I first listened to J. Cole’s latest album, "KOD" just a few hours after its release on April 20, 2018. With an album artwork featuring clouds of purple smoke and a drugged-out "Lean King" J. Cole sheltering wide-eyed children beneath his royal gown, I knew I was in for something special from one of modern hip-hop’s most conscious rappers.

With the use of alter-egos to help instill his wisdom and brilliantly designed music videos, "KOD" is a very clever album from a very clever man. It’s a commentary from the 33-year-old rapper on both the current state of trending hip-hop music and the attitudes of young people in America towards what they perceive as being important in life.

It has a strong focus on the theme of addiction, in all its many forms. This is not a track by track album review, and I don’t intend to write one. I suggest you listen to the album yourself and try to glean as much from its wealth of insight and wisdom as you can.

I find it somewhat ironic that Kanye West is often referred to as a musical genius (possibly most frequently by himself), while J. Cole stands on the sidelines, quietly and humbly watching on. While I don’t always agree with everything he says, Cole is undoubtedly head and shoulders above his peers (in more ways than one, as the man stands at 6’3”). The fact that so much of the hip-hop fan base today seems unaware of this, is nothing short of a tragedy.

On every level, "KOD" is a seriously impressive album. J. Cole is undoubtedly amongst the elite of the hip-hop world, along with Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino, and Drake. He might be less commercial than many of his contemporaries, but that is only to his credit. Time after time now, Cole has put the emphasis on the art rather than the potential commercial rewards of his work.

Make no mistake, J. Cole is a seriously talented artist. His beats (the majority of which he produces himself), his flow, and his lyrics are all top class. From song to song he can switch up his style with impressive ease. He can ride a smooth beat like a California surfer under the crest of a wave, then switch it up to hard, fast, bars with an aggressive flow.

His lyrics – always clever, never boring – are above and beyond much of what more popular hip-hop artists could ever hope to achieve (even with the help of a ghostwriter.)

I maintain that if J. Cole made music just to make money, if he carefully styled his image the way most of his peers do, if he rapped only about how much money he made, how many women he slept with and how lean he can get, the majority of hip-hop fans would consider him among the greatest hip-hop artists currently making music, if not of all time.

Where does J Cole stand in hip-hop right now?

Before releasing "KOD," J. Cole seemed to be at something of an impasse. He’d amassed a large, loyal fanbase of die-hard fans who lauded his every word but remained estranged from much of the mainstream hip-hop fan base.

Many of them often only showed interest in his more commercial-sounding, catchy tracks. Often turned off by his mature, introspective, honest lyricism and his vulnerability, many hip-hop fans consistently ignore, write off, and dismiss J. Cole as some kind of fake-deep pseudo-philosopher. In my opinion, nothing could be further from the truth.

"KOD" is Cole’s attempt to reach out to a drowning generation of hip-hop fans (and, indeed, the youth in general). Hooked on a social media-fuelled concoction of drugs, money, social status and hedonism, the younger generation seems to be in uncharted territory. J. Cole is one of many people concerned about the nature of the youth today and how they’re being shaped by the abundance of negative influences around them. With the rise of the internet and social media has come the ability to make art more freely available – which is something of a double-edged sword.

Unfortunately, not all art comes from thoughtful contemplation.

Trap drums, lean, and ignorance

The mainstream hip-hop genre today is a trap characterized by such colourful artists as Lil Pump, 6ix9ine and Smokepurpp. Made popular by free music-sharing services such as SoundCloud, the music these artists create is both drug-fuelled and extensively drug-referential, with multiple nods to a variety of prescription and recreational drugs throughout virtually every song they create. Money is another major theme, more specifically just how much they have, how easily they can spend it, and how many cars, clothes, shoes and women they can get with said money. If art is a reflection of reality, of the human condition as experienced by the artist, then much of the younger generation in America seem to be in trouble.

Drugs, hedonism, and chasing money is not only the lifestyle they’re forced into living; it’s one a large number of them are desperate to live in the first place.

Two of the tracks on "KOD" – ‘"The Cut Off" and "FRIENDS" – feature an artist called "kiLL edward", an alter ago Cole has developed for this album. This character appears to be intended to represent the stereotypical SoundCloud trap -drum rappers that are currently in fashion, with a drugged-out, slow drawl of a voice.

Cole even uploaded a song to Spotify under the moniker. Rapping in a highly edited, filtered cadence, this character seems to be the personification of everything that appears to be negative about the new generation of drug-fuelled rappers that J.

Cole is taking a stand against.

He seems to see these youngsters as a fad, a phase that will quickly wear off and leave them penniless due to their lack of good financial sense. J. Cole comes across almost like a mature parent, a father of sorts, praising the young men he sees making money but warning them that if they’re really as dumb as they seem, they’re headed down the wrong path.

The messages of "KOD" are perhaps best portrayed by two songs (and their accompanying music videos) – "ATM" (which stands for "addicted to money") and "Kevin’s Heart", a reference to the popular comedian Kevin Hart who famously cheated on his pregnant wife last year. "ATM" is a catchy, fast-paced track about – you guessed it – money.

The video features a number of iterations of J. Cole as different characters, weaving their way around a money-filled, lazy-townesque, cartoonish world of bank notes, prescription drugs and purple smoke. Cole comments heavily on society’s preoccupation with wealth and material gain; "can’t take it when you die, but you can’t live without it." He uses several clever metaphors (such as dollar sign-eyed children riding a flying vehicle made of prescription drugs and chasing a dollar bill on the end of a stick wielded by a drugged out "Lean King" J. Cole on his flying throne. Again, this is meant to represent the way kids idolize and follow the new generation of drugged-out rappers and their apparent wealth.

Other characters featured in the video include "kiLL edward", again played by Cole, who spends the majority of the video either counting, gambling, or chasing money. A posse of female groupies follows him, a miniature, equally money-obsessed Cole at the bottom of a swag bag is counting his own money, and J. Cole himself is restrained in a straight-jacket and kept in a padded cell of hundred-dollar bills. The message here is clear, with the closing shot serving as the final in a series of warnings of the dangers of allowing yourself to be obsessed with and to pursue money at any cost.

"Kevin’s Heart" has something of a different vibe to it. It’s both a commentary on infidelity and an allusion to the struggles with just that of J.

Cole’s long-time friend Kevin Hart. Featuring Hart as himself in the video, the song reflects on sexual temptation and the struggle of staying faithful to someone you love when attractive women everywhere are quick to show interest. With introspective, thoughtful lyrics such as "I stare at the screen a while before I press decline" and "wanna have my cake and another cake too," this track digs deeply into the psychology behind infidelity and making mistakes. Addiction to sex and the craving for more are the themes referenced here. Hart brings his comedic perspective to the music video too, much to its benefit.

So, what is J Cole really trying to say?

"KOD," then, is a culmination of J. Cole’s reflections on society.

He looks around him and sees a society addicted to escape. Be it drugs, be it money, be it fame, be it sex – everyone is chasing something quantifiable, something material and measurable; something that allows us to dull the pain of our existence.

His thoughts seem to be that we’d all be better off focusing more on self-growth and understanding – confronting our demons and our pain head-on, working out why we feel the way we do – rather than burying our heads in the sand by escaping reality through the use of drugs, focusing on money, or chasing sex. Meditation is touted by Cole on this album as part of the answer to some of the painful questions we have to deal with, especially as an alternative to medication, to escaping, with drugs.

These are the thoughts and ideas of a wise man, and ones we’d all benefit to reflect on ourselves. As Cole not so subtly hints at several points throughout the album and at the end of both music videos, when making decisions and deciding our paths in life, we should choose wisely.