“We were rapping for the DJ. That’s why the DJ name always came first. Eric B. and Rakim, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince… It wasn’t until later that the rapper came to the forefront.”
Through JAY-Z’s statement during his appearance on David Letterman’s, “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction,” the artist who always reintroduces himself subtly provided context to the discourse that has perforated modern hip-hop. In recent years, there has been a transition from the lyric-centric rap of hip-hop’s “golden age” to a heightened emphasis on the song’s instrumental. With current artists caring more about a vibe than a story. This is a seemingly unorthodox approach, leading curators and bar-based rappers (old and new) to forget where their origins as the Sedgwick Ave sidekick as they criticize the “neo-trap” artists with claims they are not “hip-hop.” Yet, through the production of “KOD” alone, J. Cole uses his new album to merge these two concepts in a way that will hopefully build a bridge of calm enlightenment.
As J. Cole has already proven his lyrical prowess, the aspects of “KOD” that draw the most attention are the production nuances that hip-hop’s one-man-band uses to supplement his rhymes. Beginning with the second song and title track “KOD,” Cole ushers in a heavy bassline that thoroughly surrounds the listener and is an obvious take on an underground trap beat. Doing this disproves the popular timeline hypothesis that his music is “boring.” A theory Cole continues to dismantle as he once again relies on the 808’s power for “Photograph” while lacing the hook with a melodic approach that is indicative of rap’s “new wave.”
Through the instrumental (which is has become rap’s mode of communication) Cole tells to the genre’s newest artists that he respects their direction. Yet since their subgenre is an alternate universe to him, “KOD” is not J. Cole totally immersing himself into trap music. Instead, like the mad genius he is, J. Cole repurposes production details from his past to close the string and prove how hip-hop’s euphoric energy continuously rotates. This is a notion that’s best displayed through the song “Motiv8’s” beat. For “Motiv8,” Cole chooses to pull out one of rap’s most used-tool, sampling. Using the sample, J. Cole confirms that like the theory, a loop – in every sense of the word – will undoubtedly present itself. Showing to those younger than him that timeless music will have an everlasting life, despite the era. And projecting this by weaving a Junior M.A.F.I.A. record into an instrumental that is cut from the trap template, Cole showcases his results while sending a clever nod to The Notorious B.I.G. (one of the understood GOATs that today’s younger artists have famously denounced).
Yet the most creative way J. Cole closes the “string” is his choice to enlist “features” from his secondary persona, “kiLL edward.” The stylization of kiLL’s moniker alludes to the way many SoundCloud artists choose to write their name, while the decision to add trap style melodies through an effect that is derivative of the late, DJ Screw’s chopped-n-screwed technique, Cole highlights the hypocrisy of the veterans that scrutinize neo-trap.
DJ Screw was a Houston-based DJ, CEO, and producer, that gained prominence at the height of rap’s golden era. His innovation as a producing genius is respected by all ages of hip-hop. Screw fostered the careers of iconic third-coast rappers like Lil Keke, Z-Ro, Devin The Dude, and UGK. All of which have influenced the sound and direction of trap music. However, DJ Screw also brought the abuse of codeine cough syrup/lean (neo-trap’s drug of choice) into hip-hop’s mainstream culture. And although many veteran artists used/use this opioid, they are not condemned for its exploitation the way new artists are. Through kiLL edward’s voice and alias — which is a double entendre between his step-father’s name and that of the infamously glutinous relatives, King Edward VII and Edward VIII — Cole draws attention to the fact that the youth’s actions are learned traits. Coles uses kiLL’s aesthetic to describe how today’s artists are only repeating the cycle what they have been shown. In addition, kiLL is also employed to issue a metaphoric and literal warning, cautioning that hip-hop’s consistent glorification of indulgence will either “kiLL” you (displayed by DJ Screw’s 2000 codeine overdose), your career, or both.
The commonalities and contradictions of this cycle are reinforced by J. Cole’s choice to pair the prelude of “BRACKETS” which features the comedic legend, Richard Pryor, (a glorified icon despite being very transparent about his various coping mechanisms that famously included cocaine) with the song “Kevin’s Heart.” A record that deals with the theme of “lust” while creating wordplay between the name of today’s “comedy rock star,” Kevin Hart, and the backlash of his admitted infidelity. Nuances like kiLL’s presentation and the grouping of these comedians draw similarities between the two generations while prompting the elder to be more reflective before casting stones.
This unbiased position is something Cole has always embraced. Since the beginning of his career, the North Carolina native has used his talent to “attack” friends and idols in the name of cultural betterment. “KOD” is essentially the album adaptation of this characteristic. The closed circuit created by J. Cole’s production and album accents sparks the listener to look at themselves objectively. He takes away the concept of blame while forcing the audience to question their individual role in repeating the oppressive socio-economic cycle that fuels hip-hop’s cipher. J. Cole designed “KOD” in a way that even without fully digesting his well-thought-out verses, one will still ponder: “Am I solely listening to music for the beat?” and “Is that even a bad thing?” Or “Are we downing actions that were promoted to us?” and “Is it beneficial to repeat something simply because it’s familiar?”
This self-analysis is delivered so effortlessly because J. Cole welcomes the rap purgatory that accompanies his tenure. Because of his 2009 emergence, the 33 years-old is hip-hop’s proverbial middle child. A career adolescent sandwiched between two brothers at war; the golden age and neo-trap/new wave. Yet instead of staying hands-off, letting them fight until they break a lamp – or worse – dirty up their mother’s good couch, Cole decides to use this often-awkward position to play mediator. Due to his age and the time he became a mainstream star, Cole can see both ends of the spectrum. And although the initial consensus is that J. Cole is smugly condemning the new wave, trap artists, it should be noted that this commentary is coming from those who can only see his perspective from either pole. In actuality, on this album Cole blends vibes with vibranium in an effort to offer both generations some palatable brotherly advice. Using “KOD” to explain to his siblings that the genre loses when the family feuds.