An overview of J. Cole’s new album: K.O.D.

At 4:15 P.M. today, J. Cole tweeted a surprise announcement: “No Phones, No Cameras, No Bags, No Press Lists, No Guess Lists” with a place and a time – Gramercy Theatre, NYC, 6 P.M. I had just walked out of work, and immediately set my GPS to the Gramercy. No hesitation.

I arrived thirty minutes later, and once I found myself on the line, it was already wrapped around the block. Within a half an hour, I had a wristband for access to an event I knew nothing about. Considering the strict policy of no phones or cameras, one could easily assume it might be new music. Before we entered the venue, we were instructed to turn off our phones and given pouches that locked with a magnet to encase our phones. Cole was not here for the leakage.

Once the venue was at capacity, Cole took the stage and the crowd erupted. People pushed forward, stampeding toward the stage. Here were, mostly, some of his most loyal fans – and that energy emanated with vigor. Once Cole was able to calm us down, he dropped the bomb on us: “Why do you think you’re here? New music? Nah, I just came to talk.”

He laughed, “Nah, I got a new album.”

From there, Cole went on to explain a little bit of the background behind its creation. Apparently, he recorded the first draft of the album in just two weeks, sometime in 2017. He said it just came to him; the words fell out – it sounded almost supernatural, the way he described it. Then, after spending some time with the record, he decided he wanted it to be even better. He scrapped some of the songs, and created more over the last year or so; while he was on tour in Europe and Australia.

Fast-forward to April 2018, and the album is here, ready for release this Friday, April 20th. The title, K.O.D., he explained, has three meanings. He said the letters came to him before the meaning did; but once it did, the three meanings fell out in some sort of spiritual moment.

The first, is “Kids on Drugs.” He gave the example of how, if you were to turn on the TV, “every 7 minutes,” you’d hear a commercial asking you, “are you okay?” and recommending some sort of drug to medicate yourself with. Then, of course, he mentioned more recreational drugs – pills, weed, alcohol, crack, etc. Finally, there are our addictions that are drug like: sex, money, love, technology, etc. Basically, the point is, kids these days grow up on some sort of drug, with at least one addiction.

Next, is “King OverDose(d)”. I’m not entirely sure if the D is on the end or not, but same meaning. He referred to this as being himself within the album. He personifies the character of “King OverDose” on the album by exploring the different ways in which people overdose on the above mentioned drugs. All the while, thinking and feeling as if you are the King of the world.

Finally, the last and perhaps most powerful meaning is “Kill Our Demons.” He said this is the goal; the place he hopes that we all can get to. To find peace, we all must kill our demons and let go of our addictions that negatively impact our mental health. J. Cole, a hip-hop star, a King of rap, has essentially recorded an album about mental health. As he said when telling us about the album, the shit he had to say is important. Very important, he said. Indeed, it is.

Without further adieu, he allowed us to hear the album. Before doing so, he joked, that he knows our phones are locked up but just in case someone snuck one in, if we see them with a phone, to slap them. Or, he said, if we see any journalists writing notes, to slap the #2 pencil out of their hands. Luckily, I was able to keep mental notes, which Cole did say he permitted. However, he encouraged us to feel some exclusivity. We were the first 500-600 people to hear the album. In the whole world. Ever. Outside of his team of course. He said we had two choices: share, or be able to say, “nah you have to wait, this is our secret.” Ultimately, though, he acknowledged it’s a free country. So, I’m opting for somewhere in between.

I won’t divulge song titles, and I don’t even want to go into full detail about the songs because I do not feel I will do the album proper justice without being able to refer back to the songs, to quote the lyrics, to  live with this immensely profound body of work. I won’t disrespect Cole.

However, I will say this. The album is phenomenal. I’ve only heard it once (and Cole asked us to please, listen with headphones when we get it officially), but I remember my first listen of each of his albums… and I feel like this might be his best body of work yet. Cole has always been a storyteller, that’s why I admire him. There has always been some sort of cohesive theme in his albums, even with his pre-contract mixtapes. Sideline Story and Born Sinner had themes, but they still felt like your standard album. With 2014 Forest Hills Drive, that changed; Cole’s approach to albums changed. The album was released all at once, and experienced as one. Thus, it felt more like one body of work, rather than a group of song. The album felt cinematic, in a way, yet still each song was rather distinct. They came together to be an impressively cohesive body of work, but still could stand on their own.

With 4 Your Eyez Only, he delved further into the realm of a storybook, cinematic album. It was a true concept album, with a main character; an ongoing plot. It all sort of came from the same place. It is striking, but it’s the kind of album you need to give your full attention to; always. There are jams on the album, of course, but they’re courses best served as part of the full meal. Separated, they were not quite as powerful.

Essentially, Forest Hills Drive could be played on shuffle and you can rock with it just the same. Play 4 Your Eyez on shuffle, and you sell the album short. With K.O.D. it is the perfect amalgamation of those two philosophies. The album has the profound content that is found on every track of 4 Your Eyez Only, linked together as part of a larger, overarching story. There are spoken word interludes to bring it all together. The album, like 4 Your Eyez, comes full circle at the end. Yet, like Forest Hills Drive, the songs can stand on their own without feeling like lost puzzle pieces. Just about every song, realistically, could be a hit. They’re substantial in content yet will have you lit, for sure. They’re anthemic, yet literary. They are straightforward, yet intricate. They will get you hype, yet have you dissecting – depending on the moment, the setting, your mood. The songs are about love, money, greed, temptation, drugs, addiction, pain, and meditation. Oh, and taxes – that might be my favorite song. It is “Neighbors” level realness. K.O.D. is indeed like a therapy session with the mission of killing our demons.

Finally, the set ends with perhaps what will be, if I know the media well, the most talked about track. Without spoiling it, although I am sure someone else will, sadly, Cole strays from the album’s theme for what he called “an intro” to something else. His implication with that was not exactly clear – whether he was hinting at another album or just the drama that is undoubtedly sure to follow after folks hear this song. The title of the song is “1985,” and, without giving too much away, Cole is making quite a blunt assessment of the state of hip-hop today, and offering a few choice words, and some well-meaning yet probably hard-to-swallow advice for some artists we might call sell-outs. Though, if they take Cole’s advice to heart, they might end up on his level… and then maybe, he won’t have to keep dropping albums with no features.

That’s a joke you won’t fully understand until you hear the album, but yes, before you ask – there are, once again, no features.

In short, K.O.D. is an album best experienced by listening to it, in full, and at Cole’s advice – with headphones. I hope that I gave you an idea of what to expect, while still allowing for those feelings of anticipation and curiosity to fester until it drops this Friday. Only 3~ days to go, depending when you’re reading this. I can assure you, you won’t be disappointed that you waited. Don’t go looking for spoilers. You might say that’s easy for me to say, but I know I wouldn’t want it any other way.

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