J. Cole’s latest album “KOD,” which dropped April 20, does not stray from his usual reflection and critique of modern culture. The album documents heartbreaking stories of systemic violence, drug addiction and crippling emotional impairment, while simultaneously roasting trap culture, politicians and the broken system of U.S. society. However, unlike his earlier project “2014 Forest Hills Drive,” “KOD” lacks musical direction. While the sound is underwhelming — the beats and melodies are disjointed from the words and distract the listener from J. Cole’s messages — the album’s lyrics are thought-provoking.
The album opens with “Intro,” in which a detached, cool voice prompts listeners to “choose wisely” on how they deal with internal pain and talks about the methods of communication a baby uses. The track’s purpose is unclear, and it seems irrelevant to the rest of the album. The sad, soulful saxophone loses its charm when paired with this voice, which recurs throughout the album to disrupt any atmosphere the melody on its own is trying to create.
The following track, “KOD,” is a much less bizarre song with a minimalist beat that remains steady throughout the track. Cole plays with the speed of his lyrics instead, which makes a somewhat average song more intriguing. KOD has a trifold meaning — “Kids on Drugs,” “King Overdosed” and “Kill Our Demons,” according to an April 19 tweet from Cole.
One of the few songs without discord between the sound and the words, “Photograph” features a soft beat with a distinct guitar strum that is soulful enough to back Cole’s sensitive lyrics. “Photograph” focuses on how “love today’s gone digital / And it’s messing with my health.” The detachment of online dating is too much for Cole to handle as he puts his “heart in the click” and hopes to see the girls he meets online in real life one day. He may “not even know [your] name,” but he cannot help but wonder about the possibility of a happy future with whoever happens to pop up on his computer screen.
“The Cut Off” featuring kiLL Edward begins with a cyclical repetition of “Give me drink, give me smoke, I don’t know,” which represents the never-ending demands of people who want to take advantage of Cole’s fortune. Aptly named, “The Cut Off” explores Cole’s need to remove moochers from his life instead of being the “bigger man” he normally is.
Money does not solve everything, as Cole addresses in both “The Cut Off” and “ATM.” Perhaps he feels like an ATM: just a money distributor and nothing else. The beats incorporate ATM sounds seamlessly; one has to listen closely to hear the distinct effect, but this small addition adds nuance. Cole critiques the obsession with money that permeates society. He begins by saying that money “gon’ solve every problem” and “a million dollars I count up in intervals / Without it I’m miserable.”
Counting money is a recurring theme throughout the album, and Cole hones in on the frenzy that begins when millions start pouring in. He admits he “fell in love with big wheels and cheap thrills” and assumes the thought process of a stereotypical rapper obsessed with income. He returns to himself later in the track to remind every listener of the paradoxical uselessness of money when he raps “can’t take it when you die, but you can’t live without it.”
Cole is self-motivated on “Motiv8,” yet he breaks from “swallow[ing] [his] pride” and hiding his true anger by “crackin’ a smile” when internally his “demons are close”. A dejected voice chants, “I’m poppin’ a pill, I’m feelin’ alive,” which reiterates Cole’s anti-drug message and conveys that taking pills as a solution for raging emotions only leaves one robotic and cold. Instead of falling down the rabbit hole as many in his community have, Cole focuses on “the commas,” or the millions he is making through his socially aware verses.
“Brackets” is one of the highlights of the album, as it is one of the more politically charged tracks. It critiques the tax system because Cole’s tax dollars do not seem to go toward helping black kids succeed or to reforming the system that holds them back. Cole rips on the predominantly white portrayal of history, as kids learn “’bout 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.” The listener has to ponder with him that “maybe we’ll never see a black man in the White House again,” which hits hard when paired with the lulling melody that makes the future seem bleak.
Even though the same deadened voice introduces the song, Cole’s words on his mother’s addiction to alcohol are heartbreakingly sincere on “Once an Addict.” Cole talks about needing to leave his house during his adolescence because “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.” Cole was exposed to the sight of his mother in the worst of mental and physical states as she grappled with her inner demons. He would stay out late at night because he knew that his mother’s “inner demons” would show “and then [he]’d have to end up seein’ [his] hero on ground zero.”
The assonance between “hero” and “zero” amplifies the line’s impact and leaves the listener just as shaken and sad as Cole must have been writing it. The song ends with no closure, just rhetorical questions begging Cole: “Why I just sit and observe? Why don’t I say how I feel?”
Continuing on the subject of addiction, “Friends” explores reliance on marijuana and “graduat[ing] to powder.” Cole is thankful he was lucky enough to escape his circumstances but is “feeling like the only one who made it / And I hate it for my n—as, ’cause they ain’t got ambition” and are stuck in their routines of doping up and lashing out. Cole does not blame them, though; he blames everyone else. “You can blame it on condition / Blame it on crack / You can blame it on the system / Blame it on Trump, s—t, blame it on Clinton / Blame it on trap music and the politicians.” He calls out fate itself for putting some people in better conditions than others, blames drugs as an escape instead of a solution, blames politicians for doing nothing impactful for Americans and blames trap for perpetuating a negative portrayal of black culture.
The rest of the song sounds like advice to a depressed friend not to turn to drugs for emotional support. In lines like “you running from yourself and you buying product again,” and “but I know depression and drug addiction don’t blend,” Cole begs his listeners to not treat sadness or internal turmoil with drugs that will only compound the problems they have.
Both “Window Pain” and “1985 (Intro to ‘The Fall Off’)” focus on the unlikelihood of black men like Cole making it off the streets and into successful lives. Cole wants the black community to succeed, even if that is through producing trap music. He is “unimpressed” by trap but follows the statement with “hey, but I love to see a black man get paid,” so he recognizes the success of trap artists without endorsing trap itself. However, to him, trap rappers “ain’t thinkin’ ’bout the people that’s lookin’ like me and you,” and he suggests that “riding trends” will only make money and fame temporary, so wasting it on women and “fake friends” will only end in regret.
“KOD” paints a scary picture of America’s current culture with its themes of systemic violence, drug use and greed. The voices that start the songs embody the fact that marginalized people are rarely heard when they speak but also that their stories are still relevant and may be widely spread through music. Cole fearlessly calls people out and critiques American culture, and while the sound of “KOD” is not as rich as J. Cole’s normal production, the album merits a listen because of its intelligent and nuanced lyricism.