Mixed Signals in J. Cole’s “KOD”

Cole’s latest album serves as a lopsided, if not weak, anti-drug PSA, with its strongest moments coming from its personal tangents and commentary on current events. While the album art, title and various bars try to guide listeners away from the harmful effects of narcotics, the uneven lyrics and mismatching themes of his songs make it unnecessarily difficult to comprehend his true intentions on a given track.

Take the opening track “KOD,” on which Cole boldly explains that his reluctance to feature other artists on his projects is due to his superiority to other rappers in the game. It’s cocky and could come off as arrogant, but Cole’s angry, harsh delivery truly sells his belief that he is on a level above his contemporaries. However, the hook’s braggadocious story of a drug dealer purchasing expensive cars and making insane amounts of money comes out of left field.

It’s lyrical decisions like these that make it difficult to tell what Cole’s true motivations behind a song really are. Is the hook supposed to imply that he’s speaking through a persona, meaning the song should not be taken literally? If so, does this apply to the main verses of the song or just the hook? Or is the hook just a critique of those in the drug trade randomly inserted into the song in order to align the track with the rest of the album?

Several songs suffer from this lack of a clear message, making potentially powerful messages muddled and left with a dangerously high opportunity to be interpreted with a dangerous connotation. “Photograph” is Cole’s Instagram-era love song, detailing a stalker falling in love with a girl through her online photos, eventually developing an unhealthy amount of jealousy and anxiety thinking about his interactions with her in the digital realm.

As a parody of modern romance, it’s a strong track, accurately exposing the disturbing, often obsessive fervor with which people latch onto social media personalities and the blind expectation that love can (and should) be reciprocated through online interactions. It would be wonderful to broadcast this message to Cole’s broad audience, but the song leaves much to be desired. Cole’s narrator receives no gut-punch realization that his actions and feelings are misguided, with the most self-aware lyrics in the track coming in each hook’s “Love today’s gone digital / And it’s messing with my health.”

With no resolution in the song, it would be simple to interpret it as a forlorn lover’s anthem, a rallying cry for people (let’s admit it men) on the internet to creepily pine for their Instagram crushes with a newfound vigor now that their favorite rapper seems to understand their predicament. This doesn’t seem to be and shouldn’t be the message of the song, but it’s difficult to make a case for the contrary.

That being said, there are songs on this album that deftly discuss current events in a mature and emotionally satisfying manner. “Kevin’s Heart” is a not-so-subtle analysis of Kevin Hart’s infidelity with his pregnant wife. He discusses the difficulty he has with staying loyal to his girlfriend, mirroring the situation Hart assumedly went through with his own wife. It’s a very humanizing song, baring Cole’s weaknesses and vices beautifully sung with arguably his best flow on the album. An added bonus is the surprisingly beautiful music video starring Kevin Hart himself.

Other standouts include “Window Pain” and “Once an Addict,” two songs laying out his feelings for his mother’s struggles with addiction, as well as his love-hate relationship with the neighborhood he grew up in. These songs hit the emotional and societal peaks his album should have hit with every track, but sadly fell short of more often than not.

“1985” is equally powerful, steering away from his personal convictions and instead instructing upcoming young rappers to tread carefully in the industry. It’s much less of the diss track many have branded it as and more of a veteran’s passing of wisdom to his ward. His pleadings for young artists to spend their money wisely is sage, and most of the warnings he imparts can easily be applied to anyone entering the job market.

Production-wise, most of Cole’s tracks have simple beats that, much like his lyrics, vary in effectiveness. His strongest bars are featured on the most appealing beats, with the hypnotic warbling synths of “Kevin’s Heart” beautifully complimenting the song’s somber lyrics, and the aggressive bass of “Window Pain” accentuates Cole’s bittersweet feelings for the place he grew up and the people he has subsequently left behind.

The weak areas of his production style are on full display with “Motiv8” which, despite its name, has one of the slowest and least interesting sound composition in the project. It’s far from a motivating song and is easily the sonic low of the album.

“KOD” is an easy 5/10, neither blowing minds with its anti-drug/pro-self care messages nor completely bombing with its worst tracks.