“Truthfully, J Cole is vanilla ice cream.”
Hip-hop has always had an obsession with rankings. Call it a symptom of competitive masculinity, or of a genre born in poor urban areas that has found itself rising to complete cultural dominance in 2018. Rappers have always gone to great lengths to tell you why they are the number one, or top five, or top ten, and the idea of the ‘king of the game’ is one that has always sparked a great deal of conversation.
I think part of the reason for J Cole’s mysterious popularity is the way he has co-opted this conversation, and through sheer quantity of self-mythology has placed himself at the top of the pile, at least in the eyes of his fans. On Cole’s breakout 2014 Forest Hills Drive, he repeatedly spouted a bizzare rap hierarchy in which he was a god and everyone below him only a king – as if he had ascended to a higher power level in Dragon Ball Z.
But, truthfully, J Cole is vanilla ice cream. He makes relatable, middle of the road rap music that is well produced and appeals to a wide audience, but really lacks any kind of personality or character. If he has one defining trait, it’s his awkwardness – the eye-rolling bars about folding clothes and taxes, where Cole reaches for something deep and introspective but misses the mark completely. Sometimes that awkardness is endearing, like on Forest Hills‘ ‘Wet Dreamz’, but most of the time it’s just clunky.
And so proves to be the case for KOD, an album which isn’t likely to change Cole’s reputation as something of a critical punching bag. It kicks off with a desperately cringey intro, in which a woman’s breathy voiceover tries to set up the albums themes of addiction, telling us that “life can bring much pain…”. It’s ridiculous, and has more than a little whiff of To Pimp a Butterfly to it.
Unfortunately, Cole can’t even come close to Kendrick’s ability to put a conceptual record together. KOD purports to be about addiction, and was released on 4/20 with a particularly psychedelic cover, but in reality only a handful of tracks address the topic. ‘Photograph’ is about having the hots for somebody on Instagram, ‘The Cut Off’ is about fake friends, and ‘BRACKETS’ is about…uh…taxes.
The production is solid, again taking cues from Kendrick with some spacious, modern jazz-rap. And a handful of tracks here contain some sticky if slightly obnoxious hooks, like ‘ATM’ and ‘Kevin’s Heart’. But ultimately what puts me off KOD is the cringe-worthy bars and awkward flows: how Cole rhymes ‘diploma’ with ‘all over’, or how he ends ‘FRIENDS’ by suggesting meditation as an alternative to drug use, probably for the sole reason that it rhymes with ‘medication’.
Nothing about KOD is offensive, really. It has a few good tunes, and Cole’s technical abilities are stronger than most rappers at his level of popularity. But that’s the problem with vanilla ice cream: the fact that it’s inoffensive is exactly the reason I never want to eat it. Now excuse me while I go and enjoy some of Ben & Kenny’s Haagen Baarz.