Status Ain't Hood

J. Cole Wants, So Badly, To Be Rap’s Conscience

“Life can bring much pain,” a woman tells us in the opening moments of KOD, the album that J. Cole released last Friday. She sounds studiously blank, like the computerized host of Midnight Marauders. She continues: “There are many ways to deal with this pain. Choose wisely.” Easy for her to say. In that moment, Cole lays out the whole thesis of the album. Those title initials stand for Kids On Drugs, and all the children under Cole’s cloak on the album cover are indulging in one illicit substance or another. And in Cole’s “Kevin’s Heart” video, which he co-directed with regular collaborator Scott Lazer, those words reappear. Kevin Hart is returning home to his wife after a long day of strangers either judging him for cheating on his wife or trying to convince him to cheat again. He smiles beatifically on his own doorstep. The camera pans up to the words “Choose wisely” written in the sky. The implication is: He’s trying.

Over the years, Cole has built himself a reputation as rap’s self-appointed conscience. Sometimes, he’s done that clumsily. There was, for instance, the self-flagellating hero-worship of “Let Nas Down,” and there is the gimmicky-at-this-point refusal to let other rappers appear on his own albums. (On KOD, Cole addresses the latter strategy obliquely. A couple of tracks feature an unknown rapper named kiLL edward, who inevitably turns out to be a pitched-down version of Cole’s own voice, the Camille to his Prince. And on the title track, he point-blank says, “Niggas ain’t worthy to be on my shit.) Cole’s po-faced asceticism can come across self-righteous and disingenuous, but he usually has a point. Two years ago, as he was getting ready to release his 4 Your Eyez Only album, Cole went after his onetime idol Kanye West, without mentioning West by name, on his standalone song “False Prophets.” At the time, I thought it was a shitty move. A few days later, West showed up at Trump Tower for the now-infamous photo op with the new president. Cole was right. He’s right a lot.

That rightness has paid off. For the past few years, he has been one of the most popular rappers on the planet. These days, he’s really only lagging behind Drake and Kendrick Lamar, both of whom are vocal admirers of Cole. (He moved past Kanye West a long time ago.) Cole only gave the world a few days of advance notice that KOD was coming out, but he still did monster numbers with it. And yet Cole and his supporters will continue to see themselves as outsiders, mostly thanks to the way the internet receives Cole. He has been the subject of meme after meme, and the chief accusation against Cole is that he’s boring. And it’s true. Cole is boring. At his best, he manages to turn his own rightness and boringness into something like virtues. He is a rock-solid technical stylist, a gifted producer, and a pretty good throaty hook-singer. KOD, like 4 Your Eyez Only before it, is an album full of perfectly solid and listenable rap songs. But Cole never gives that Kendrick Lamar sense that he is ready to explode the universe through the sheer force of his talent. Forcefulness isn’t his thing.

What Cole does have is empathy. On 4 Your Eyez Only, Cole spent much of the album rapping from the point of view of a friend who didn’t survive the same upbringing that made Cole. And as Cole announces on the opening track, KOD is an album about addiction, an issue that Cole discusses with very little judgment or moralism. Cole’s mother was an addict; he’s rapped about that before. And he’s worried about his friends’ mortality again. “I wrote this to talk about the word addiction,” Cole raps on “FRIENDS” before calling out certain friends by name — and then bleeping those names out.

Cole talks about drugs, of course, but that’s not all of it. One song is from the point of view of someone who’s fallen in love with a social-media presence whom he’s never met. Another is about cheating. “ATM” is about money addiction, and my guess is it’s the one that hits the closest to home for Cole. It’s the one that hints at the joylessness of rap stardom the same way, say, Future might, albeit with a few more layers of remove: “I’m stacking this paper, it’s sort of habitual / I blow the residual / And fucking your bitch like it’s part of my ritual.”

Sonically, the largely self-produced KOD veers closer to present-day trap music than Cole has ever come before. It’s hard to tell whether he’s doing that because he wants to comment on the culture of addiction that surrounds trap music or because he likes the way it sounds. Maybe it’s both. In any case, Cole is surprisingly adept at the stuttering stop-start Migos flow, though he’s as stolidly workmanlike as ever when he’s trying that stuff out. Those trap songs are the ones where Cole tries out standard-issue self-mythologizing money-talk — partly to satirize that stuff, but also partly, I think, to flex: “A couple of freaks play, and they don’t speak inglés / But the money is something that they could comprendé / And I got bread like I’m Green Day.” (Sometimes Cole is pretty funny, and it drives me nuts that I can’t tell whether or not it’s intentional.)

But then KOD, like pretty much every concept album in rap history, does not stick to its concept. It’s hard to tell what “BRACKETS” has to do with addiction, for instance. The song mostly consists of lightly camouflaged rich-guy bitching about taxes: “I guess they say my dollars supposed to build roads and schools / But my niggas barely graduate, they ain’t got the tools… I’ll write a check to the IRS, my pockets get slim / Damn, do I even have a say about where it’s going?” And then there’s the album-closing “1985 (Intro To ‘The Fall-Off’),” wherein Cole just can’t resist settling a score.

“1985” is both a smart song and an aggravating one. The whole song is a response to a dis from an unnamed rap kid. (The song is widely believed to be about Lil Pump, who came out with a lo-fi chant called “Fuck J. Cole” last year.) But “1985” isn’t a counterattack. Instead, Cole sounds bemused, and he attempts to give advice to this much younger rapper, telling him, in effect, to manage his investments and to respect his elders. It’s Cole’s first time trying on an elder-statesman hat, and I’d argue that he hasn’t yet been around long enough to pull it off (even though Cole, at 33, is roughly twice Lil Pump’s age). I’d also argue that he’s too competitive to do it convincingly. He can’t resist throwing little slights all over the song.

“I’m hoping for your sake that you ain’t dumb as you look,” Cole tells the kid. (Lil Pump does inarguably look dumb. Cole, once again, is right at least about that.) “I’m fucking with your funky lil rap name,” says Cole, coming as close as he’s willing to come to saying Pump’s name. Cole complains about trap drums on an album where he’s using plenty of trap drums — on songs that he produced, even. Also: “I must say, by your songs I’m unimpressed, hey / But I love to see a black man get paid.” And: “One day, them kids that’s listening gonna grow up / And get too old for that shit that made you blow up.” It’s enough to make me wonder whether Cole is wondering if the kids are getting too young for the shit that made him blow up. Maybe Cole is hoping Lil Pump will write a song called “Let J. Cole Down.” (Lil Pump will not write that song.)

Next month, Cole will headline the first night of Rolling Loud, a huge rap festival in Miami. He’s by far the biggest artist on the bill. (He’s sharing headlining duties with Travis Scott and Future, both of whom are huge and neither of whom move units anything like Cole does.) Cole will share the stage that day with a who’s-who of young, potentially disrespectful rap kids: Lil Uzi Vert, Playboi Carti, Jaden Smith. Later in the weekend, the SoundCloud-rap kids will show up in vast numbers — Trippie Redd, Lil Xan, Ski Mask The Slump God, $uicideboy$, Smokepurrp, YBN Nahmir, Wifisfuneral, and, yes, Lil Pump among them. This will probably just be another festival paycheck for Cole, a man who is certainly used to festival paychecks by now. But I wonder how Cole will feel if he looks around backstage and takes stock — the biggest rapper at a festival where so much of the lineup seems to reject his idea of what rap even is, full of kids who don’t care how right he may be.

FURIOUS FIVE

1. Rae Sremmurd – “Close” (Feat. Travis Scott)
The beat sounds like early-’00s glitch music. The hook sounds like Jaden Smith singing along with an undiscovered Bright Eyes demo. Rap music is so great and weird!

2. Homeboy Sandman & Edan – “#NeverUseTheInternetAgain”
A much-used (and probably correct) old-man gripe, rendered in lively and committed old-man rap. “Step to a girl in real life, you fuckin’ wimp!”

3. JayDaYoungan – “All Cancer” (Feat. Boosie Badazz)
JayDaYoungan’s Boosie-influenced nasal Louisiana sing-rap honk sounds pretty great until the real Boosie, a man who knows a few things about cancer, shows up to breathe fire all over everything.

4. $tupid Young – “Cuz Walk” (Feat. Dmb Johnny Rose & Wxldchxld)
Is it cool for a Cambodian-American rapper to throw around the N-word that lightly? Probably not, right? On the other hand, I am in no place to adjudicate this kind of thing. And even if I was, do I really want to tell this guy what to do? Also: This goes. Circa-2013 Mustardwave has bled into a whole generation of West Coast street-rap, and it continues to sound immaculate.

5. Bun B – “Slow It Down” (Feat. Big K.R.I.T.)
Apparently, Big K.R.I.T. is going to serve as the “musical director” for the next Bun B solo album. That’s a ridiculous title to give yourself, but it’s also amazing news, especially if it means we get to hear Bun’s authoritative boom over wispy laid-back gorgeousness like this, and especially especially if it gets Bun off of cruise control for the first time in years.

IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO