J. Cole has always been an artist I could relate to, and clearly others do too. 2014 Forest Hills Drive and 4 Your Eyez Only went double-platinum and platinum respectively, despite both launching with last-minute releases. With his latest album KOD dropping a week ago, there seems to be a mainstream discussion about what makes J. Cole so successful at being relatable despite valid criticisms of his music.
Since 2014 Forest Hills Drive, Cole’s music has taken a notable departure from the lovable ‘Dollar and a Dream‘, ‘Work Out‘, and ‘Lights Please‘ Cole. The tone has become more serious and, honestly, more of a downer.
This directional shift has come off as half-baked thus far. For instance, Cole rapped about a feel-good weekend of ‘Foldin’ Clothes‘ on the same album in which he critiqued society’s shortcomings through the perspective of a personal friend’s death. In that case, I think the complaints about Cole being a little tone-deaf were valid.
KOD, to be blunt, lacks that bullshit. In my mind Cole is no longer a mainstream artist, and therefore no longer seeking to entertain. He’s pursuing a purpose.
There is an urgency to this album, as if he sees an impending doom for society if it continues on its current trajectory. From a broad perspective, I think KOD is unfairly positioned as an after-school special antithesis to mainstream hip-hop. I refute that, instead seeing this as Cole’s most important work to date while still resonating with a mainstream audience (just look at KOD’s first week numbers).
Cole still has flaws, like singing a rough chorus on his own and going out of his way to feature and credit his own alter-ego (kILL edward). The latter is what I can only assume a weak inside joke to troll a vocal minority asking him to feature other artists in his work.
However unlike previous albums with mixed messages, KOD is an improvement over Cole’s other work because he finally just gets straight to his point.
The Fayetteville, NC native narrows in on themes of violence, addiction and irresponsibility for most of the album with few distractions mixed in. Furthermore, he actually strengthens arguments by citing painful personal anecdotes, rather than weakening his message by preaching from a self-righteous moral high-ground (as on most of 4 Your Eyez Only).
“Kevin’s Heart”, the strongest song on the album, extracts parallels between adultery and addiction. Cole directly takes on the heated subject from a male perspective, a point of view that gets very little airtime in the MeToo / Time’s Up environment American society is entrenched in at the moment. Cole goes deeper than blaming male adultery on fame, money, or lack of self control — he points towards a culture of men who would rather lie about their deepest urges and secrets than speak openly to someone they may sincerely consider their true love.
Hate when I creep and the phone wake me up
Fake like I’m sleep knowing damn well I be up
Monkey on my back and I walk a hundred miles
Guilt make a nigga feel fake when he smile
Love get confused in the mind of a child
‘Cause love wouldn’t lie like I lie and it’s wild
“Once An Addict” recounts Jermaine’s mother’s drinking problems during his youth. Her addiction had a collateral impact on Cole, forcing him to decide whether to carry her burden or escape and find a way out:
Late as shit, cigarette smoke and greatest hits from Marvin Gaye
She kill a whole bottle of some cheap chardonnay
I gotta leave this house ’cause part of me dies when I see her like this
Too young to deal with pain
I’d rather run the streets than see her kill herself
So ‘Ville became my escape from a feelin’ I hate
Mama cursing me out
Depression’s such a villainous state
“FRIENDS” calls out people in Cole’s inner circle guilty of dodging accountability by blaming external factors and seeking refuge in substances:
What I’m tryna say is the blame can go deep as seas
Just to blame ’em all I would need like twenty CD’s
There’s all sorts of trauma from drama that children see
Type of shit that normally would call for therapy
But you know just how it go in our community
Keep that shit inside it don’t matter how hard it be
Fast forward, them kids is grown and they blowing trees
And popping pills due to chronic anxiety
“Window Pain” builds off of a gut-wrenching clip of a young girl describing her cousin’s murder through drive-by shooting at her grandmother’s home. He uses that to reflect on his position and impact on society only to find that his message has rung hollow, acknowledging that even his closest friends have failed to see an urgency for change. He condemns their indifference, practically blaming their ignorance for that child witnessing a murder in cold blood.
Thought that I could change it all if I had change
But the niggas that I came up with way back is still the same
I be tryna give ’em game like Santa did when Christmas came
They be listenin’ but it’s clear to me they did not hear a thing
It go in one ear and out the other like a bullet out the muzzle of a pistol shot by brothers standin’ point-blank range
Throughout listening to with KOD, the message I have discerned is this: Take responsibility for your reality.
Many may not, but I largely agree with Cole on his stance. Drug and alcohol abuse are forms of escapism for those unequipped to face issues lying under the surface, offering an easy out (and they are becoming a more widely available option than ever before). Lies and distorted truths are just as potent and deteriorating as those substances, many people opting to live behind multiple masks rather than be public with what they really look like without one. Finally, the people who are ignorant and indifferent towards loved ones facing these problems are to be chastised just as much for having opportunities to make a difference but simply choosing not to.
KOD seems to be the result of a crossroads Cole came to, perhaps realizing that his music — his purpose, occupation and primary contribution to society — had not led to a change he hoped to see in the world. It is safe to say everyone reaches a similar crossroads at some point, questioning prior decisions and the consequences that followed. What one opts to do when they reach that fork in the road is the real revelation.
As KOD puts it: Choose Wisely.