Since 2010 the world has found a place in the mind and the music of Jermaine Cole.
Friday Night Lights, J. Cole’s last mixtape, was a dazzling display of true lyricism that was not only sorely needed at the time but set him on his current trajectory. Coles’ introspection on the project comes from a place of genuine love and introduces us to his experiences as a kid from Fayetteville, North Carolina.
Cole World: The Sideline Story was his debut album and official introduction, which was greeted with high expectations. Despite receiving tutelage from who could arguably be the best rapper alive, Jay-Z, it wasn’t quite able to rise to the occasion. Though still a good album, it was clear Cole was just beginning his journey.
Born Sinner saw Cole return with a much more focused energy. One can’t overlook the fact that Cole had already begun to hone his skills as a producer, which comes through with a hefty 21 songs. The pounding synths of “Power Trip” lead the album through more familiar terrain with production by Timbaland. This addition further propels the album towards the Cole we were hyped for; Cole with a bit of a chip on his shoulder, anxious for redemption.
By the time he gives us Forest Hills Drive, Cole has established himself as the kind of artist who can pen both a classic album and a bestselling novel at the same time. Not only was this the most sonically balanced and pleasing effort, it delivered some of the best singles yet. The percussion on “G.O.M.D.” drives Coles rapid-fire flow which is every bit as impressive on the socially reflective “Apparently.” Interestingly, this was the album where Cole adopted his now widely known “no features” formula.
The thing about the evolution of an artist is it’s as much of a self-discovery to the artist as it is to the consumer. This is the most prevalent in 2016’s 4 Your Eyez Only. Cole had been warning us that the template rap music which had all but consumed hip-hop would not be where his story would end. Cole accompanied the album with a documentary of sorts. He reflects on a myriad of topics from the current state of hip-hop to racial injustice. This was the closest we’d gotten to Jermaine since his first album, this was also the most exposed he’d been. His concepts, rich in social responsibility, pressed right on the pulse of culture with songs like “False Prophets” and “Everybody Dies.” Ironically, neither of these two songs were featured on the album. As much as J Cole fans want to call this another classic it suffered more missteps than victories. Cole’s confident flow and the “no features” formula was still intact, the caveat was the album’s rollout was handled poorly and was not well received.
Once you combine all of the albums and their poignant themes, you begin to see a mosaic of a man finding his greatness in a medium too small to encapsulate it.
Enter K.O.D. This album speaks to J. Cole’s artistry not only as a musician/songwriter, buts as a creative working his way through reality, from the inside out. The title track “K.O.D.,” which is short for “Kids on Drugs,” but also referred to as “Kill our Demons” or “King Overdosed” wastes no time launching Cole’s consciousness at full speed. One of the things that most stands out, which could be by design, is the change in his cadence and tone. A few songs in, we’re introduced to a character we’ve never heard before in what is seemingly an alter ego, kiLL Edward, on “The Cut Off.” Unfortunately, this doesn’t offer much to the song. Sonically, it just seems out of sync with the execution of the song. At this point, we’re waiting for something more to ramp up the energy. This comes in the form of “ATM.” Cole gives us his ideas on the greed and the envy that comes with wealth, over steady hi-hats. It’s actually a pretty solid track that works on a few levels plus it rebuilds the energy of the album.
“Brackets” gets us about halfway through the album which sees Cole work through the issues of being in a different wealth “bracket” and the problems that follow. The voice of a mysterious woman guides the themes of the album as it starts to level off. Cole is still looking for something to hang his hat on, but can’t quite find his lane. The album closes with an uninspired “1985.” He finishes flatly addressing the pimping of hip-hop in a cryptic almost nondescript manner. So where does K.O.D, fall on the spectrum of Coles carefully curated body of work? To say the album failed is a bit of an overstatement with regards to the level of work he typically puts into each release. On the heels of the success of the DAMN and 4:44, it’s challenging to exist and create music at a more conscious level while holding down your own wave. Cole is tired and is in pain and this time it’s not translating into his music but seems to be BECAUSE of his music. The Kill Our Demons theme fits better as a select reflection exhibition than an album. At this juncture you’d a expect a J. Cole album to have more balance and purpose, by the end you start to get the feeling he more or less wanted to get it over with. Hang in there Cole.
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