On ‘KOD,’ J. Cole Speaks to the Generation That Spurned Him

Posted April 25, 2018 5:07 p.m. EDT

About a year ago, just as the SoundCloud rap ecosystem was beginning to erupt into broader consciousness, some of its most agitated and popular figures — including Lil Pump and XXXTentacion — began screaming, in unprintable language, that the older and more measured rapper J. Cole should kiss off.

They said it the way one child pulls another child’s hair, the way a bad kid flips off a teacher. They said it because it was funny, and borderline improbable. And they said it because Cole, in his intense aesthetic sobriety, had become the avatar for a style of hip-hop that the young generation had no use for: lyrical, meditative, concerned rather than concerning.

For J. Cole, a 33-year-old monastic who is nonetheless one of the most popular rappers of the day, it was maybe a shock to find himself the butt of the joke. But a consequence of avoiding cautionary tales by committing to your own idiosyncratic path is that you will almost certainly become someone else’s cautionary tale.

In hip-hop, Cole has more or less been a lone warrior — he lives in North Carolina, not far from where he grew up; he produces his own music; he essentially scorns collaboration. After flirtations with the conventions of major-label rap stardom, he retreated and began establishing a more tonally modest, historically minded and grown-up strain of hip-hop. He has things in common with Kendrick Lamar and Drake, and inheritors like Logic, but he is truly singular.

“KOD,” his fifth album, has the feel of a casual placeholder between bigger ideas — it has neither the grim purpose or intense emotional acuity of his 2016 LP “4 Your Eyez Only,” nor the cohesion of the prior one, “2014 Forest Hills Drive,” the record that set the terms for his new direction.

Instead, it is a kind of answer album to the J. Cole counternarrative. It’s less structurally secure than his prior work, less thematically consistent. Ostensibly “KOD” (Dreamville/Roc Nation/Interscope) is about the many forms of addiction — the album cover features an illustration of a zonked-out Cole surrounded by children partaking in a variety of drugs. The stories are personal and occasionally affecting.

Drugs are sometimes the problem here, but Cole is wrestling with a wide range of temptations. “Photograph” is about social-media infatuation and features some of the puppy-dog pleading that he’s previously deployed. “Kevin’s Heart” tackles infidelity (and frames it in terms of more conventional addiction). But Cole is always most entrancing at his most personal, and those songs feel delivered through a filter.

The devastating “Once an Addict (Interlude)” is the opposite, though — chillingly detailed, emotionally scarred. It’s seemingly about his mother, her battle with addiction and how it affected him as a younger man.

I used to stay out later on purpose

Subconsciously I was nervous

That if I came home early then what would surface was

Her inner demons

And then I’d have to end up seein’ my hero on ground zero

Tears flow while Al Green blow

This is on the second half of the album, where Cole returns to his preferred storytelling mode of rapping. On “Brackets,” he waxes at length — perhaps too much length — about where his tax dollars go, interspersed with pointed criticisms of government services: “The curriculum be tricking them, them dollars I spend/Got us learning about the heroes with the whitest of skin.”

But those macro antagonists are a secondary concern here. To those young rappers taking his name in vain, Cole wants them to know he is listening, not just to study their weaknesses, but also to acknowledge their formal innovations. On several songs, including “Photograph” and the title track, he emulates their flow patterns, though without their raw abandon.

He has enjoyed the same excesses they have, he wants to make clear. He wishes them no ill, and if anything, wants to help them succeed beyond their initial brushes with fame. But on “1985 (Intro to ‘The Fall Off’),” the album’s final song and the one where he addresses this generation directly, his musical choices are pointed.

In his best Q-Tip flow, over a beat that’s pure peak-era A Tribe Called Quest, he swaps the I’ve-been-there tone he employs earlier in the album for a firm tsk-tsk:

I heard one of ‘em dis me, I’m surprised

I ain’t trippin’, listen good to my reply

Come here lil’ man, let me talk with ya

See if I can paint for you the large picture

Congrats ‘cause you made it out your mama’s house

I hope you make enough to buy your mom a house

Cole is an empathetic rapper, but he can be a mean moralist, too. “1985” is exactly the sort of old-man admonishment his young needlers would expect of him. And yet it’s exactly what he’s best at.