Review Summary: A lack of understanding.
We didn’t always have sympathy for drug users and addicts. We didn’t always think that they were sick, or in need of treatment or attention. As a matter of fact, we often once taught addicts that their addiction was medically inexplicable (or at least, unimportant), and that the only rational, real course of action was to accept that the use of drugs was a moral failure; failure, it should be mentioned, perpetrated by people whose skin colour was predominantly blacker than everyone else’s skin colour. Having been through Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs, the conversation has become at least somewhat more progressive; the racial connotations of drug users and the implied ideological failures of those users has been, for the most part, settled in medical terminology. We now know that addiction relates to chemicals in the brain, treatable by cognitive therapy as much as medications, as well as other, tangible treatments, should the addict seek the initiative to find them. Though willpower remains still as a choice for users to seek treatment, slowly, the techniques of shame, humiliation, and guilt have been purged from the lexicon. It’s as much a tale of nuance as it is sympathy.
So when J. Cole, a man who went double platinum without features, who produces and writes all of his music, and for whom music serves a greater purpose both in commercial and critical circles, decides to provide an ironic (or rather, condescending) footnote to his latest album, KOD
, it becomes apparent that attitudes towards addiction, despite progressing and imbuing more sympathy than ever, can still be as unsympathetic and as flat as ever. That byline, which reads ‘This album is in no way intended to glorify addiction
,’ is unsettlingly crass; you can’t help but think that he’s doing everything he can to denigrate a generation of rappers who genuinely try to document their struggles with apathy and detachment. It’s hard to even say that there’s good intentions in that message either because it feels like J. Cole intended it to serve as a statement of malice, satire, pretension, and importance, rather than a genuine need to clarify to an audience a genuine stance on addiction. Pictured without pupils, high on hubris and fostering an audience of starry-eyed children, whom the audience can only presume idolise and adore the rappers Cole abhors and detests, it calculates as something more vicious and toxic than just a diss at ‘mumble’ rappers.
Which, as per usual, is what Cole chooses to obsess about most here. He’s always had a misguided obsession with the state of popular rap music, but KOD
inflates that obsession into something bordering on pathological, if not rabid fulmination. The album is ostensibly sung from the perspective of a different rapper to Cole, or, an alias who’s a touch more obvious, less ashamed of rapping about rap cliches; money, drugs, women (especially drugs). It seems that he does this to communicate his implicit criticism of drug use, but there’s hardly anything that needs to be implied by Cole’s lumbering use of clunky, underwritten imagery. For instance, on “ATM,” he raps one of the most monotonous hooks of his career-- ‘Count it up, count it up, count it up
’-- in preparation of a set of verses in which he ‘stack[s] the paper
,’ ‘fuck[s] yo bitch
,’ gets a ‘hard-on
,’ ‘Thank[s] God like it’s biblical
,’ and, one can only presume through dealing drugs, becomes ‘good at math
.’ With “The Cut-Off,” he pitches his voice down (if not for any other reason than to stick his tongue out at his detractors, call himself kiLL edwards, and prove that he does not, in fact, have features (sigh, or cringe)), and raps endlessly about ‘drank
,’ and ‘coke
.’ On “BRACKETS,” he interpolates this tangential Richard Pryor sample to illustrate a point about black poverty, only to then juxtapose Pryor’s literary genius with his own stunted observations by complaining in staccato freestyle about having to pay his taxes and vote. It’s clear that this is meant to be satire, but it’s so disarmingly ambiguous that it sounds more like a product of insecurity and jealousy than precise societal scrutiny.
Ditto the songs where Cole randomly flips from savaging ‘Lil’s’ and ‘Young’s’ to rap candidly about drugs, a mode he’s similarly ill-equipped to speak about in a literary voice. The entire second verse of “FRIENDS” is dedicated to just that; rapping about prescription drug abuse, weed, common drug lingo, and the link between depression and addiction. All of which sounds wholesome, were it not for the fact that it’s a very painful and drawn-out rap about these things-- Cole annunciating every single word so that there’s literally no uniqueness or unevenness that might give it a flow or character-- and that it is juxtaposed with a chorus that repeatedly blabbers on ‘cop another bag and smoke today
,’ in what can probably only be described as another diss at his rap game foes. Contrasting these two attitudes is KOD’s
prerogative, and also it’s failure, sinking songs like “ATM” and the title-track in an appallingly miscalculated inability to stick to core messaging. Not to mention that, in doing so, Cole blurs the lines between satire and sincerity so clumsily that his barbs lose precision and his insight becomes tactless. It raises fundamental questions with KOD’s
thesis statement; namely, Who is he targeting his raps at？And, if his target is in fact ‘mumble’ rappers, then why is he choosing to lambast them at the same time as he imparts wisdom upon them？
All of this muddy, aimless parody reaches a frustrating nadir on “1985 (Intro to “The Fall Off”),” a smug, condescending, conversational rap about hating Lil Pump and Smokepurpp. They aren’t named letter-for-letter in the track, but it’s clear that Cole’s aiming his lecturing at them for a myriad of offenses that can be mostly boiled down to just hating Cole for being boring. The initial mood of benevolence is disarming enough; ‘They say the music they make is dumb
,’ he begins, ‘give a boy a chance to grow some
.’ Then, a ‘chance to grow
’ some becomes a series of insults at the two teenagers; he laughs at them not being able to drive, being obsessed with wealth and women, living in their mother’s house, and then decides to call them a white man’s puppet of black oppression. Remember too that this is an album whose cohesive message is against the abuse of drugs as a lifestyle, and he uses its closer as means to recriminate against the substance of other rappers. It truly robs KOD
of any moral authority, and reveals an undeniable mean streak from Cole, that even when he’s moralising about the ills of addiction, he still can’t not preach about rap classicism. It’s terrible.
It is, however, KOD’s
thesis statement, because remember, ‘This album is in no way intended to glorify addiction
.’ It literally hangs over it all; the badly strung together one-liners, insults, repetitive hooks, and the absolutely blithe and inane verses that are never broken up by anybody else other than Cole pitching his own voice down. This is and always has been the style from which Cole operates, and he makes no appreciable attempt at shifting from it here, other than to obfuscate it with misplaced comic grandeur. Instead of rapping about folding his girlfriend’s clothes in a lame attempt to make her have sex with him, he’s constructing horribly obvious rhymes to shake drug users into self-awareness; ‘without it
’ and ‘without it
,’ or ‘motivate
’ with ‘motivate
.’ It’s as drab as it sounds, urging meditation over addiction whilst lambasting those who seek to explore their addictions and thought processes in nuanced ways on record. Far be it from me, an Australian, to diagnose the problem with J. Cole’s raps, but KOD
sounds like someone who is either unfamiliar with drug abuse, or is completely unsympathetic to the dynamics of drug abuse in America; otherwise, why would he choose to spar with teenagers drinking lean？Why would he choose to mimic in a mocking tone their flows and lyrical schemes？In all, it totals as an uninsightful, scornful tome for people who simply do not care or are otherwise not listening to J. Cole.