J. Cole is Just...Okay

The North Carolina rapper is meritable, but nothing superb

 By Alejandro Ramos Contributor

Graphic by Francisco Valladares/Athletics Editor

There was a time when J. Cole was my favorite rapper. The operative word here being “was.” As in, in the past. As in, not right now. It's been that way for a while, and his latest release “KOD” didn't change my mind.

“KOD,” Cole’s fifth studio album, is a manifesto against drugs, addiction and the woes of society. For all its good intentions, however, it just ends up falling short of making any real, impactful commentary.

Now, this isn't a review. I'm not here to tell you whether the album or J Cole are objectively good or bad. I'm here to explain why it falls short for me as a former stan.

In 2010, I was a high school senior with a thing for hip-hop. Real hip-hop. You know, the type with boom bap beats and clever rhymes that were real. Enter J. Cole.

By then, he already had two mixtapes under his belt. He released “The Come Up” in 2007 and “The Warm Up” in 2010. This was back during the mixtape era of the late 2000s. Social media was just getting off the ground and music streaming was just an idea at the time. So it took awhile for me to hear about Cole or his music through word of mouth.

Once I heard his music, though, I was hooked. I had his mixtapes playing on repeat and learned the lyrics to most, if not all, of his songs. In a time when club hits and ringtone rap filled the airwaves, J. Cole scratched the itch I had for “real” hip-hop.

As I grew older, my attraction to J. Cole’s music fluctuated with each new release. “Cole World: The Sideline Story” flew under the radar for me. I slept on “Born Sinner,” a dark and gritty exploration of his life, but ended up loving it as time passed on. And “2014 Forest Hills Drive” took me back to his mixtape days.

All the while, I still thought he was one of the best rappers in the game. I had him up there with Kendrick in terms of lyricism (yikes) and Drake in terms of appeal. The numbers certainly backed that up. His projects have all sold well, especially “2014 Forest Hills Drive,” which went “double platinum without features.”

And yet, J. Cole was always getting critiqued by a vocal minority. They called him boring, corny and wack. I ignored these critiques and chalked them up to different tastes — until now.

He’s prone to writing mind-bogglingly terrible lines and taking on a holier-than-thou stance that drags down the quality of his art.

My disillusionment with J. Cole started with his fourth studio album, “For Your Eyez Only.” It was the first time I was genuinely disappointed with him. The concept and production were solid, but it felt like he stopped just short of where it should have gone.

After that, I started to pay more attention to the critics, especially Shea Serrano. The Ringer staff writer is one of the most notorious J. Cole haters on Twitter. His jabs seemed unnecessary and mean-spirited until I took the time to read into his stance. His jokes were backed by a nuanced critique, which pointed out the truly terrible quality of some of Cole’s work. Among the flaws were a myriad of shitty metaphors.

(As in, actual poop. Go ahead. Look it up.)

I couldn’t see J. Cole the same after that. I came to realize that J. Cole has always been flawed, even in his oldest work. He’s prone to writing mind-bogglingly terrible lines and taking on a holier-than-thou stance that drags down the quality of his art. “KOD,” unfortunately, is more of the same. While he takes the time to address some salient issues in his fifth studio album, it’s bogged down by the same pitfalls his previous albums have had.

This isn’t to say that J. Cole is terrible. When he’s on point, he’s on point. That’s always been true. The problem is that he gets treated like one of the best rappers for achieving this bare minimum, when that just isn’t the case. J. Cole, for better or for worse, is just okay. He’s a passable rapper with a talent for crafting verses and beats on his own. That’s certainly commendable. At the end of the day, though, he’s just...okay.