J. Cole is, perhaps, a man a bit undone by his reputation.
Somehow — and I’m not really sure how this happened — Cole’s name started to get tossed around in the conversations every emcee dreams to be mentioned in: those that included him among lyricists like Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West, and people started suggesting that Cole might be this generation’s GOAT.
But if we’re being honest with ourselves, Cole just isn’t there. He’s an incredibly talented rapper, far above the average, creating clever bars with impressive flows over smooth, jazzy beats.
He’s no GOAT, though.
Saddled with a reputation like his, however, his albums are (in my opinion) harshly critiqued by rap fans. His music is always very good, but if you’re expecting something that’s great — well, you know what they say about horseshoes and hand-grenades.
Cole’s latest effort, “KOD,” falls in a weird sort of limbo: undoubtedly better than his last outing, “4 Your Eyez Only,” “KOD” will be eaten up by his fans, but it’s not nearly enough to convert his detractors.
Much of that has to do with the way Cole will likely come across as a bit preachy to many rap fans.
Previously, Cole has said that the album’s abbreviated title stands for three separate names: “Kids on Drugs,” “King Overdose” and “Kill Our Demons.” It should go without saying based on those titles that one of Cole’s major themes on the record is an anti-drug message, one which is sure to be taken negatively by some people.
However, Cole isn’t nearly as sanctimonious about his anti-drug message as, say, a straightedge hardcore punk act. Instead, the record is a more measured examination of coping mechanisms in response to pain.
Pain, in fact, is the album’s main theme. In the album’s intro, a voice tells the listener “There are many ways to deal with this pain. Choose wisely.”
And, as is to be expected, most of the vignettes told through the album’s songs are about people who haven’t chosen wisely.
Mid-album cut “Kevin’s Heart” sees Cole taking on the role of an addict of multiple types. Cole’s character describes dealing with a constant temptation to cheat on his loving girlfriend, whom he says “got wife written all over.” To make matters worse, the character self-medicates to escape pain.
But Cole’s opinion of this sort of behavior is pretty clear.
“All a n***a know is how to f*** a good thing up, / Run from the pain, sip lean, smoke tree up,” he spits.
Poking fun at comedian Kevin Heart, who made headlines for cheating on his wife, Cole ends the track with a vicious attack on infidelity:
“At home I look happy as usual, / On the road, I’m a mack, I’m a chooser, / I’m a addict, I’m maskin’ that / Kevin’s Heart.”
The “drugs-as-escape” line is one that Cole frequently returns to. On the wonderfully eerie “The Cut Off,” Cole talks about cutting people out of his life who have done him wrong.
But on the chorus, his deep-voiced character of kiLL edward (who’s given billing as a “featured artist” on this track and another, even though it’s just Cole’s voice run through a vocal effect) gives a drug-addled chant:
“Gimme drink, gimme dope, / Bottom line, I can’t cope, / If I die, I don’t know,” kiLL edward rants with growing intensity.
The track that strikes me as the most important anti-drug message, though, is the album’s closing track, “1985 (Intro to ‘The Fall Off’).”
Some background here: Last year, trap phenom Lil Pump previewed a to-date unreleased diss track firing at Cole.
The “Gucci Gang” rapper, in his typical lyrical brilliance, mumbles “n***a, f*** J. Cole” over and over again. He calls him ugly, too.
Now, Cole could’ve clapped back with a diss track of his own. But in “1985,” he takes on a more conversational tone, seeming to try to step into a fatherly role for the young rapper.
Cole takes notice of Pump’s typically drugged-out lyrics, and suggests that this is exactly what “The Man” wants from a black man.
“They wanna see you dab, they wanna see you pop a pill, / They wanna see you tatted from your face to your heels,” he says.
Cole takes on a role that I’ve been hoping someone in hip-hop would for a while: that of a high profile artist calling out the younger trap rapper’s rampant drug use.
Cole has important things to say on this record. And he often says them beautifully — his final verse on the track “BRACKETS” is truly breathtaking, and I’m not even going to try carving quotes out of it. Just listen to the song yourself to experience this verse in full.
The problem, though, is that he often gets trapped in his frequent “Cole-isms.” He never really strays from his sort of woozy acid-rap inspired beats, and, for the third straight record, there isn’t a single featured artist to be found.
Cole is getting dangerously close to seeming like he just keeps releasing the same record over and over. When he’s brilliant, he’s brilliant, but he’s always brilliant in the exact same ways.
Like I said earlier, “KOD” is a real improvement on the uninspired “4 Your Eyez Only,” but it truly does feel in many ways like a simple improvement: a better re-do of a subpar record.
At least he’s up to par this time.
Reach Patrick Kernan at 570-991-6386 or on Twitter @PatKernan.
Artist: J. Cole
Label: Dreamville, Roc Nation, Interscope
Best Tracks: ‘The Cut Off,’ ‘Kevin’s Heart,’ ‘Brackets’