s pie on “ATM” and the minimalist “Motiv8,” and cops to sex cravings on “Kevin’s Health.” “I’m a fake nigga and it’s never been clearer/Can’t see myself when I look in the mirror,” he rues over an undulating arrangement that sonically approximates a slow winding exotic dancer.
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Cole intersperses these meditations with riffs on the corrosive aftereffects of fame – the old neighborhood crew that tries to use him as a financial crutch (“The Cut Off”), the way his swelling tax payments are misused by the government (“Brackets”). His pain over his mother’s struggle with alcohol dependency during his teen years mirrors 2Pac’s “Part-Time Mutha.” Every song sounds like an angst-ridden indictment.
Yet, while K.O.D. clocks in at a concise 42 minutes, it still manages to drag in spots. His thematic consistency can be hard to stomach, especially since his tracks are stripped down, with minimal melody and the spotlight focused on his harsh, truth-telling words. Such dogged persistence that makes K.O.D. a magnetizing albeit difficult listen.
If there’s any optimism in K.O.D., it’s fleeting but substantive. “Meditate, don’t medicate,” he riffs in a P-Funk tone over the funky drummer rhythm and muted organ fills of “Friends.” Yet every moment of joy is fraught with complications. While technically a hopeful coda, “Window Pain (Outro)” is riven with sweet-and-sour sentiments: “All I want to do is see my Granny on the other side/All I want to do is kill the man that made my mama cry.” As a sometimes-bitter look at how the world can consume you, K.O.D. doesn’t offer much solace. But it’s gripping stuff: J. Cole has always been more than the sum of his parts.