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Exploring J. Cole's 'KOD' and its (very) possible reverse theory

Ralph Bristout

 // May 1, 2018

Vulture // Vulture

To open up his fifth studio album, K.O.D., J. Cole paints a thought-provoking picture: “Life can bring much pain / There are many ways to deal with this pain / Choose wisely.” The latter phrase, “choose wisely,” is a vital refrain in the album's thematic territory.

Filtering through a pool of rumination, Cole uses his voice as a proxy for both lamentation and illumination. For long, the rapper has been a voice for the Everyman by way of blurring the differentiating perception of good vs. evil and walking the balance through emotional self-talking. “It’s J. Cole, set of horns and a halo,” he once rapped over Ski Beatz’s iconic instrumental for JAY-Z’s “Dead Presidents.” And on K.O.D., he exemplifies this stance by taking on the mentality of rap’s overmedicated society, giving it a character and narrating it out to its extreme. “Something's got a hold on me,” he cries on “Once an Addict.”

Overall, the album is a display of a deep duality: self-reflection and societal analysis. Records like “The Cut Off,” “FRIENDS” and “Window Pain” speak much to that end. When the album reaches its coda, though, “1985 (Intro to The Fall Off),” the concept turns on its head — literally.

On the closer of K.O.D., Cole pulls a page from out of the Art of War—specifically this: “excellence consists of breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting”—by passive-aggressively pushing this generation of rap acts to be realistic with their bearings and to try self-awareness on for size. “See if I can paint for you the large picture,” he begins. Despite being a blanket statement, the ego-bursting truth shrouded in "1985" caused its unnamed target audience to, well, out themselves. (Hey, SmokePurpp fans.) “You must feel attacked in some kind of way, must feel offended, and if you feel offended, then that means something rings true,” he told Vulture.

The sign-off track, interestingly subtitled “The Intro to The Fall Off,” foreshadowed a follow-up to K.O.D. Cole, himself, seemingly confirmed such a possibility, revealing on Twitter that he is “workin’ on it” and that K.O.D. was essentially birthed out of The Fall Off sessions. Be that as it may, for someone who, time and time again, takes the intended approach of going beneath the surface with his material—2014 Forest Hills Drive was a coming-of-age thesis on fame; 4 Your Eyez Only a sonic biopic of a slain friend—taking what’s presented by Cole at face value would be a disservice to both him and his craft. It is this fact that ultimately fueled something of a bubbling theory by some J. Cole fans, a pound for pound fervent and dedicated core.

Some took to Twitter and forums like Reddit to share an interesting take on how, much like the 'Memento' theory of Drake’s Nothing Was the Same, as well as the dualistic natures of Lupe Fiasco’s Tetsuo & Youth and Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., K.O.D. can be played, yes, from top to bottom, but also in reverse order from “1985” (hence the concept turning on its head) to the title track.

Making the album, according to Cole, was a two-week process. Initially, the Dreamville captain was working on The Fall Off and “helping” his alter-ego, kiLL edward, with his own album. From there, Cole developed a burst of creativity that was funneled into K.O.D. During a family trip to Tanzania, this blast of creative energy culminated into four songs (recorded in three days): “The Cut Off,” “Kevin’s Heart,” “FRIENDS” and “Window Pain.” He also recorded his solid guest verse on Royce da 5’9’s “Boblo Boat.” (Note the lyric: “With my son in Tanzanian sunrays / Thinking ’bout them days).

He said to Vulture about the four tracks, “These joints are conceptual. I see where I’m going, I see the message, I see the shape.” Initially K.O.D. was “done” in two weeks. However, the final version, which is what actually released on April 20, took “6 months total.” Cole has plans to release the original two-week version, featuring “extra scenes that didn’t make the final cut," on a soon-to-be announced deluxe version of K.O.D.

Back to this reverse theory. Besides the growing investigation by Cole fans, there are clues scattered throughout the album that support it. Other than the constant “choose wisely” reminder that floats around, on “KOD,” the kick-off track, Cole repeatedly chants, “This is what you call a flip.” If played in reverse, that would make “KOD” the final track before the “Intro,” which also happens to feature this interesting nugget: “At the bottom of the hourglass lies sand that represents the past / In which all of my demons rest, I’m calling out for help.”

Interestingly enough, and in keeping with this concept, “Window Pain" (subtitled "Outro") closes with a similar statement, this one led by a young child who sees God as the saving grace for all trial and tribulation: “And after we do that, He’s gonna restart the world.” The word "restart" reflects biblical references like Revelations 21:1, which touches on the renewal of heaven and earth ("Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more").

But that’s not all. The “flip” on the title track and “restart” on the "Outro" are both followed by the ubiquitous “choose wisely” refrain. As mentioned earlier, nothing handled by Cole can be a mere coincidence and in keeping up with this theory, there’s a unique vantage point attached to either order.

In original order, Cole provides a case study on pain and addiction and, as the intro states, the “many ways” that one chooses “to deal with this pain.” Beginning with “KOD,” the album launches in full pompous, braggadocious, and devil-may-care manner (“Don’t give a fuck and I’m somewhat insane”). This then segues into “Photograph,” which is a snapshot of one choosing an altered-reality to find love and a cosmic connection instead of the actual reality. This can add weight to preceding depression or stress altogether (“Love today has gone digital and it's messing with my health”).

“The Cut Off” is built on loyalty, but also finds the story’s narrator at a crossroads. He is aware of the weak links in his circle and while he doesn’t want to retaliate, the voices inside are pushing him to do so. “I never fantasize about murder 'cause I'm still sane,” he raps, before adding, “But I can't seem to fight this urge to make you feel pain.” As this goes on, those voices, brought to him by kiLL Edward, chant: “I know Heaven is a mind state, I've been a couple times / Stuck in my ways so I keep on fallin' down.” Thus continues this downward spiral, which culminates on “ATM,” “Motiv8” and “Kevin’s Heart.”

On “BRACKETS,” money isn’t even enough to pull him from his spiral. “Hell yeah boy, I’m a cotdamn millionaire now,” he says in the short interlude. Yet, and even still, being a millionaire isn’t enough, because there is still something missing. “Lord knows I need something to fill this void,” he croons. From here, one of Cole’s trifecta of album meanings, “Kill Our Demons,” is distinctly at play because the following three songs—“Once an Addict,” “FRIENDS” and “Window Pain (Outro)”—force the inundated narrator to truly face the issues that led him to this spiral in the first place.

“I put my hand to the sky, I sing / Grateful for the blessings you bring / Thank you for the ones I love, forgive me for the times I was,” he illustrates, while dousing his laments with sweet-and-sour sentimentality. From top to bottom, we find a man “lost in a cloud” trying to escape the “something” that’s “got a hold” of him. For some, escaping these demons is the easy part by way of numbing the pain. However, facing those issues head-on is the opposite. On “Once an Addict,” a poignant note is mentioned in the opener: “Sometimes I think pain is just a lack of understanding / If we could only understand it all, would we feel no pain?” This is the vantage point from which we can assume Cole narrates from “KOD” to “Window Pain.” On the latter, which it helps to note is subtitled "Outro," but is not the final track, we’re met with the closing sentiments, shared by a child who believes that all our trials and tribulations are a result of God “teaching us a lesson that we need to learn.”

Contrary to popular opinion, on true closer “1985,” this drawn-out concept comes at a halt, as Cole then takes the time to kick game to rap's upstarts. This leaves his meditation on addiction to conclude one song earlier: on “Window Pain,” hence why the song is also subtitled “Outro.”

With the theory at hand, "1985" could very well just be a teaser (or "Intro," per its subtitle) for Cole’s next project, The Fall Off. Which could be the three-quel to his mixtape series: The Come Up and The Warm Up. So, conceptually, K.O.D. is mapped out from its title track to “Window Pain,” with “1985” possibly being a bonus of sorts.

If played in reverse, though, sans “1985,” the narrative continues, but through a different vantage point. In this order, “Window Pain” starts things off and herein lies Cole’s memory museum being triggered by a bleak tale told by a child whose cousin was shot and killed in front of her home. That story ignites something in Cole to go down memory lane—a place that possesses many (un)forgotten demons. He even goes on to note how the story struck a chord in him, rapping, “The little girl I met this past summer said 'Don’t forget me' / I won’t forget you, how could I with all you went through?” From there, he slips into a series of feelings that altogether finds a man attempting to sow sparingly what shall reap sparingly. In other words, he is coming to terms with the root of his pain. Interestingly enough, “Window Pain”—again, while listening to it in reverse order—goes on to reveal the emotive triggers that are spilled throughout the album.

The “all I wanna do is kill the man that made my momma cry” refrain is a nod to “Once an Addict” and the various kiLL Edward appearances. The latter, Edward, as revealed in the Vulture interview, is inspired by Cole’s stepfather. “All I wanna do is touch a platinum plaque and celebrate” essentially mirrors the themes on “ATM” and “Motiv8.” When he spits “all I wanna do is keep my niggas out the yellow tape,” the songs “The Cut Off”and “FRIENDS” come to mind, while “all I ever wanted was to hear them bitches holler back / get some money plus respect and now look, I got all of that” speaks to the themes of “KOD,” “Photograph” and “BRACKETS.”

Whether in reverse or original order, Cole’s K.O.D, as a whole, is greater than the sum of its parts. It's a solid execution from a man who understands the power and capabilities that live through his platform as a voicebox. While this theory will sure draw debates, it does add value to the depth contained within the music and adds extra volume to the testament he shared in the minutes before the album's release:

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