Five albums in, J Cole is synonymous with hip hop that goes far deeper than just the superficial glamour his lifestyle might now inspire. Listening to his music can often feel more like attending a court hearing. For some, this is a cliche and overused exercise in self righteousness, however I am more inclined to give the rapper from North Carolina the benefit of the doubt, and suggest his verses come from a much more well-meaning place.
Having previously tackled issues such as death, violence and love, his new release is all about Addiction. This is something that Cole, real name Jermaine, has been no stranger to – he has never shied away from his childhood with an alcoholic mother. However the theme really comes into itself on this feature long plea to society, as he not only speaks of personal experience but also addictions to social media, fame and other more modern concepts. There are times on the album, particularly during ‘Motiv8’ and ‘Kevin’s Heart’ where his lyrical style really shines through as insightful and forward-seeing in the complexity of his ideas.
The only downside to adopting an almost prophetic style within hip hop is the fact it is almost impossible to avoid coming across as either bitter and old news, or arrogant and patronising. Cole treads this fine line and almost succeeds on KOD’s final track ‘1985- Intro to The Fall Off’ where he talks about the new generation of hip hop tightly associated with ‘SoundCloud rap’ and Xanax culture, led by the likes of Lil Pump. The verses are ladened with contradictory opinions about whether he approves of the new style, or mocks it. His repetition of ‘little man’ and ‘I remember when I was 18’ in particular is patronising and feels in bad taste when compared with an album largely focussed on championing the underdogs of the young generation.
The saving grace of an album that could quite easily have dissolved into irrelevance is the undeniable technical genius honed in J Cole. Much like earlier album ‘2014 Forest Hills Drive’ it features very little outside influence. This allows Cole to make his statement truly his own, right through from writing to production- in which he has also made a credible name for himself. The title track proves exactly why Cole has been around for so long, and why we still love him. His ability to mould and craft a verse so deftly around a stripped down snare flow is his signature move, and if it isn’t broke he definitely shouldn’t fix it.
This, partnered with his love of political statement, will draw ever more comparisons with peer Kendrick Lamar. But crucially, Cole has never been able to achieve such a level of mastery because of his need to include himself in the argument. While Lamar uses cyclical plots and anonymous characters to convey his theories, Cole is constantly urging his listener to see his side of the story. Whilst I am sure this comes from a place of desperation to make a difference, it can sometimes come across as self-martyring and bias, which ultimately hinders his delivery.
Words: Briony Warsop