Like most people just past 30 years old, Jermaine Cole is starting to figure things out in life. He’s financially stable, settled into a career, married, and starting a family. Through years of persistence and hard work his dollars and his dreams have become a reality, and now he’s enjoying the fruits of all that labor and reveling in the wisdom he’s acquired during that journey.
Cole has grown, both as a man and a recording artist, and his perspective has changed. In the midst of that personal growth, and thanks to a burst of inspiration, Cole created all but three songs on his newly-released fifth album, KOD, in the span of just two weeks.
On first listen, the album might seem like a mockery of the current state of affairs in hip-hop, with Cole occasionally utilizing the most basic “mumble rap” flows and flexing a rare bit of braggadocio, but gradually, KOD unfurls into so much more, and it becomes clear this album is meant to connect on a micro level; it’s meant to resonate internally.
On album standout "FRIENDS," Cole even goes so far as to call out a few of his friends by name. While their names are edited out of the track to safeguard their identities—according to Genius, fans decoded it as being his brother, Zach, and in-house producer Ron Gilmore—the edit serves another purpose as well—relatability. Some of us have been those friends, and some of us have those friends, but every listener likely fits somewhere into the narrative.
I know this because I've been both the friend that needs saving and the one who watched in agony as my friends needed help I wasn’t sure if I could ever provide. For Cole, the end of the path his friends are currently walking is a foregone conclusion, and it’s left him a tortured soul. Yes, he touches on other vices of yore—social media, money, sex, infidelity—but drugs are clearly the focus of his frustration.
When Cole sends a heartfelt letter to his friends, it’s more than just an anti-drug PSA, or a summation of his general feelings about modern-day rap; it’s the extension of an olive branch. KOD is an invitation to his friends, something black and brown men rarely know how to offer. He's letting them know he’ll be there for them, even if that means struggling to find the right words. On wax, Cole has finally found a comfort zone.
Cole’s journey is like many 30-somethings, learning that the bliss of naïveté was shrouded in ignorance, that the priorities of an 18-year-old with a dollar and a dream were the immaterial and frivolous desires of adolescence. And Cole, with the newfound perspective of fatherhood, has learned that the indulgences of that same naïveté are damaging and problematic. Those indulgences can be short-sighted, though their effects can be long-lasting, even permanent.
At no point does Cole scold listeners for these decisions, choosing instead to seek understanding, to try and show his friends there are better ways. One by one, he goes through a laundry list of reasons why they may have succumbed to their vices, be it systemic oppression, trauma, deflated hoop dreams, or poverty. Cole gets it; he’s been there. He doesn’t blame his friends.
There is an infinite number of ways an addict will try to justify their problem. He or she may feel they have a grip on their vices, trying to mask the effects or claiming it’s for their health. Or, just to have fun. But there's also an equal number of ways those closest to them will justify not stepping in and trying to aid their friends in their time of need. They may feel like they couldn’t reach them if they tried, or that they’ve done all they can, or that it's not their problem. There is no lesser of two evils here, just mistakes all around, and Cole is finally tired of making them.
The concept of KOD isn’t nestled deep within its lyrics, meant to be mined by the savviest of listeners or even crafted as part of a greater sonic whole. Cole spells it out:
"There's all sorts of trauma from drama that children see / Type of shit that normally would call for therapy / But you know just how it go in our community / Keep that shit inside it don't matter how hard it be / Fast forward, them kids is grown and they blowing trees / And popping pills due to chronic anxiety / I been saw the problem but stay silent 'cause I ain't Jesus / This ain't no trial if you desire go higher please / But fuck that now I'm older I love you 'cause you my friend / 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 / And I done seen the combo take niggas off the deep end / One thing about your demons they bound to catch up one day / I'd rather see you stand up and face them than run away / I understand this message is not the coolest to say / But if you down to try it I know of a better way" —J. Cole, "FRIENDS"
Cole has seen his friends poison themselves and slowly deteriorate. He’s concerned, but not sure how to voice it directly to them as a friend. His use of children—both on the KOD album artwork and throughout the project—is deliberate because, as a new father, he’s not only traumatized by what has happened but also he’s worried that it could one day happen to his own child. He’s not Jesus, but he’s a friend—a friend who feels the need to help before it’s too late.
Since his astronomical ascent to superstardom, J. Cole’s gift has always been his ability to appear relatable, offering surface-level endearment to his always devoted fans. Cole's world resonates with his audience—without a doubt his greatest artistic trait. On any given record, he can articulate a fan’s life story without having ever met them.
On “FRIENDS,” Cole told my story, my friend’s story, and a story that struck a chord that only he seems to be able to strum. That, more than anything else, will forever be J. Cole’s legacy.