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Neither Boring nor Bold: The Quagmire of J. Cole

The rapper’s new album, ‘KOD,’ is a rebuke to the druggy concerns of a younger generation of rappers. Is he just another fogey MC or a figure of purpose?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

J. Cole’s mother is a recovering addict. He’s reluctant to discuss her struggles in interviews, but he’s expounded rather passionately in his music. In one of Cole’s very best songs, “Breakdown,” from the North Carolina rapper’s 2011 debut album, Cole World: The Sideline Story, he describes a childhood wrecked by his father’s absence and his mother’s abandon. “Breakdown” is a spiteful record, though Cole reserves no spite for his mother; instead, he rants against the culture that mythologizes her consumption. “That shit these rappers kick is nothing like real life / You made a milli off of serving hard white? Yeah, right / My mama tell you what addiction to that pipe feel like / Stupid niggas!” More than any other song, “Breakdown”—an otherwise late and inconspicuous track on the rapper’s worst album—prefigured Cole’s current direction.

His latest album, KOD, fashions the rapper’s moralistic contempt—which has long figured into his music—into a feature-length treatise. Released on 4/20, KOD is Cole’s extended rumination on addiction, among other vices. The album art, illustrated by Kamau Haroon, depicts several young children, and Cole himself, consuming various drugs: weed, cocaine, Xanax, lean. The cover bears a disclaimer: “This album is in no way intended to glorify addiction.” The songs aren’t all about substance use, but drug culture and addiction do seem to be the rapper’s biggest hang-ups. “I’m aggravated without it / My saddest days are without it.” The song is called “Friends,” and it is about them. “To my niggas, I hope you’re listening.”

In general, J. Cole’s sermonizing is unrelenting and, in so many instances, unwelcome. Cole makes the god-fearing alarmist Kendrick Lamar sound like a goddamned hedonist. To the rapper’s many detractors, Cole represents an expansive corniness. Supposedly, he’s musically stale, lyrically clumsy, and personally tepid; a self-righteous square who cultivates the most pedantic rap fandom since Eminem’s. For years, hypebeasts have heckled Cole and answered the rapper’s overzealous fandom with a simple, immortal critique: J. Cole is boring. He raps about laundry and taxes, and his insights are far more banal than his fans loudly insist. I might observe as much about Drake or any number of nonetheless popular rappers, but no matter: J. Cole is pretentious and boring has become the rapper’s critical albatross. He outearns it, but he may never outlive it.

Hearing only the most static and inflexible criticism of J. Cole, you’d never guess how dynamic and large his profile has grown. He’s one of the best-selling rappers of his generation. He’s as fame-hungry as any major label musician, but he’s achieved his commercial success despite his rebellion against certain aesthetic cues. In the past decade, Cole has grown from a bright, pop-bound neophyte to a moody ascetic. Resigned to the odd corner that the rapper and his critics have carved out for him, Cole has become hip-hop’s premier contrarian. He’s the genre’s only major contrarian, really. His fogeyism is so essential to his performance that it is difficult for me to conceive of any ideal J. Cole album somehow overpowering, and overcoming, the fundamental objections to J. Cole. It’s not like hypebeasts are prohibitively rigorous about any of the artistic merits. They’ve given Big Sean albums more credit than they will ever give Cole for better performances and greater success.

Cole’s previous two albums, 2014 Forest Hills Drive and 4 Your Eyez Only, spawned some modest hits, and both went platinum. Still, given Cole’s newfound press shyness and his cultivation of a shaggy, plebeian look, Cole appeared to be resigning himself to critical indifference. Increasingly, he’s positioned himself as a genre hermit. With the release of 2014 Forest Hills Drive, Cole famously went “platinum with no features,” a stunt that doubles as a catchy brag, and also a summary of Cole’s antisocial approach. Now, Cole is solitary and self-serious. He seems to be chasing prestige. Kendrick Lamar has done this, too, but through a more progressive and unruly musical vision that culminates with jazz, screaming, existential disintegration, and, consequently, a Pulitzer Prize. Kendrick has given some regressive sermons in his music, but his sounds themselves represent a forward-thinking upheaval. Kanye West is another counterexample: Musically, he’s brilliant; intellectually, he’s flimsy and childish—but his music alone is so dynamic and stimulating as to trick the captivated listener into mistaking citizen Kanye for an intellectual. In contrast, Cole offers a smaller, easier musical setting, akin to a lounge. If you’re a rapper, there’s no musical setting cornier than a lounge, and the straightforwardness—dare I say, the basicness—of Cole’s typical form tends to undermine his intellectual postures. Still, the proverbial lounge is where Cole persists, chiding about self-respect and mature priorities while hosting his own, perpetual Unplugged.

KOD is the third successive album to sustain Cole’s competitive isolation. On the title track, he’s spoofing coke raps and addict braggadocio. He advances his contempt further with “1985,” a general-use diss track designed to address new wave, post-Xanax detractors, such as Lil Pump, who could not sound any cooler or any more dangerous than J. Cole than they already do. Cole doesn’t practically resist as many contemporary trends as he disparages on “1985”—Cole raps over trap beats, too—but his central righteousness affords him the confidence to interrogate these trends on the records. And his careerism affords him longevity compared with the new, ephemeral teen stars of the streaming era. “Just remember what I told you when your shit flop / In five years you gon’ be on Love & Hip Hop.”

The songs here bare an edge, but rarely are Cole’s lyrics malicious; the Love & Hip Hop taunt is Cole’s only damning assessment. Spite without jealousy, superiority short of any desire to dominate: J. Cole aspires to iconoclasm. His music forms a contrarian program, and it makes the most sense—and satisfies the most appetites—if the listener understands Cole’s music this way. If the entire hip-hop mainstream sounded like J. Cole, then the genre would indeed sorely lack for musical innovation and challenging, futuristic direction. But, as far as dissents go, Cole’s music is a commercial retreat from consensus. KOD is a curious treatise on how hip-hop might revise its principles in light of the genre’s growing discomfort with the personal darkness that some very recent rap stars, proud addicts and abusers, have wrought.