Tuesday, May 1, 2018

KOD - J. Cole

I'll be totally honest - after reviewing J. Cole's last album, 4 Your Eyez Only, I didn't listen to it a whole lot. While it was a solid album, it wasn't the type of album I wanted to throw on repeat and listen to every day. Despite that, when I saw J. Cole was teasing a new release, I was definitely excited and eager to hear what the man had been quietly creating.

I was not prepared.

KOD did what 4 Your Eyez Only tried to do, and improved upon it immensely. Each song carries such weight lyrically, moving from subject to subject with fluidity while still hitting each heavily and leaving a long-lasting impression. He covers money, fame, scandal, and the problems that come with them (with drug abuse and addiction being a theme threading itself through all these subjects).

The two videos Cole has put out so far, "ATM" & "Kevin's Heart", both cover different subjects in very different manners. "ATM" talks about the harsh reality of obsessing over money and the way in which it dictates and destroys peoples lives. The video complements it so well by utilizing very dreamy and distorted art, with lots of visual effects and bright colors to offset the way in which money and the people around J. Cole are using him for the dollar. And even just looking at the hook, in it's profound simplicity:

"Count it up, count it up, count it up, count it
Can't take it when you die, but you can't live without it"

"Kevin's Heart" is much more somber, utilizing very muted and realistic scenes (with Kevin Hart himself) that explore the polarization of being a celebrity and doing something morally wrong in the public eye. Seeing that it was inspired by Kevin Hart's cheating scandal from last year gives the video and song even more depth and weight in considering the ways in which people discuss celebrities - who themselves are still imperfect people.

Something that helps the album have such an impact is the overall simplicity of the instrumentals - none of them are these huge productions, relying instead on tight beats to lay the groundwork for the incredible lyrical work happening on each track. "Motiv8", for example, is a very simple instrumental, but contains heavy lyrical content, such as:

"Too many times I swallowed my pride
I'm crackin' a smile, I'm dyin' inside
My demons are close, I'm tryin' to hide
I'm poppin' a pill, I'm feelin' alive"

demonstrating the way in which looks are deceiving, and how easily we turn to something else to try and ignore our pain, our problems, and just try to feel good.

"BRACKETS" looks at a very different topic, seeing Cole go off about the ways in which his tax dollars are used over a slowed down, jazzy instrumental:

"But my niggas barely graduate, they ain't got the tools
Maybe 'cause the tax dollars that I make sure I send
Get spent hirin' some teachers that don't look like them
And the curriculum be tricking them, them dollars I spend
Got us learning about the heroes with the whitest of skin
One thing about the men that's controlling the pen
That write history, they always seem to white-out they sins".

He's able to bridge the song from there to briefly touching on gun violence to it's impact on people, specifically a black woman losing her son, and ultimately bringing the song full circle by having the woman "remember that she gotta file her taxes, damn" on her way back from the funeral for her son. It's heavy material, but incredibly moving.

"Once An Addict (Interlude)" has Cole pulling back the curtain of vulnerability and delve deep into his relationship with his mom when he was a teenager, recounting the ways in which she abused drugs and alcohol and how that affected her and him and their relationship, and the regrets he has for how he dealt with it at the time.

"Something's got a hold on me
I can't let it go
Out of fear I won't be free"

The outro shows how much of an impact it had on him, affecting him even now as he struggles to move past that part of his life.

"Photograph" was initially one of the stand outs from my first listen, with the chorus being an incredibly relevant take on the culture that social media has created today:

"Fell in love through photograph
I don't even know your name
Wonder if you'd follow back
I hope to see you one day
I won't show my niggas now
I'II keep this one for myself
Love today's gone digital
And it's messing with my health"

The focus on the physical and what can be seen creates unhealthy expectations and obsessions for people who spend a lot of time on various social media sites, and is something that is so common and harmful to relationships and even just a general sense of enjoying life.

I could keep going in depth with the lyrics of each song off the album. "FRIENDS (feat. kiLL edward)" has Cole speaking to the friends he has left behind along his road to fame and success, and the addiction that he feels they struggle with (most likely being the reason he had to leave them behind). "The Cut Off (feat. kiLL edward)" talks about the people that Cole had to cut off due to them using him for his money or connections, and his struggle with wanting to help them despite that and wanting to be generous with what he had been given. "1985 (Intro to "The Fall Off")" sees Cole speaking to the young up and coming rappers, specifically those like Lil' Pump (of whom I am not a fan), and offering them advice about how to use their platform and influence to create change for good (which Lil' Pump did not take well, and ignored the advice while making fun of Cole).

Even trying to keep things to a minimum, I couldn't help going on about the different subjects. The amount of material in this album is incredible. Lyrically, this is easily the best rap album I've heard in a while, if not in general. Cole delved into so many heavy subjects, but didn't let any of them weigh him down, showing fire and passion like a man 10 years younger but with the knowledge of someone who has lived much, much longer. But then, the instrumentals are all so spot on for the specific lyrical content. Ranging from trap to jazz, fast to slow, there's a little bit of everything here and it flows together with ease. This is where 4 Your Eyez Only didn't succeed - trying for too many things at once and without the sense of finesse and flow that Cole was able to capture on KOD. The stories and perspectives are his own, and that is reflected in the brutal honestly expressed. You learn a lot about J. Cole, listening to this album, and it shows you a man who has come from a broken place, taken his fear and pain and struggles, and turned them into success and influence. He can relate to those who are in similar situations, who are living through the things he faced in his childhood and beyond. You see that he's not a perfect being; his honesty paints a picture of clarity into the life of a celebrity.

Vulnerability, compassion, wisdom; this is an absolutely essential album for 2018.

Rating: 4.5/5

Recommended: "ATM", "KOD", "Photograph", "The Cut Off (feat. kiLL edward)"

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