Trap or Conscious Rap? Thoughts on KOD and Mindful Choices

Mylan Gray, Stanford University

If you asked me two weeks ago about my 4/20 plans, the word article would not have fallen from my lips. On that holy day, however, I took to Facebook to fend off the hype beasts and haters from trashing J. Cole’s fifth studio blessing. Just as any loyal J. Cole fan would have done: sober or otherwise. Participating in the heated debates about Cole’s lyricism and content versus trap’s sound and aesthetic, I began to feel like I was missing something. Any given Saturday you can catch me hittin’ the folks on every down beat and going ham to Cardi. Why was I so ready to fend off trash talkers from KOD, when a good album doesn’t need a defense?

Hip hop and RnB has finally overtaken rock in terms of sales. In the last year alone, rap has seen a 72% increase in growth on streaming platforms, which is almost half of the music industry’s 18.3 billion dollars in revenue. There is no question that hip hop sells; KOD itself broke the record for streaming in its first 24 hours. The question is what is it that we are buying and what does it do for us?

In KOD, J. Cole intervenes in the popular trajectory of hip-hop towards hype, beats and sales with lyricism, soul, and content. Cole makes an empathetic appeal towards rappers and listeners alike to be mindful of how we use sex, drugs, and money to cope with pain. By critiquing consumption and dissing an unmentioned lil’ someone, J. Cole implicates the entire rapidly growing subgenre of Trap music.

In the album trailer for KOD, J. Cole stated that KOD stands for Kids on Drugs, King Overdosed, and Kill Our Demons. This trailer for KOD is essential to understand how certain songs adopt personas to make that argument that we should “be honest with ourselves, look in the mirror or look inside” and investigate the sources of our suffering.

Many have mocked Motiv8 and ATM, as a piss poor attempt at Trap sound. Some have even stated it as a reason why the rapper is “boring” or “fake woke.” On some levels, even as a fan, I agree. The arguably most lit songs on KOD are pretty mild. Crooked Smile Cole does not authentic in his attempt at the sound, but that’s the point; both songs are satirical as hell. In J. Cole’s ATM music video, he has created an alternate world that looks more like someone’s codeine dreams in wonderland than earth proper. In a crown and flying throne, Cole (King Overdose) taunts the world with money on a hook while Kids with creepy black eyeballs fiend for money. Between Cole trapped in a fashionable straight jacket in a padded money asylum, or one-armed Cole falling from the sky and dying after chasing King Overdose’s dollar, it’s hard not to see it’s obvious critique of our money hungriness. Which is ironically privileged to say seeing as Cole is won’t be hurting for cash anytime soon. But like Love Yourz, there’s something here. “The good news is ***** you came a long way, the bad news is ***** you went the wrong way, think being broke was better.” It’s true, KOD doesn’t have nearly as many bangers as the Invasion of Privacy or Culture II, but it has something that feeds the soul.

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Hip hop has always been criticized, no matter what form it comes in. From people criticizing kids that were scratching up good albums and missing the good parts to those who thought gangsta rap was too violent and vulgar, it hasn’t always been loved by everyone. The black people fighting criticism to rise to musical prominence mirrors our centuries old fight for acceptance and right to be authentically ourselves without threat of violence. Sadly, sometimes the least accepting people are our own kind. Joe Buddens 2017 interview with Lil Yachty marked a key rift between young trap artists paving the way of a new sound and the hard, lyrical preference of the old-school rap game. Now we expect old heads to trash our new sound. Now, emboldened by a conscious rap album from our spotlighted conscious rapper that also calls out these young rappers, some of us have begun to take a condescending moral high ground in music preferences, but is it necessary? Are we feeding into the anti-black tropes that whiteness has held for decades against rap by making carving out an arena of respectable rap?

KOD can be moralistic and cheesy at times. I’ll admit that. The theme Kill Our Demons is pretty cheesy itself. Much like crack is whack, “meditate don’t medicate” is pure A-grade, pasteurized cheese, but is it not important in its function? J. Cole has showed us album after album that he, as a Black man in the rap industry, is not afraid to be vulnerable. On Kevin’s Heart, he embodies someone who is tempted to cheat on number one and wifey material. Cleverly referencing For Your Eyez Only, he plays with the tension of feeling fake and needing more than what he’s got. His grapples with lust and self-loathing while the demons of temptation bite at his heels. In Once an Addict, Cole drops the personas and gets real with us about watching his own mother struggle with addiction. He gives us a window into he was coping with pain, which ranged from wanting to “ kill the man that made my momma cry” to wanting to stack them bands. He normalizes this struggle and encourages a mindful choice.

In the rising rift between Trap and conscious rap, the black community is seemingly right in middle of it and made to choose a side, while the whites watch. Inevitably, both styles are going to reflect on the black community even if the rappers themselves are not black. However, I don’t believe this means we have to trade authenticity in for respectability.  In a world where the music industry is owned mostly by white moguls that could care less about black bodies, and where division and beef among Blacks is highly profitable, I don’t have to choose Biggie or Tupac. Spotify has a que option and both estates get paid. What’s important is that I feel empowered to mindfully choose what is right for me: choose | wisely.

As I sat on 4/20 anxiously anticipating smoking some of the finest Cali kush I have bought yet, the irony of listening to KOD was quite salient, but I could appreciate it. I can hold esskeetit, skrrt skrrt, and oh wait in one ear and meditate don’t medicate in the other. There is a beauty in both that is empowering. After all mindfully enjoying is different than medicating. My impact matters, but only in so far as my access to agency in my choices. Agency requires some level of cognizance of my intentions. If my shaming others stops them from mindfully exploring that agency, maybe I should take a lesson from KOD too. “To tell them what they should do, who the **** am I?” There is no right or wrong, just music preferences, but Cole’s prompt for mindfulness has come at the right time as this rift widens.

Mylan Gray is a writer, performer, and music artist studying African and African-American studies at Stanford University. Follow his artistic journey on Instagram or Twitter @allfounded.