In 2018, J. Cole made a concerted effort to step outside of his comfort zone, and it’s no coincidence that his newfound fervor for the limelight came on the heels of his most ambitious body of work to date, KOD. “Last year, I set an intention to say yes way more than I say no. Say yes to features. Step outside of my comfort zone. And it’s still going,” Cole told XXL in an interview this past March.
Following the album’s release, the Dreamville head honcho began handing out fades in the form of features at studios all over the country, engineered Dreamville’s Revenge of the Dreamers 3 boot camp, and, earlier this month, hosted the first annual Dreamville Festival—which sold out 40,000 tickets.
More than just kickstarting a glorious feature run or social media takeover, or helping to sell tickets to a widely successful event in his native Raleigh, KOD served as an open letter to a lost generation of young adults who have been dropping like flies. While Future was afraid to tell his fans he stopped drinking lean, Cole dedicated an entire album to address this epidemic. Most importantly, his message was rooted in concern, not contempt.
“The album is already a warning, and [Lil Peep] dies while I’m sitting in the studio mixing the shit–do you know how creepy that was? That shit was heavy.”—J. Cole, Vulture Profile
Atop the album’s cover, there’s a brief disclaimer that reads: “This album is in no way intended to glorify addiction.” King Cole’s eyes are rolled to the back of his head, beneath his woolen robe are the ghosts of glossy-eyed adolescents indulged in various vices, and he appears to be donning a golden strip of NyQuil pills atop his head as opposed to a typically pointed crown.
In a 2013 interview for New York Magazine, writer Vanita Salisbury asked Cole to name his favorite medication. “NyQuil,” Cole replied. “Yo, sometimes I’ve contemplated just going to sleep with NyQuil, even if I’m not sick. The sleep is so good. It’s the new wave.”
KOD opens with what sounds like a jazzy infomercial. A robotic female voice reminds us, there are many ways to deal with the pain that life brings—choose wisely. These two words burrow deeper into our psyche with each repetition, but the suspense quickly dissipates as the bounce of the opening title track reels us in. Flipping “ten keys from a quarter brick / Bentley from his momma whip,” Cole addresses the incessant chatter of naysayers in a bold PSA.
“Wow, n****s been crampin’ my style / Blowin’ my high, they want a reply / The number one question is, ‘How?’ / How does it feel now that you on? / How much you worth? How big is your home? / How come you won’t get a few features? / I think you should? How ‘bout I don’t? / How ‘bout you listen and never forget? / Only gon’ say this one time, then I’ll dip / N****s ain’t worthy to be on my shit” —J. Cole, “KOD”
The first half of KOD, laced with booming 808s and infectious flows, is a Trojan horse, easing us into the darker side of Cole’s message. This transition is anchored in the pensive brooding of Cole's alter-ego kiLL edward, who introduces himself on “The Cut Off” with a distorted baritone. Instead of finger-wagging, Cole inserts himself directly into the throes of addiction, down to his delivery; the manic staccato of the chorus is a stylistic reflection of an addict’s fragmented train of thought.
The subtle chinks in the armor of Cole’s bravado only begin to be exposed after kiLL edward makes his first appearance—but before the harrowing implications can truly settle in, we’re right back to nodding our heads to trap drums and repetitive hooks. Both “ATM” and “Motiv8” are punctuated with fleeting moments of vulnerability in the form of refrains, which are cleverly snuck in between verses about big bills, quick thrills, and taking private jets to eat ceviche in the Dominican Republic.
These refrains are merely glimpses, though. Cole dives headfirst into his empathetic approach on “Kevin’s Heart,” which sits snugly in the middle of the KOD tracklisting. While social media ridiculed the bite-sized comedian for his infidelity, Cole, a faithful husband to his college sweetheart, takes time to ruminate on falling victim to temptation in Hollywood. And in his apology to the little girl on “Window Pain (Outro),” who witnessed her cousin being shot through his face, neck, and stomach, the hurt in Cole’s voice is palpable as he internalizes her pain, reflecting on his blessings with ambivalence.
While our first introduction to kiLL edward (“The Cut Off”) finds Cole grappling with violent urges in the face of disloyalty, by the time his alter-ego makes a second appearance (“FRIENDS”), his vengeful side takes a backseat as he explores the chasm between addiction and ambition; the song ends with a desperate plea to his loved ones. This change of heart is reflective in the crux of KOD: the first half of the album is a bold satire of prevalent trends in this microwave era of music, and the second half digs deeper into what allows these attitudes to run rampant.
As a veteran artist with more than a decade of experience on the frontline, Cole ends KOD with some stern advice for the legion of SoundCloud rappers marching in lockstep. While some dismissed “1985 (Intro to "The Fall Off")” as "heavy-handed preaching" upon its release, Cole has since actively embraced his role as an elder statesman. He conducted and published an hour-long interview with a visibly anxious Lil Pump—you can see the mental gymnastics behind his gaze as he carefully pokes and prods with sincerity—carrying the conversation with disarming humility, and has openly shown compassion for XXXTentacion, Kodak Black, and 6ix9ine, all of whom have been linked to charges or allegations of abuse of women, telling XXL, "Maybe some of them don’t even know, don’t even have a chance to process why they become the monsters that they are."
Following Mac Miller’s tragic overdose in September 2018, Cole offered words of encouragement for anybody struggling with substance abuse. “That was just me realizing that and letting it be known, I’m deadass serious, hit my phone,” he told Vulture. “I’ve done that with people where they just spill they fucking hearts out. I’ll listen and ask the right questions and give any guidance where I can. It’s just understanding, bro. People in the game, people in general, we don’t do that for each other.”
Trying to make sense of such a nuanced and ubiquitous issue like drug addiction over a 12-track, 42-minute album is a fool's errand, but Cole’s saving grace is his uncanny ability to simplify otherwise complex messages in a relatable and endearing way. This sentiment is precisely what makes an album like KOD—and an artist like J. Cole—so polarizing. Some hear a lack of depth and self-righteousness, but others hear the passion and conviction of a top-tier rapper who consistently practices what he preaches.
The female voice on “Once an Addict (Interlude)” believes “pain is just a lack of understanding,” which brings into focus J. Cole’s earnest and wholehearted attempt to deliver the help he knows is needed.
There are many ways to deal with the pain that life brings. Choose wisely.