The Strongest Drug of All: J. Cole Wags His Finger

A sobering look at the high ands lows of J. Cole's latest, 'KOD.'
By    May 2, 2018

Alex Swhear is heating up like that leftover lasagna. 

Widespread opioid addiction is tightening its grip on the country. In 2016 alone, 64,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses – a 21% increase from the year prior. At the same time, hip-hop’s relationship with drugs is becoming increasingly fraught. The genre has always had a push and pull between pro- and anti-drug use songs and artists, but a very visible crop of young stars can be seen using and, depending on your perspective, glamorizing drugs, including prescription drugs. And while many people have pointed out that the opioid crisis––in racial terms, an equal-opportunity offender––has engendered far more public sympathy than, say, the crack epidemic, the young rappers who openly indulge have received little more than the usual moral handwringing.

This is the landscape KOD, the fifth album from J. Cole, is operating in. It comes at a point in his career where Cole can’t be easily lumped in with his peers. His following is robust, massive even. But despite his commercial supremacy, Cole’s style and disposition are dramatically at odds with most rappers currently on the rise. As such, Cole has morphed from up-and-comer to prickly veteran at a rate that might raise eyebrows, and in a way that casts him––sometimes beyond reason––as an ideologue. 

While some in his shoes might aim to thump their chests, KOD finds Cole trying to leverage his unique position for good. The album wants to be an intervention, a somber reckoning with addictions of varying stripes: “ATM” targets on monetary woes; “Kevin’s Heart” grapples with the temptation of infidelity. But the prime focus here is the scourge of drug addiction. Cole is most effective when he mines his own personal experience; on “Once An Addict (Interlude)”, he recalls his confusion and frustration as his mother spiraled further into addiction.

Too often, though, J. Cole defaults to sanctimonious chiding.  He insists on delivering his message as a full-force bludgeoning to the teeth, unconcerned with nuance. “Meditate, don’t medicate,” he intones on “FRIENDS”, which sounds suspiciously like something Mr. Rosso from “Freaks and Geeks” would say. The title track ends with “Percs, Xannys, lean, and fame, and the strongest drug of them all…love,” a punctuation so laughable that it renders any adjacent wisdom he might offer dead on arrival. If it is, in fact, a good-faith attempt to reach a segment of rap fans, it risks coming across more parental than fraternal, and risks losing the audience in the process.

It’s unsurprising, then, that one of KOD’s glaring shortcomings is its failure to humanize its subjects. Cole instead zombifies them with repetitive, dead-eyed hooks (“ATM” and “Motiv8” lean on monotone, hypnotized chants) and overly simplistic declarations like “I take the whole cake and I won’t leave a portion”. He spends vast stretches of the album diagnosing a problem few dispute, but he isn’t willing to do the digging necessary to unveil the catalysts at the root of that problem.

That self-righteousness and skin-deep psychoanalysis is all over KOD, and it worsens songs that aren’t on strong footing to begin with. “Photograph” frets over the pitfalls of online dating, potentially interesting territory. But its writing is, like too much of Cole’s lyricism, infuriatingly generic (“Love today’s gone digital and it’s messing with my health”). It’s far closer to the trite “Wow…online is crazy, huh?” sermonizing of Arcade Fire’s recent misfire Everything Now than it is to the timely critique Cole wants it to be. Similarly, the didactic anti-tax screed “BRACKETS” offers some unexpected common ground between J. Cole and Grover Norquist, but little in the way of biting commentary.

Isolated moments and verses make KOD worth hearing. “Kevin’s Heart” probes the self-loathing of a serial adulterer ashamed of their behavior who nonetheless has no plans to change it. “FRIENDS” reaches for a complexity sorely missing from the rest of the album, pointedly challenging the excuses addicts often lean on to rationalize their behavior. The aforementioned “Once An Addict (Interlude)” recalls with eye-popping detail nights where Cole’s mother, drunk on bad wine, would lash out at him bitterly. Cole looks inward, examining his own mistakes in how he handled her struggles, and it’s a welcome moment of self-reflection in an album otherwise too inclined to wag its finger.

Cole’s choices here are occasionally striking, leaning on production flourishes and flows popularized by the very rappers KOD rebukes. While this is likely at least partially tongue-in-cheek, it’s also pervasive enough to feel like a tacit acknowledgment that such trends have musical merit. Mostly, though, KOD, adheres to the slinky, unassuming minimalism Cole slipped into on 2016’s 4 Your Eyez Only.

The consistency is a welcome course-correction for an artist whose early efforts were jarringly incohesive. Cole’s first two albums, Sideline Story and Born Sinner, lurch from somber concept songs to A&R-approved Tentpole Rap Singles gracelessly. With his two most recent albums, Cole’s sonic reach has become more sparse and modest just as his lyrics have become more of a pedantic lecture. It’s a trajectory that has granted him the dubious distinction of being both glaringly unsubtle and remarkably boring.

The “J. Cole is boring” arguments have themselves become so boring that I would love to avoid them entirely, but Cole doesn’t leave that option on the table. KOD’s biggest problem is that it’s really just sort of tedious, just like the last J. Cole album and the ones before it. Cole’s production is usually pretty good, and his delivery is generally just fine. But his unimpressive hooks and his tendency to fetishize high concepts at the expense of engaging songwriting are serious detriments.

His general dullness makes his premature transition to Elder Statesman unsurprising; Cole relishes his ability to talk down to you. Much like Game before him, J. Cole decided he was a legend before putting the time in to prove it. The natural progression of that self-appointment is that he already sees himself as being grizzled, tested, and burdened with hard-earned wisdom. As such, he uses “1985”, KOD’s closer, to tell all these new, young, disrespectful rappers that He’s Not Mad, Really, He’s Just Disappointed, And By The Way, You Really Should Consider Putting Together A Budget. It’s thoroughly unconvincing. Cole hasn’t parsed the distinction between an old man who has earned the right to act like an old man versus someone who just caught Gran Torino on TBS.

KOD is an earnest album, and one worth hearing. It will certainly satisfy Cole’s ardent fanbase until he releases his next album, which I very much hope is a concept album about the pitfalls of preachy concept albums. But KOD too often feels like its own echo chamber, a safe space to indict addicts and spout platitudes. Its subject matter deserves a more lucid storyteller with an ability to dissect his targets with precision and intellectual curiosity. Until Cole develops that ability, his albums will be doomed to the same echelon of frustrating mediocrity he’s been languishing in since 2011. But at least he can say he did it with no features.