“The real is back, the ‘Ville is back,” and J. Cole has in fact brought it back stronger than ever, at a time when it was desperately needed.
If you’re anything like me, your faith in the state of hip-hop has slowly spiraled downward the past couple of months. You’ve been forced to resort to old school classics, which, considering how fast music is digested today, are albums like Kendrick Lamar’s “DAMN,” Rick Ross’ “Rather You Than Me” and Jay-Z’s “4:44.” All of which were released last year. Or a West Coast debut from one of my favorites, Nipsey Hussle’s “Victory Lap,” which released last month.
Or perhaps you’ve gone back further and found yourself reaching for classic Marvin Gaye, Al Green or Aretha Franklin records trying to get music to touch your soul the way it once did. All in an attempt to try and numb yourself from the current mainstream rap that loses its meaning the moment the second hook is recited.
But then April comess around. And as an Aries, I’m ecstatic.
Kendrick becomes the first rapper to win a Pulitzer prize for “DAMN.” Jay-Z takes home a Peabody for his executive production of “TIME: The Kalief Browder Story.” And Kanye West announces the release of both his long-awaited solo album on June 1 and his collab project with Kid Cudi on June 8, as well as the lineup of his G.O.O.D music counterparts, Pusha T and Teyana Taylor, in May and June, respectively.
But April 20 got the ball rolling for what is to come.
On a date that has most stoners rolling up, J. Cole wittingly makes you reconsider with his fifth recorded studio album, “KOD.”
The album’s title, a triple entendre, a play on words uses the acronym to give the album a sense of direction, completely up for the listener’s interpretation: “Kids on Drugs,” “King Overdosed” and “Killing Our Demons” — all of which encompass the album’s content.
Cole tackles the issues of addiction, depression, anxiety and other mental health woes a majority of youth face as they turn to vices to suppress their feelings of pain.
The album’s intro, entitled so, begins with an explanation of where Cole believes addiction stems from, cleverly using the analogy of a newborn baby’s response to joy and pain. A female voice is heard saying, “A newborn baby has two primary forms of communication. Laughter, which says, ‘I love this.’ Or crying, which says, ‘This frightens me, I’m in pain.’”
All throughout, Cole pleads for his mind to be shut off, under the jazzy beat. The track, although just an intro, gives the listener a good idea of what will be addressed and just exactly where J. Cole’s head is at.
Cole shows how wicked his mind can get in the middle of the album with “The Cut Off,” a track that features what seems to be Cole’s maniacal alter ego, Kill Edward. The song is dedicated to a former friend turned foe of Cole’s, who ultimately crossed him somewhere along the way. He infers that if he were to lose control of his sanity he would resort to violence on the man who crossed him.
The album is extremely introspective and one of the the album’s deepest songs, “Once an Addict,” reintroduces us to some of Cole’s darker thoughts. The female voice returns to open the song and questions whether God is pleased when we are suffering. The song later describes the lineage of drug use to suppress pain that began with Cole’s mother, who, as he has mentioned multiple times before, battled her own personal bouts with alcohol and crack cocaine. The pain Cole vicariously felt through seeing the tears from his mother’s eyes fueled him to lead the same path. Cole spits through gritted teeth, fighting back tears, “I know she intoxicated/and soon this high that I’m on comes crashin’ down/She lit, talkin’ drunk shit, I’m pissed/But I’m still all ears like basset hounds/Thinkin’ to myself, “Maybe my mama need help/Don’t she got work in the morning?/Why she do this to herself? Hate how she slurrin’ her words.”
Yet Cole, unlike many other mainstream artists, does not glorify drugs and other vices. He uses his personal traumatic experiences to paint a vivid portrait of the ills that the use of drugs can bring on songs like “Friends,” “ATM” and “1985.” Cole understands that impressionable minds are drawn to what they are exposed most frequently. And in a day and age when they’re force-fed images of their idols glorifying drugs, money and fame they are tempted to do the same. But without a blueprint and knowledge of the adverse effects that come as a result, they are left unaware of the feelings of inadequacy, stress and depression that are attached, resulting in a vicious cycle that they are constantly trying run away from. But Cole doesn’t only blame hip-hop; he also points at the black community’s ignorance and dismissal of mental health issues that are seemingly indiscernible. “Without the drugs I want you be comfortable in your skin. I know you, so I know you still keep a lot of shit in/You running from yourself and you buying product again/I know you say it helps and no I’m not trying to offend/But I know depression and drug addiction don’t blend/Reality distorts and then you get lost in the wind.”
What Cole does so well on this album and those that precede it is, tuning into what society is dire need of hearing. He doesn’t record tracks that will feed his pockets or his ego, but those that will hopefully reach the ears, hearts and minds of those who need his assistance the most.
Cole offers his veteran advice to young rappers who may not be aware of their impact on “1985.” He plays devil’s advocate and highlights the duality that exists among young black rappers who come into a boatload of money, fame, impact and responsibility that they aren’t always cognizant of. He says that he too during his adolescence dabbled in the carefree unconscious acts of drinking, smoking, sleeping around and not giving a damn about who saw. But he then flips the coin in the second verse, telling these artist in the coolest way possible that if they stay the course they’re on, “In five years you gon’ be on love and hip-hop.” For those who are not tuned in to the low-level entertainment that exists within the black community, “Love and Hip-Hop,” analogous with “Dancing with the Stars,” is for washed-up pop stars and retired athletes alike, where once-prominent rappers go to end their previous monumental careers. But if you’re Cardi B… it’s where you start.
Sonically, the album finds an exquisite balance between “knockers,” heard on “KOD” and “ATM,” and melancholy tracks that make you close your eyes and nod your head at a steady pace, scowling at witty rhyme schemes, metaphors and his uncanny flow.
Cole acts as a martyr for the issues many young people experience in this fast-paced society, embodying their issues as his, deeply exploring his mind, the introspective artist he is, and releasing what is needed. He plays the role of the O.G., or the uncle in your family who you find constantly saying, “Back in my day,” and going in-depth about the one time he had to do “something strange” to get his fix. But unlike your uncle, Cole does so in a way that only he can, effortlessly meshing his voice over self-produced beats.
This album does not preach — it instead serves as a therapy session. One that gives listeners a look into the life of a multimillionaire rapper who not only recognizes his impact and greater responsibility to his audience but identifies with the same struggles they face as well. It drives the age-old saying home, that “Money doesn’t buy happiness,” and neither does “medicating” with vices, regardless of how they disguise themselves. .