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J. Cole - KOD (Album Review)

Monday, 23 April 2018 Written by Jonathan Rimmer

J. Cole is often regarded as being at modern hip hop's top table, alongside Drake and Kendrick Lamar. If we're talking about album sales, arena tours and all-round brand recognition, the North Carolina rhymer undoubtedly deserves his spot in this holy trinity. And, to his credit, he's largely achieved it without sacrificing the “true school” essence so revered by critics.

Despite his wide appeal, though, it's debatable whether Cole has produced anything close to a classic full length since his earliest mixtapes. Even the charming throwback piece '2014 Forest Hills Drive', which went double platinum with no features, illustrated Cole's limitations. As ever, his flow, delivery, production and overall aesthetic were on point, but his writing simply wasn't engaging enough – a problem when you're hip hop purists' poster boy.

The arrival of 'KOD', which was only announced last week, will inevitably split fans and trigger wild differences of opinion, as is the case when someone with Cole's status drops a project.

However, the reality is that it conforms to the pattern we've come to expect from him: it's solid, with no features, a few standout verses, consistent production, and that's about it.

If anything, most of the record is even more lo-fi and unassuming than his previous work. Tracks like Photograph and 1985 are pleasantly jazz-oriented, with boom bap drums, guitar samples and hints of vibraphone. Tone-wise, it feels lethargic and monotonous, only compounded by Cole's measured triplet flow. For an artist of his stature this approach might have seemed subversive a few years ago, but is hardly unexpected at this point.

Cole also sticks to his guns when it comes to going it solo, responding on the title track to “How come you won't get a few features – I think you should?” with “How about I don't? How about you just get the fuck off my dick?” Unsubtly, the only features on the album come from the mystery character kiLL edward, which appears to be an alias Cole sings under. This could almost be considered witty if singing was his strong suit – in reality, The Cut Off and Friends are some of the album's weakest spots.

It's a shame because there are moments that demonstrate his genuine talent, particularly when he conveys the album's core theme: that vices are a form of escapism. Some of the messaging can be unnecessarily on the nose – on ATM he describes his flawed relationship with money by claiming it gives him a “hard-on” – but his insights on wider societal issues occasionally give pause for thought.

On the standout Brackets, he looks beyond the surface in regards to societal and political change, concluding that “democracy is too slow”. He doesn't always wallow in introspection either, providing a real life narrative on Window Pain about a child losing his cousin, and the conditions that allowed it to happen.

They're glimpses into Cole's ethos and, for much of this album, he presents himself as authentic, well-meaning and inquisitive. But he's also too eager to take the route one approach, whether with his lyricism or musical choices. It begs the question: if Cole really is an heir to the hip hop greats, are we not entitled to expect better?

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