J. Cole Is a Man With a Message on ‘KOD’  

Rapper and producer J. Cole was raised in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and moved to New York to make it in the industry. He audaciously showed up to Jay Z’s studio hoping to play a CD of instrumentals for the man himself, only to be dismissed after waiting three hours. In 2007, Cole used these same instrumentals for his mixtape, “The Come Up,” appropriately titled, as it immediately commanded attention. As of now, Cole has collaborated and toured with Jay-Z. He has also collaborated with Wale, Jay Electronica, and Talib Kweli, toured with Rihanna, Drake, and Eminem, and produced singles for Kendrick Lamar and Janet Jackson. He has released four platinum albums, and has just dropped his fifth, “KOD.”  

Cole has achieved his staggering success without having any guests featured on recent albums — something unthinkable in hip-hop. He does things his own way, and it resonates widely with the masses. Cole’s musical approach to “KOD” is consistent with his disregard for conformity. There’s none of the studio-happy filigree that characterizes contemporary hip-hop. Cole uses a couple trap beats, but also some old school beats. The music is spacious and uncluttered, allowing his voice to take center stage. The production features wah-wah synth bass, Nokia polyphonic ringtone-type sounds, and west coast, breezy vibes. Pitched-up voices speak over funky, quirky backdrops, that recall the work of Outkast and Slum Village. As for Cole’s flow, he sing-raps in hooks and occasionally does it with a vaguely jazzy sensibility that recalls The Pharcyde. When he’s straight-up rapping, he sounds sharp and on point, though he has a certain triplet thing he does in several songs, which gets a bit repetitive. However, Cole also has remarkable versatility, sometimes sounding, in a single song, like several different rappers. One of these rappers is featured as kiLL edward, but don’t be fooled — this is none other than Cole’s pitched-down alter ego.

“KOD’s” intro contains a spoken word segment in a dreamy, female voice, over solo saxophone. The bit repeats several times throughout the album, conveying the central motif: “Life can bring much pain / There are many ways to deal with this pain / Choose wisely.” For the following twelve songs, J. Cole devotes most of his energy to criticizing the “drugs, money, hoes” gospel of hip-hop, and offering alternatives in a way that is empathetic rather than judgmental.

In “ATM,” Cole mentions, “Devil’s Pie,” an allusion to D’Angelo’s song of that name, regarding the temptation to fill the void in ways that turn out to be destructive and ultimately unfulfilling. Elsewhere in the song, he specifies one of these ways moneywith the lyrics, “Count it up, count it up, count it up, count it.” It’s a typical mainstream rap lyric, delivered in typical mainstream rap style, but the rest of the song’s lyrics make it obvious that he is being sarcastic. Cole manages to capture the sound and feel of chart-topping hip-hop by filling half his songs with recognizable snippets about megalomania and debauchery. The clever thing is that he is actually parodying it, exposing it for all its shallowness and fallacy. Another way of filling the void that Cole takes on is infidelity, as in “Kevin’s Heart,” titled in reference to actor Kevin Hart’s admitted adultery. At times, Cole sounds a bit preachy, like some self-appointed paragon of virtue, and it can be rather off-putting. Still, his heart is in the right place.

The way of filling the void which Cole predominantly focuses on throughout the record is drugs. This is captured effectively in the album’s cover art, which depicts a dazed rapper, with a crown on his head, and his mink, pimp jacket opening to reveal the visibly inebriated faces of several children, each taking a different drug. Also within the enclave of the jacket are a couple skulls, ostensibly from those who have already perished. Cole has revealed that the album title, “KOD,” has three meanings: “Kids on Drugs,” “King Overdosed,” and “Kill Our Demons.”

Cole grew up with a single mother who suffered from addiction, and he recalls the experience in “Once an Addict,” describing, “Late as shit, cigarette smoke, and greatest hits from Marvin Gaye / She kill a whole bottle of some cheap chardonnay.” The choice of the lyrics “Marvin Gaye” and “chardonnay” make for an especially vivid image, drawing the listener head-on into Cole’s youth. Today, Cole has repurchased his childhood home, to turn it into a homestead for single mothers and their children. Such a story brings tears to even the coldest eyes.

On songs like the aforementioned “ATM” and “The Cut Off,” Cole puts his finger on a prevailing mentality in hip-hop culture, rapping, with lyrics like “Don’t give a fuck if it kills, it mix well” and “Gimme drink, gimme dope / Bottom line, I can’t cope / If I die, I don’t know.” It should be noted that much of hip-hop’s appeal stems from how it celebrates indulgence and living in the moment. It’s sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll all over again — just presented in an even cruder, and more shamelessly explicit form. We’re taught to be reserved, prudent, and disciplined, and it’s only natural to find transgressions liberating and exhilarating. Some would argue that with so many teachers and preachers to instruct you, the artist might be better sticking to his role as an entertainer. On the other hand, mainstream hip-hop has spiraled into something of a modern-day minstrel show. Casual listeners might find it no more than an amusing diversion. Inner city youth, however, are marketed hip-hop so aggressively, and, in turn, consume and internalize it so readily, that it often ends up constituting their primary life philosophy. And it can be quite safely agreed that “drugs, money, hoes,” is not the most enriching life philosophy. In “1985 (Intro to ‘The Fall Off’)” Cole raps, “You makin’ money, I respect that / But have you ever thought about your impact?” Amid this climate, voices like Cole’s are sorely needed. And while his pitch might strike some as a bit sanctimonious at times, it’s undeniably noble and righteous. You’ve got to tip your hat to Cole.

KOD” is available April 20 on Apple Music.