The North Carolina MC returns to form and tackles the topics of drug abuse, addiction, depression, and Black America.

Surprise! J. Cole has returned, and this time only a mere 16 months since his previous studio album. Cole, who is undisputedly among the 5 most popular rappers in the world, has taken a turn from the commercial nature of his last two albums and steps up his lyrical game big time on this record.

When the album was officially announced on Cole’s twitter last week, rumours began to swirl over the abbreviated name: KOD. The title was later revealed to stand for three things: Kids On Drugs, King Overdosed, and Kill Our Demons. The topic of drugs in hip-hop has been a touchy one as of late with a condescending and preachy narrative being used frequently following the overdose of the late hip-hop artist Lil Peep. With that being said, Cole faced the obstacle of tackling the topic of drugs and addiction in a respectful and insightful manner rather than in a demeaning way. In fact, it’s a pretty huge obstacle for an album of this nature; it makes the difference between dropping an album of the year candidate or repeating Logic’s botched efforts on Everybody.

Knowing J. Cole and his sometimes cringeworthy bars, I was nervous when I heard this album would be about drugs. In my mind it was either going to be a shitty take on trap music à la HUMBLE. or a lecture from my dad about how drugs ruin lives for an hour. But fortunately, the route Cole took was modest and offered a different perspective on drugs. Lyrically, this album did have some dull moments however. On “Photograph” Cole talks about love in a digital world and alludes to how social media can act as a drug which is a message I’m pretty tired of force-fed by anyone above the age of 30. Most notably, on “1985” Cole goes after the mumble rap/Soundcloud rap scene in the most painfully uninventive song on the album, from which he has received a lot of flak for in the hip-hop community. Despite these tracks, this album still looks to be Cole’s most lyrically impressive yet. Cole looks into the dynamics of addiction and what causes it, how people use pharmaceuticals as a crutch to deal with person demons, and even so far to analyze the problems faced by black communities in America. While Cole has never been anything short of a conscious rapper, he seems to be more self-aware and insightful on this album than ever before.

Photo via Dan Garcia.

The production on KOD is a stark contrast to Cole’s previous records. Cole was seemingly unfazed by the criticisms that 4 Your Eyez Only was too boring and underproduced, as the production on KOD is even more subtle. However, the assumed purpose behind the quiet, soothing production has worked as intended: to serve as a backseat to J. Cole’s rapping. The album is very smooth; it melds together and transitions cleanly from track to track. J. Cole places a heavy emphasis on the lyrics here and really wants the listener to pay attention, which is not only helped by the production but by the flows he takes on as well. The album is diamond structurally. Cole doesn’t let songs drag on for too long and the melodies and hooks were effectively and appropriately used in the context of the tracks they were featured on. This album truly sounds as if it is exactly how Cole wanted it to sound. His ability to translate thoughts and ideas into songwriting on this album seems flawless and as a result we have a finished product that is easily digestible and cohesive.

While on paper this is possibly Cole’s greatest album, it does however lack the punch and personality that he has featured in his other albums. While the album’s laid back vibe strikes me as intentional, it does come with its flaws. Cole seems slightly robotic on this album and seldom raps with ferocity or emotion (an impression that is amplified by the “kiLL edward” alter-ego). The production, or lack thereof, creates a hollow feeling to the album and while the lyrics are stimulating to the mind, KOD lacks the ability to stimulate the ears. This strikes me as odd, since Cole has not had trouble with this in the past regarding production. The only exceptions to this description would be on the track’s “KOD” and “Kevin’s Heart,” but on a musical level the album tends to fall flat otherwise.

The thematics, while appropriately-executed, seemed to lack any lasting impression on me. Cole brings up a lot of compelling topics and stories on this album, but fails to hit the nail on the head on any specific topic and leaves me with no big takeaways from the themes he creates here. There doesn’t seem to be a clear message or statement that can be taken away from this album which is disappointing regarding the seriousness of the topics.

All-in-all, this is a good album with the potential to be so much more. Cole brings his biggest and best lyrical performances but fails to capitalize on the album’s theme while also leaving an album with few individual standout tracks. The album was extremely well put together though; Cole’s line of thoughts were easy to follow and while underproduced, the instrumentals allowed for a focus onto Cole’s lyrics and rapping which was a fact I appreciated. Cole executed this risky topic quite well with lyrics and flows that left me thoroughly impressed, yet couldn’t hit the sweet spot musically as he has done so many times before.

Rating: 7/10