In keeping with his activist turn on 2016’s 4 Your Eyez Only, J. Cole’s new album, KOD, is an exploration of addiction. The title has three different meanings that all speak to this aim: Kids On Drugs, King OverDosed, and Kill Our Demons. Each feeds into the next in this narcotic odyssey.
Things with Cole can get a bit after-school special, but you have to commend the North Carolina MC for his dedication. Across 12 tracks spanning 42 minutes, he takes the government to task, empathizes with depression sufferers and gun violence victims, turns a Kevin Hart cheating scandal into a treatise on infidelity, and re-evaluates his own childhood—and he largely does it alone. As you dive into the new album, here are some things to know going in.
An Anti-Drug PSA
Cole spends much of KOD encouraging listeners not to do drugs, both performing as an addict and examining those around him, in his efforts to dissuade. This is obviously in response to rap’s ongoing obsession with opioids like Percocet and sedatives like Promethazine and Xanax, but the album’s aim becomes clearer with some background. Cole’s mother, Kay, dealt with addiction throughout his childhood, which he addressed directly in early songs like “Breakdown.” KOD takes a more intimate look inside their fraying relationship, like on “Once an Addict (Interlude).”
His last album, 4 Your Eyez Only, was told, in part, from the perspective of a childhood friend and reformed drug dealer who was murdered, and shared on account of the daughter he left behind. Cole has rapped frequently about friends left behind because of crack addiction. These are all important reference points: Cole’s proximity to drugs, the people who use them and sell them, and the impact they’ve had on his life undoubtedly played a major role in shaping his views on drug reform.
Death, Taxes, and… Sliding into the DMs
Our overmedicated society is obviously at the center of Cole’s album, but he’s got plenty of other things on his mind, too. “Photograph” weighs the very modern horror of pursuing romance online, specifically on social media. On “BRACKETS,” he wonders aloud what the government is doing with all of his tax money, segueing into a critique of its allocation of resources to ghettos. His verse on the outro, “Window Pain,” picks up the story of a girl who watched her cousin get shot in the head and neck. The old saying goes that nothing in life is certain except death and taxes, but J. Cole seems convinced that has changed in the modern age. Now, there’s catfishing, too.
The Mystery of kiLL edward
J. Cole has twice gone platinum without featured guests, a feat that quickly shifted from bragging rights for defensive fans into running jokes for the haters. Folks on both sides of the debate were surprised, then, to see someone named “kiLL edward” billed on KOD’s “The Cut Off” and “FRIENDS.” But those worried Cole isn’t flying solo missions anymore can most likely chill. A recently created SoundCloud artist page for edward has only one song, “Tidal Wave (Just a Reference),” a just-released track with warped singing that sounds like Cole. One fan even sped up the track’s vocals to confirm that edward is, in fact, just Cole pitched down. Though Cole’s camp has yet to comment on the matter, the rapper at least confirms his no-friends policy on the title track: “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/Niggas ain’t worthy to be on my shit.” This seems like a case of misdirection, the birth of a new alter ego, and proof that the only feature Cole thinks he needs is… himself?
J. Cole vs. “Mumble Rap” Pt. II
In the closing moments of KOD, on a song called “1985 (Intro to “The Fall Off”),” J. Cole lectures an up-and-coming rapper about the ins and outs of longevity in the game. This could be a shot fired at Lil Yachty or Lil Uzi Vert, whom Cole has allegedly had words for in the past. Or there’s an outside chance it could be about XXXTentacion, who called Cole out by name in his XXL Freshman Freestyle last year. The song could also be aimed at South Florida rappers Lil Pump and Smokepurpp, who have been trolling Cole for months now. Purpp tweeted that he and Pump would willingly face Cole and Kendrick Lamar in a tag-team death match, and Pump briefly teased a Purpp-produced song called “Fuck J. Cole.” (Purpp, continuing his troll war, joked that he would appear on KOD.)
You may recall that Cole cast the first stone on the 4 Your Eyez Only outtake “Everybody Dies,” long before Pump and Purpp had entered the equation. He rapped, “Lil’ whatever—just another short bus rapper/Fake drug dealers turn tour bus trappers,” which was perceived by many to be a slight against the emerging Soundcloud rap field, making him Public Enemy No. 1 for a reckless group of young rappers and their fans. “1985” picks up where “Everybody Dies” left off, addressing the same type of rapper but coming at them as less of a curmudgeon: “I’m fuckin’ with your funky lil rap name/I hear your music and I know that rap’s changed.”
The Reference Desk
Cole has always been one to honor his forebears, and KOD isn’t any different. The album sets the tone with a muted, Miles Davis-style trumpet intro. After many concluded that Kanye was one of Cole’s false prophets in question, KOD interpolates the hook from College Dropout opener “We Don’t Care” in the opening moments of “1985.” “BRACKETS” samples one of Cole’s longtime influences, Richard Pryor, and closes a loop started on his debut; he first planned to sample Pryor on the* Sideline Story* cut “Never Told” but couldn’t clear it. “Motiv8” samples Junior M.A.F.I.A.’s “Get Money” and Crime Mob’s “Knuck if You Buck.” The piano riff on “The Cut Off” is reminiscent of Jay-Z’s “Dead Presidents,” which Cole is known to rap over. Across the album, J. Cole uses reference points to make broader assertions about his worldview. He may not have any guests, but there are voices besides his own.