Since his early days as an up and coming rapper-producer, Jermaine Cole seemed destined for greatness. After a solid stretch of raw, purist-friendly mixtapes, the once aspiring basketball player got his initial shot in 2009, signing to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label with enormous expectations set for him. It took Cole a couple commercial releases to find his footing in the larger scale conversation for big rap artists, but after Forest Hills Drive dropped in late 2014, life hasn’t been the same for him.
Two platinum records later, J. Cole is undeniably one of the premier giants in the hip-hop industry. He’s now dropped consecutive albums with little to no marketing and promotion, only to achieve eye-popping sales numbers with each release. His newest project KOD, another concept, sees the North Carolina star tackling the varied effects of millennial vices, melding chill jazz-rap and mild, modern trap sounds for a tight 46-minute effort on substance abuse and temptation.
Many of his previous albums, while slightly inconsistent, have always at least produced a few great singles (see “Power Trip” and “Neighbors”). This is not the case for KOD, which serves as an acronym for multiple titles, most notably Kids On Drugs. Cole’s new record carries a noticeable imbalance between sound quality and themes. There are multiple tracks that, while topically strong, suffer from uninspired vocal performances, lackluster instrumentals and vise versa. The pointless “Intro” is a boring attempt at jazz spoken word that does little to pretense the record. Additionally, “The Cut Off” has a smooth, strolling-through-the-park type vibe but features a terribly sang chorus.
As with every Cole record though, on KOD, he intermittently shows amazing spurts of thoughtfulness and clear direction. “Window Pain – Outro” offers a glimpse into different perspectives of traumatizing encounters in the hood, a thematic highlight on the album. This track showcases one of Cole’s best traits as an MC, which is being able to place himself in the shoes of others and consider how every person interprets different situations in their own unique way. The deeply personal “Once an Addict – Interlude” recounts his struggle of being raised by an single parent alcoholic, another stand out storyline.
Cole’s lyrical strength peaks on “Brackets.” It’s among his most compelling moments on the mic, ever. His proposal of being able to determine where your tax money is allocated through an app on your phone is probably the most forward-thinking idea he has ever presented. Why is this not a thing?!
The biggest attraction on the album comes with “1985 – Intro to ‘The Fall Off,’” a hard-nosed life lesson on artistry and finances, aimed at rap’s young class. It’s an entertaining track, but the irony in his advice is that the sonic aesthetic of KOD often reflects modern trap trends (“KOD” and “Motiv8”). However, J. Cole has said himself he has learned to appreciate younger artists and the music they make. “I’m now in a place where I can hear people and get excited, like this kid is dope as fuck,” he told Vulture in a recent interview. And it’s clear the game he’s kicking on the outro comes from a sincere place, not a condescending one. The bigger issue with the trendier songs on KOD is that at times, they too, like some of the rappers Cole is referring to, sound redundant and below his ability.
For as much talent as J. Cole showed early in his career, it’s disappointing that he hasn’t come through with more significant music. He’s exceeded expectations from a commercial standpoint but fallen short of the mark artistically, especially when you stack him up against his closest peers in the mainstream. Drake revolutionized pop-rap into a meme-driven and culture-dominating movement, and Kendrick Lamar turned a documentation of personal and social turmoil into a black music revival. Cole sells records exceptionally well and connects to audiences worldwide, but his output only excites on occasion. He remains a competent and talented artist, but KOD fails to reach the greatness he should have attained by now.