Conscious rappers have arguably never had quite the platform and success they’re enjoying in this very moment of music history. Sure it all started with Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five trying not to lose his head in 1982. Sure Public Enemy called on the world to “Fight the Power” in 1990. But in 2018, largely due to a Pulitzer Prize-winning Kendrick Lamar and others who have been able to combine impactful themes and honest life lessons with tactful and masterful instrumentation and production, conscious has cut right to the heart of the mainstream. But with great exposure comes great responsibility. Maybe that’s why Kanye West finds it imperative to now flood his follower’s Twitter feeds with proverbial snippets of “wisdom”. Rappers are feeling the need more than ever to bring knowledge, wisdom, and understanding to their fans, whether they’ve gained those things or not.
With no hints of subtlety, J. Cole released his message to the youth on 4/20. The theme of
KOD centers around the opening words spoken by a female voice: “Life can bring much pain. There are many ways to deal with this pain. Choose wisely.” Cole explores these coping mechanisms in loosely conceptual form over the 42 minutes of the album to varying effectiveness. Like the obviousness of KOD’s release date, many of the offerings on the album come with little tact and rely more on the strength of the message than artful delivery. The coping mechanisms are called out in the outro of the title track: “Power, greed, money, Molly, weed, Percs, Xannys, lean, fame, and the strongest drug of them all… love.” From the onset of the album, we know what we’re in store to receive. Whereas DAMN. finds Kendrick Lamar twisting and turning through wickedness and weakness, wrestling often through the same issues found here, Cole delivers it straight.
He is self-aware of his tone though as he delivers on “FRIENDS”, “I understand this message is not the coolest to say / But if you down to try it I know of a better way / Meditate / Don’t medicate.” But being self-aware can’t cover the fact that Cole here seems to distance himself with his tone from the Lils he’s trying to look out for. Not until the closing tracks of the album is Cole personal enough to connect with his target audience, which is exactly why that audience has responded in mockery. “Wow. You get so much props. You dissed a 17-year-old,” Lil Pump responded. While Smokepurpp at a show enticed his whole audience to chant, “Fuck J. Cole!”
Yes, these are the juvenile actions of a 17 and 20-year-old. And yes, they do need to hear the messages that J. Cole lays down on
KOD. But the fact that they responded this way sheds light on the ineffectiveness of Cole’s sermons delivered here. The most effective moments do come towards the end of the album, however, as Cole opens up about growing up with an alcoholic mom on “Once an Addict”: “Depression’s such a villainous state / I used to stay out later on purpose / Subconsciously I was nervous that if I came home early, then what would surface was her inner demons / And then I’d have to end up seein’ my hero on ground zero.” As the fight against those demons transferred to Cole from his mother, he isolates himself. But later he regretfully reminisces, “Little did I know how deep her sadness would go / Lookin’ back, I wish I woulda did more instead of runnin’.” These honest reflections are the first step in honest change and growth, which Cole can capture especially on this track, “FRIENDS”, and “Kevin’s Heart” (the video for which is excellent). But in other instances, Cole represents a very human tendency of pointing out others’ flaws to feel like we’re accomplishing something. But truly, it’s another coping mechanism keeping us from addressing the issues within us.