ARM is back as I sort of forced myself to switch gears from relentlessly sucking up all of Kanye’s new tweets and the constructively enlightened discourse his catalysing sparks of debate are generating every time he rapes that blue bird submit button. As you might have realised, the hip-hop editorial leitmotiv is back too, after having caught a little break (and a fever) more recently in favour of punk-rock execution. Whether I like it or not, mine and any above-average music fan’s exposure to the rapping game has in current times become as inevitable and ubiquitous as parsley for Italian cuisine, while the genre and its underlying culture went to be the dominant form of cultural expression in the mainstream. Digressing a little bit on a different artistic form tangent for a moment, yours truly can’t recommend enough HBO’s four-part TV documentary miniseries The Defiant Ones, revolving around the rise (and no fall) of Apple Music boss and industry influencer Jimmy Iovine as well as rapper, record producer and all-round don Dr. Dre. The documentary narrates their relationship through the decades as well as extremely insightful glimpses into how to create, run, and destroy successful music ventures in the modern age. It should be available on Netflix depending on where your praiseworthy soul is based, so go check it out if y’all trust your hostess with the mostest.
Now, this very ARM instalment is some sort of unchartered territory for me as three Michelin star-studded music critic, because for as terribly and unforgivably late to the party I might be, North Carolina-rapper J. Cole‘s newest album KOD is honestly his first one I listened to, out of his now 5-unit strong discography. I’m not really sure why, but something about the woke and modern conscious rapper par excellence never really clicked with me, and out of the eternal epic rivalry between him and King Kendrick that both the trade press and different fanbases initiated years ago, I’ve actually always kinda been more of a K-Dot guy. However, this ephemeral platonic musical marriage between who writes this sentence right now like, for real, and J. Cole was probably bound to happen at some point, as only a few months ago I was to remain quite impressed and affected by a sung feature of his on the track “Zendaya” by Los Angeles-MC Cozz, off the latter’s debut release Effected, out in February earlier this year. Incidentally, Cozz’s album came out on Cole’s own Dreamville Records label, which goes to explain not only the artistic collaboration between the two but quite probably a timely heightened creative rollercoaster for Mr Cole himself.
So without any further ado, let’s delve into J. Cole’s latest (fifth) studio LP KOD, which as the Fayetteville-native explained himself, holds various different meanings and interpretations (Kids on Drugs, King Overdosed, Kill Our Demons), which I bluntly choose to convey at discretion of each listener’s preference. The project came out on Friday 20th April on Dreamville and runs over a thin-for-hip-hop 42 minutes, spanning 12 songs with no external feature whatsoever – except for his alter-ego alias moniker kiLL edward on a couple tracks. I thought this was a rather interesting and debatable choice, given his prominence of late shining on other people’s material. Anyway, the album was promoted by the bouncy and malicious “ATM“, accompanying a catchy hook with a fast-paced and muddled verse flow spitting reflective bars philosophising over the vices of money lust (“Proceed with caution / I heard if you chase it only results in / A hole in your heart / Fuck it, I take the whole cake and I won’t leave a portion / It’s only an organ”). Not much later as part of KOD’s release week, J. Cole unveiled another music video for song number seven on the tracklist, “Kevin’s Heart“, starring comedian and actor… Kevin Hart. In fact, very much on brand with its visual casting skills, the track turned out to be rather underwhelming, only partially made bearable by a pleasant intro motif/refrain sandwiching tedious and off-putting trap vibes stretching throughout the too long verses.
So much for a promotional campaign of KOD (to be fair, J. Cole himself only announced the arrival of the record mere days before the 20th April at scattered record listening parties thrown in the USA and UK), although luckily, this realisation doesn’t get in the way at all, as the best moments on this album are all to be found elsewhere. Beginning with the powerful, groovy, and elastic title track at number two (preceded by a slow, dusty, and soporific jazz-infused skippable intro tune), which has the NC-rapper put on his more braggadocious and haughty clothes, slugging and kicking the listener with ferocious lyrics very much in a tell-all mode, as well as one of the most fortunate and successful choruses on the whole record (“This is what you call a flip / Ten keys from a quarter brick / Bentley from his mama’s whip / K.O.D., he hard as shit”). Unfortunately, “KOD” is followed by the complete mess and swerve that is “Photograph”, which despite its laudable and illuminating message (put your phones down, kids), completely fails in both melodies and delivery/production.
But earlier we were trying to head somewhere nice, somewhere pleasant, and this can actually be achieved by going down the “Cut Off” road, a song immediately following the wasteland that “Photograph” provoked, and one of the longer cuts on the project just short of four minutes in length. Perhaps J. Cole’s “Yah”, the track features the MC as kiLL edward in form of a tuned down, low distorted preaching voice cradling a main harmonic melody wrapped by dangerous and introspective bars flowing at what I might dare to say could be J. Cole’s sweet spot in terms of vibe and aesthetic. Similarly, the bulk of lengthier cuts on KOD actually turned out to be the most enjoyable overall, offering convincing song dynamics, lyricism, and general artistry manifesting in various refreshing ways (once it’s through high-pitched intermezzos, another time spitting out jaw-dropping lines about family, friends, and the value of life). Tracks included in this latter elite inner circle are the monumental and instructive “BRACKETS”, the wonderful and painful “FRIENDS”, and the trap-done-right “Window Pain (Outro)” (albeit not actually the outro on the album).
Regrettably, this album does entail 12 records after all, and almost half of them aren’t actually able to leave a mark on me as listener and three Michelin star-studded music critic, even less so when taken into perspective with the more fortunate compositions on here discussed just above. In addition to the previously mentioned wretched pipsqueaks “Intro”, “Photograph”, and “Kevin’s Heart”, the tasteless and corny “Motiv8” as well as – brace yourself for… – the too minimal, too dry “1985 (Intro to ‘The Fall Off’)” go join this group of rejects, perhaps partly reminding myself why I never really vibed with Mr Cole in the first place. So all in all, it was nice to eventually meet you J. Cole, you are a talented and smart rapper sparking long-overdue and much-necessary conversations, but you should know that your final packaging often betrays your praiseworthy quality of intentions. “FRIENDS” and “Window Pain” are outstanding tracks and trust me when I tell you that I shall be spinning them for long. But man, four to five subpar songs out of a total of twelve is simply too many. See you perhaps in another five album’s time again?
I’d like to thank you sincerely for taking the time to read this and I hope to feel your interest again next time.
2018, Dreamville Inc.