Wednesday, April 25, 2018

album review: 'KOD' by j. cole

Let's talk satire in hip-hop for a bit. 

See, since near the genre's inception there have always been artists that have twisted stereotypical tropes of the genre into nastier shapes to comment upon the culture, that take the hedonism and violence and co-opt the production and language with a veneer of irony to comment upon the genre to make a deeper statement about it. And this is always a dicey line to walk, because this sort of satire can very easily fall into the blurry territory where those who get the intentions will get the point but the audience that can't see past the aesthetic will simply embrace everything on display without deeper questions or self-reflection. And what's exasperating is that so much of this is subjective - there is no clear line delineating when and where the satire connects, and that tends to mean these records tend to be pretty divisive among critics and audiences alike.

And thus when J. Cole came out of nowhere to release KOD - an acronym intended to simultaneously mean Kids On Drugs, King Overdose and Kill Our Demons - I started to get worried when I saw comparisons being made with These Days, the 2014 record made by hip-hop's resident satirist troll Ab-Soul and one of the shakiest records in his discography. And what tends to get overlooked is that parody and satire were pretty well represented in hip-hop in 2014, from the neo-gothic opera of and then you shoot your cousin by The Roots to the abrasive nightmare of clipping's self-titled release, and thus when J. Cole is getting comparisons to the weakest of that satirical trio... well, it sparks concerns, especially when you consider how uneven J. Cole's stabs into message-driven hip-hop have been in the past. Granted, if you're placing J. Cole on more aggressive and interesting production he might be able to avoid the frustrating slog that was 4 Your Eyez Only, but again, I had concerns how effectively he'd be able to address this, especially as this is easily his shortest record to date. So fine, what did we get on KOD?

Okay, let's make a few things clear: I would probably revisit KOD before relistening to 4 Your Eyez Only - it arguably has fewer moments that bored or annoyed me in comparison to that record, and there are definitely moments that make this pretty tolerable. But those moments are scattered against a release that is too drably off-kilter and scattered to make a coherent point, with J Cole's plainspoken bars treading dangerously close to sanctimonious territory - at best, it's derivative and nowhere close to as prescient and insightful as it thinks, but at worst it's a slog that shows J. Cole slipping ever closer to creative stagnation.

And yet before I get into more of that, I'm going to qualify a few things, especially considering how much certain diehard fans will bend over backwards to praise J. Cole's greatness in the context of the larger mainstream. And maybe to some people that's enough - J. Cole certainly proves with this project that he can handle accessible production and flows that wouldn't be far afield from what has blown up recently, and even though I'm not really crazy about his kiLL edward 'features' which are really just him with a vocal filter and pitch shifting, a knack for greater melody does help make some of these hooks stick out better. Even his singing, most of which I've never really liked, has gotten marginally better as his rasp compliments a little more intensity of which this record uses pretty effectively. And again, on a technical level J. Cole can rap, and even if he's got a penchant for just repeating couplets to fill up space on his bars, I won't deny there are enough nuggets of wit to at least draw my interest to dig deeper.

But here's the issue: hip-hop is more than the mainstream, and the second you open up that door you realize much of what J. Cole is doing here both in delivery and deeper content isn't nearly as impressive. Some of this is pretty blatantly obvious - 'Motiv8' is a clear rip from what Kendrick did with 'untitled 07' two years ago, as is much of the vocal layering on 'ATM', and Quelle Chris did much of the same pitch-shifted juxtaposition on 'BRACKETS' with even similar context - but I want to dig deeper into the content beyond surface comparisons. And here's something that might surprise you: there's a lot of what J. Cole is presenting that has weight to it, at least conceptually. His whole 'kiLL edward' persona is reportedly representative of the kids in the mainstream hip-hop scene, which is why many of the choppy hooks and warped edges reflect more confusion and a desire to drown out pain rather than meat-headed aggression, all of which feeds into nasty consequences down the line. And it helps that J. Cole does have some real life experience to draw upon, mostly through disillusionment with people he has tried to help where they haven't found success, or addictions that are very different than depression but are often conflated for a sweet escape, most of which rises to the forefront on 'Once An Addict (Interlude)' where he talks about his own mother's struggles with alcoholism. And while it would be very easy to dismiss J. Cole's closing song '1985 (Intro To 'The Fall Off')' - I'll get into why in a minute - I actually do like the frankness to which he addresses the newest generation and Lil Pump specifically in how quickly that hype burns away... and for the most part, the history of mainstream rap has proven he's not wrong.

But here's the problem: the framing of these messages can certainly tread into some dicey territory, especially with as many times as J. Cole prefaces his messages with how he's just giving advice or 'no hating, but' or how he'll 'be the bigger man like I'll always be', and it's very hard not to hear the condescension dripping between the lines. It bleeds into a presentation of ego that with every record I'm less sure J. Cole has earned, and the increasing lack of self-awareness is particularly galling. Now the easiest targets by far are his songs about women with 'Photograph' and 'Kevin's Heart', which following off of the title track highlight how the strongest drug is 'love' and that's used as flimsy justification for Instagram model trolling and the reckless insecurity that leads to cheating. And I'm not denying that J. Cole is self-aware of how bad it all looks, but J. Cole trying to conflate his romantic issues with drug addiction can strip out some nuance that this record desperately needs, especially with how much he tries to sidestep any personal responsibility. And it gets even worse when you get to the conversations about money and success - where again, you see a stark parallel with Kendrick's angst tied to greed, but Kendrick didn't go on an extended rant on the back half of 'BRACKETS' surrounding how J. Cole isn't happy with how his tax money is being spent and thinks an app to pinpoint which sectors deserve more money is an answer. And again, the seed of the larger song has potential, especially the circular storytelling that shows through tax breaks to the gun industry systemic racism across education and street violence is reinforced, but it's not a song that wants to engage with the complex web of compromises in modern tax policy but instead wants to push a cut-and-dry solution that just doesn't exist. And 'FRIENDS' has a similar issue for drug addiction - yes, I get his larger point that you could blame a million causes and not reach the true internal root of the problem, but instead of speaking in favour of therapy and - in some defined cases - medication, he advocates meditation instead because it worked - it worked for him! So instead of truly reaching into the complicated relationship Americans have with the pharmaceutical industry or the stigmatization of reaching out for help in marginalized communities, J. Cole refuses to engage with the bigger picture and promotes the sort of individualistic solution that's more libertarian and right-wing than anything Kanye has espoused recently! And that's not even touching on the question of where God fits into this, because again instead of confronting systemic issues that require complicated solutions, we get a conflation of pain with 'lacking understanding', expanding those thoughts to say that since God understands all he feels no pain - which is precisely the opposite of the theological roots of how the Passion even worked, I swear the majority of libertarians need compassion and empathy explained to them - and that suffering is a Job-like test in the face of the coming apocalypse because on 'Window Pain (Outro)' of course this record went there. 

So yeah, you can see why I might take issue with some of the framing and content here, but surely the production was enough to compensate... and I can't say that with a straight face, I'm sorry. Look, I don't deny that J. Cole provides a foundation of some pretty textured pianos and horns for a few of these cuts, but that's provided we get much of a melody at all beyond atonal murmurs and faint samples against lumpy bass and trap percussion - sure, it's got some texture, but nothing that really supports much of the hook in the vocal melody line. Sometimes the groove is a little stronger like the title track or 'Motiv8' or 'ATM', or a little more lush like the horns and bass on 'BRACKETS' - really, the instrumental and Richard Pryor sample save that song - and I'll even give some props to the more eerie, stuttered shrillness behind 'Window Pain (Outro)' - sure, it's all something Kendrick did better on untitled, unmastered. two years ago, but it at least fits the mood effectively. But then you get that really faint weedle of guitar behind 'Photograph' or that flat, grainy chiptune on 'Kevin's Heart' with all of it trying for an atonal brand of ugliness that might be intentional but sure as hell isn't all that compelling or catchy. And all of it contributes to the same dry, listlessness that might have a little more momentum thanks to the thicker low end but even then can't rise to much more.

In short... okay look, I want to make it clear my mixed opinions on this project are not tied to the slant of its message, or even at the roots of J. Cole's anger and frustration - I get why someone in his position might present this picture. The major problem is that his message isn't so much satirical in co-opting a trap sound but just using it as a backdrop to present unfocused, undercooked, and occasionally hypocritical messages that ignore nuance and complexity and don't bang hard enough to get away with it. It's an album that presents empathy as a struggle to escape any real self-reflection, and in the end I get the impression the deeper roots of J. Cole's demons are very much alive and well. But that's for him down the road - for me it's a light 5/10 and only recommended for the stans at this point. And considering all of this is likely going to wind up on Billboard BREAKDOWN next week, a lot of folks found something captivating - and that might wind up more concerning down the line.

No comments:

Post a Comment