J. Cole has become a distinctive entity in the hip-hop world over the course of his career. He’s adopted the strategy of a complex storyteller in his music and has shown potential to rival the likes of Kendrick Lamar when it comes to his lyrical abilities. But no one in hip-hop has received more criticism in recent years for their storytelling strategies like Cole has. It all started with the over-boasted phrase that followed the success of his third album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive: “J. Cole went platinum with no features.”
Once people had enough of the sincerity of that statement, what happened to it? It became a gigantic meme. With that, the less positive connotation of J. Cole’s music became increasingly widespread. The release of his next album 4 Your Eyez Only – that would later go platinum with no features – only fuelled that connotation. On his follow up KOD, Cole sticks to sparse productions, refusing to give way to a radio hit sound. Lyrically, he tackles multiple issues he sees in the world and hip-hop, keeping himself in the mainstream consciousness of his respective genre.
The kiLL edward features on the album’s track list (which was announced four days prior along with the album) made fans curious, and others rejoice – had J. Cole finally allowed a guest on his album? We later find out that kiLL edward is an alter ego of Cole’s that is used with a deep, low energy voice. The Cut Off is the first track on the album with the mysterious name listed as a feature, where he talks down on himself in that heavy voice. “Bottom line, I can’t cope / If I die, I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.” It quickly becomes clear that his alter ego isn’t exactly positive.
A theme of coping is present multiple times throughout the record, which blends with one of the meanings Cole gave the album after he announced its release. It opens with a dramatic intro based on learning how to cope with the pain that life brings you. “Choose wisely” is repeatedly preached at the end of the intro. He follows that by addressing critics on title track KOD, using the thoughts of his alter ego, “How come you won’t get a few features, I think you should” and “How ’bout I don’t, how ’bout you just get the fuck off my dick,” he exclaims in the first verse. It carries his angriest energy on the album, the closest to a radio pleasing banger.
KOD. 3 meanings.
Kids on Drugs
Kill Our Demons
The rest of the album I leave to your interpretation.
— J. Cole (@JColeNC) April 19, 2018
Album closer 1985 – Intro to The Fall Off touches on the state of hip-hop today, and can be viewed as a diss towards many of rap’s newest wave of artists. Cole urges them rappers to take a look in the mirror, and to be wise with their riches. “You coulda bought a crib with all that bread you done blew. I know you think this type of revenue is never-ending, but I wanna take a minute just to tell you that ain’t true.” The productions on KOD are slightly unsettling, but also captivating enough to keep your attention. Cole uses a solid arsenal of instrumentation throughout the record; however, like 4 Your Eyez Only, the uptempo energy on KOD is only present at certain moments. Outside of its title track, and ATM, the record is essentially grounded in a haze. Production-wise, Cole is giving his fanbase what they want. If you weren’t a fan of his styles on Eyez, you probably won’t find much excitement in this album.
Overall, J. Cole has, in a way, boxed himself into his own little world on this record. But he’s content in his world. He runs his own label, produces and writes his own music, and drops it when he pleases. It’s clear that he has no interest in featuring people on his work, and he’s certainly never been shy about pointing out what he believes is wrong in the world at large and within himself. No matter the criticism Cole receives, he has a loyal fanbase that will always be there to listen to his messages, and he will continue be an artist that stands for informing listeners with his music. There will always be a place for that in music, especially in hip-hop.