Self-Righteous or Self-Aware: The Embattled Critical Response to J. Cole’s ‘KOD’
When J. Cole released his album, KOD, last week, the world stopped to listen. Breaking 24 hour streaming records on both Spotify and Apple Music, the 33-year-old artist came back onto the scene with an important message to deliver. KOD offers both a reflection and a warning on the many forms of addiction— drugs, sex, money, and fame (to name a few)— that exist in today’s society. He makes pointed arguments that reaffirm his unique, often isolated position in hip-hop, which Jon Caramanica of The New York Times accurately describes as, “lyrical, meditative, [and] concerned rather than concerning.”
As President Theodore Roosevelt once said… with great singularity comes great criticism (or something like that). J. Cole offered minimal context (aside from the three potential album titles in the tweet below) for the album before its release, and highlighted his desire for audiences to build their own understandings of his latest project. Statistically speaking, the album has done (unsurprisingly) well. However, as is the case for the response to any work created by a prominent voice in hip-hop; not everyone seems to be on the same page.
KOD. 3 meanings.
Kids on Drugs
Kill Our Demons
The rest of the album I leave to your interpretation.
— J. Cole (@JColeNC) April 19, 2018
On the critical side of things, KOD received mixed reviews. The most interesting divide is not so much in the span of numerical ratings, which ranged from 3.5/5 stars from Rolling Stone, to 6.3/10 from Pitchfork, to 4/5 stars from The Guardian— as it is in the various ways critics substantiated their numbers. There seems to be a general split on just what J. Cole accomplishes with his bleak, yet undeniably powerful stories of addiction and trauma. Some publications agree that Cole used his platform as one of the most powerful voices in hip-hop to provide an important service through his warnings about various forms of addiction in today’s world; a point which Alexis Petridis of The Guardian captures well:
“This is an album on which Cole sets himself up as the conscience of mainstream hip hop – the goofy, self-deprecating humour of his 2014 single Wet Dreamz and the warm contentment of Foldin’ Clothes are both conspicuous by their absence… It’s the kind of thing that could come off a little preachy but it doesn’t here, largely because Cole is always quick to implicate himself.” – Alexis Petridis, J Cole: KOD Review
For some publications, Cole’s tendency to lump his own shortcomings in with those of others is not enough to recuse him from sounding “preachy” or condescending. The heavy subject matter on this album, paired with Cole’s no-nonsense style of delivery, proves to be too much for Pitchfork. Their review draws attention to his inability to provide a more empathetic point of view:
“You do not listen to J. Cole to enjoy his wit or his stories, but to partake in his wisdom, which often involves an element of moral panic: On his new addiction-themed album, KOD, he loves to suggest that people should abstain from things—smoking, drinking, online dating. Sometimes, he’s persuasive, but just as often, he simply seems self-righteous.” – Jonah Bromwich, J. Cole, KOD
There is validity to this argument, which blames Cole for distilling experiences with addiction— a disease with the ability to cause far-reaching pain and trauma—down to a single viewpoint (the single viewpoint being his own) with little consideration for others involved. While Cole includes the very personal stories of his mother’s alcohol and drug use at his own discretion, he also omits any context for the difficult situations that drove his mother to these extremes. In short, “listeners are asked to think about the rapper’s pain, rather than his mother’s.”
It is no secret that the influence of hip-hop on its listeners can be extremely powerful, and it is also no secret that some artists choose to be more cognizant of this than others. J. Cole has established himself as socially conscious and to have a self-aware presence, a sort of “Papa J. Cole” if you will. As an artist who is classically measured and remarkably honest in his work, it is possible that audiences and critics expect more from him and his music than they would otherwise. If anything, the niche that J. Cole has forged for himself will constantly pressure him to produce the most thorough, profound work he is capable of.