Examine, for a minute, the existing media narratives surrounding North Carolina rapper J. Cole. Terms like “self-righteous” and “corny” have been thrown around with reckless abandon. A reputation of being “boring” has hovered over him like a particularly bothersome crow. Several prominent publications have never quite accepted him into their pantheon of acceptability with the same eagerness allotted to a Kendrick Lamar or a Drake.

Yet the sheer star power of J. Cole stands alongside even the game’s most prominent figures; somewhere along the line, he managed to secure a powerful and loyal fanbase; that same base helped propel the K.O.D. launch into an absolute event, lining entire city blocks for a chance at catching Cole’s latest offering. It’s strange, given the ostensible bias against the rapper; how can someone so “boring,” “corny,” and “self-righteous” have withstood the test of time so effectively? By his own affirmation, his skills have played a pivotal role in ensuring his legacy. Yet there must be something more. One does not reach J. Cole’s commercial success on the strength of lyrical prowess alone.

On the surface, it would appear there’s a dichotomy at play. Old King Cole and the Kidz On Drugz. Many critics seem comfortable labelling Cole a proverbial cop at a house party, flicking on the lights during the apex; put the doobie down or suffer the consequences. To be fair, neither the album artwork nor title did much to dispel the narrative, with haunting imagery from Sixmau depicting a generation of slack-jawed fiends. Not to mention, his ongoing “feud” with the likes of Lil Pump and Smokepurpp, which is addressed on album closer “1985 (Intro To The Fall Off).” You’d think a “get off my lawn” was imminent.

We’ve already heard the aforementioned Pump write Cole’s music off as “that lyrical shit.” Consider opening track “KOD” a stark reminder of Cole’s most obvious talent. Technically, he can navigate an instrumental with the upper echelon. It so happens that the self-produced title track seems to flirt with a contemporary trap aesthetic. It almost feels like a statement unto itself; anything you can do, I can do better. In truth, “KOD” sets the bar high, especially for those more amenable to the artful banger.

Though Cole’s chorus can sometimes wander, his hook on “K.O.D.” is razor focused, balancing a catchy melody with undeniable swagger. “Only gon' say this one time, then I'll dip, n***s ain't worthy to be on my shit,” raps Cole, a stark reminder that he’s well aware of his reputation as an elite lyrical talent. The boasts don’t feel hollow, like when insert-rapper-here starts vying to steal the oft-passed-around “your bitch.” Nor does he feel out of place, putting forth a vain attempt at conformity.

“Photograph” finds Cole in a more reflective state, tackling the more philosophical theme of lust in a digital era and casting a dark cloud over the act of sliding-into-the-DMs. Admittedly, the song feels simpler than the subject perhaps deserves, but Cole avoids virtue signalling, riding the hypnotic beat with a laid-back delivery. Next comes “The Cut Off,” which features a haunting chorus from Cole's alter-ego KiLL Edward, who sings a melancholic chant in triplicate.

Thematically, Cole tackles another heavy topic - the mortal man’s desire for revenge - doing so with a brutal sense of honesty. “I never fantasize 'bout murder 'cause I'm still sane, but I can't seem to fight this urge to make you feel pain,” raps Cole, calmed by a Charlie Brown-esque piano loop. Paired with the pitched-down vocals of Edward, “The Cut Off” stands out as an understated highlight, evocative of the blue-tinted smoke-haze the chorus appears to welcome.

The pace picks up with “ATM,” which once again finds Cole simultaneously channeling and accepting hip-hop’s current cultural climate. In truth, it almost sounds like he’s rapping this one with the trollface plastered on, lyrically stacking his residuals while rapping circles around his contemporaries. What’s interesting is how we’re willing to read deeper into this song on the basis of Cole’s reputation alone. On the surface, “ATM” is a song about the glories of a stacked net worth. Were this coming from Migos, Rich The Kid, or even Smokepurpp, we wouldn’t bat an eyelash. But since this is Cole, everyone assumes there’s a hidden agenda. Either way, the track still bangs.

Likewise for “Motiv8,” another seemingly mindless chapter. Throughout the course of the two-minute serving (perfect for SoundCloud you guyz), Cole experiments with voice and flow, sliding an eerie interlude between two effortless bouts of flexing. Once again, we’re left with the option to look for deeper commentary. Is Cole even capable of dropping something straightforward at this point? The mere fact there’s even a distinction between Cole’s trap bangers and insert-rapper-here’s trap bangers is truly fascinating. For better or worse, Cole’s is destined to remain fixed beneath a microscope. Luckily, “Motiv8” works on surface level, with an accessible beat and aqueous, effortless flow.

“Kevin’s Heart” finds Cole stepping into the shoes of the beloved (and briefly disgraced) comedian, taking to the T-Minus produced instrumental with songwriting chops on full display. Lyrically, Cole examines the struggle of remaining monogamous amidst a sea of temptation, somehow turning a morally dubious bout of circumstance into an arguable album highlight. The man even delivers a lackadaisical “skrrt skrrt,” which will no doubt send the more ardent analysts down the rabbit hole.

The final stretch of the album finds Cole at his most personal, tackling his mother’s battle with addiction, his own experience with self-medication, and the dangers of violence associated with drug abuse. While perhaps “Window Pain” and “Brackets” may fuel this idea that Cole is “fake deep,” it’s likely that those peddling that angle are the same people who lamented 21 Savage’s disavowal of jewelry. Socially conscious hip-hop may not be for everyone, but in the context of K.O.D., the climatic quarter feels like the logical conclusion to a strange and cohesive journey.

Of course, I would be remiss to gloss over the album’s piece de resistance, “1985.” K.O.D.’s closing statement garnered instant notoriety, and the community at large immediately dove into speculation, working to pinpoint the track’s intended target(s). As Lil Pump once dared to proudly proclaim “fuck J. Cole,” many inserted him as the recipient of the talking-to. Yet Cole’s words ring true for many a young rapper, who seem more concerned with spending racks on jewelry, as if their problems can be solved by merely flashing one’s wrist and repeatedly announcing the listed price.

It’s admittedly rather hilarious to see the oft-brazen Lil Pump attempt to reclaim the upper hand, coming off as in-his-feelings while daring to play the “I’m just a kid card.” It’s safe to say that Cole shook the game with this one, presenting the next generation with a double-edged sword -  Ignoring his message seems akin to accepting one’s own demise; openly rejecting it makes the naysayer come off as salty. While some might take umbrage with the tried-and-true old-head vs. young blood storyline, Cole has managed to handle his involvement in the discourse with tact.

Will K.O.D. serve to alter the public perception of Jermaine Cole? Doubtful. Yet the album has managed to stand as 2018's most complete release thus far; at once concise, cohesive, melodic, and challenging. The board has been set. Commence speculation of a follow-up album in three, two--