[The Chopping Block]: J. Cole's 'KOD' Sticks to a Winning Formula

[The Chopping Block]: J. Cole’s ‘KOD’ Sticks to a Winning Formula

In editorial, the chopping block by Darren GoodenLeave a Comment

Welcome to [istandard] and welcome to [The Chopping Block], where we respond and react to music from the creator point of view. In the tradition of our classic Track-By-Track series, we get into the beats, bpms, mix, arrangement, penmanship, vocal production, panning, low-passing, mixing, mastering and more. Respect the creators!

J. Cole proves again that the world is still Cole. We're going to break down his KOD album track by track. We will take a look at Cole's production and analyze the songwriting strategy to better understand why it is a formula that works for him.

It is truly a chore as the current industry environment makes it difficult to gain all the information about who worked on the music. We are going to do our job of uplifting songwriters and producers that have worked on this project no matter who and how many. Updates will be made, if new information is made accessible.

1. "Intro"

[Prod. J. Cole]

Is that a crackle effect I hear? We're starting off on a soulful note. It's story time.  We might be in for something positioned to be "deep." It's J. Cole, so it, makes sense that things might flow together, to some extent. That saxophone is smooth. I like he vocal production on "laughter" and "I love this." It sounds like a baby's voice which is what they're depicting. "Intro" contains a sample from "Love From the Sun", performed by Norman Connors.

2. "KOD"

[Prod. J. Cole]

I'm getting a more simple vibe from Cole on this one. The composition starts off with the 808 and follows basic drum patterns. He brings in a simple synth/pluck sounds that fill out the drums. It gives him room to rap his way through the track. That makes sense since that's What Cole would usually do, but doing it on trap-leaning sonics is interesting.

3. "Photograph"

[Prod. J. Cole]

Something about how that kick and 808 come together is nice. It's strong and solid. He its us with another simple composition. the drums are trap-inspired and his cadence on the verses are like some of the modern Hip Hop stars. I wonder why he took that route. Is this the direction he is going in artistically? Is this a jab to stylings of the artists around him?

4. "The Cut Off" ft. Kill Edward

[Prod. J. Cole, Blvk]

Okay, this feels a little more J. Cole-esque. We have classic drum samples and lightly low passed piano riffs. Genius describes Blvk as a Lo-Fi producer, and the sonics on this song hold true to that. The songs contains three samples from Bill Withers, Takehiro Honda, and Erykah Badu, but it's nothing that takes him out of his element.

5. "ATM" 

[Prod. J. Cole., Deputy]

I noticed something on "ATM." Cole is mixing trap drums with classic sounding leads and and melodies. It sounds like the stacked a clap and snare together. It's a subtle decision, but it's one that changes the feel depending on what you do. Most of us have the same sounds floating around the internet, so it's wise to put your sound designer hat on and mix it up with snare and clap selection. Putting them together gives you a new sound entirely. I hear that crackle on the low passed section and ending. It's another subtle choice unless that somehow came in the rendering of the audio. "ATM" contains a sample from "I'll Never Stop Loving You" performed by Ahmad Jamal. That piano riff is so happy in the original. It's interesting to listen to how J. Cole slows it down and couples it with the song to make it sound sad.

6. "Motiv8"

[Prod. J. Cole]

We have a another stacked snare and clap. I like the combo. Those are sounds I recall hearing a lot. It's refreshing, in a sense. "Motiv8" contains a sample from Crime Mob's "Knuck If You Buck" and Junior M.A.F.I.A.'s "Get Money." The "Get Money vocal is easy to hear, but if you're struggling to figure the Crime Mob sample, listen to the snares. One thing I have to say is that I'm feeling underwhelmed by the end of this track. I don't think it's a bad song. It's just that, J. Cole isn't utilizing any features on the album. That was expected, but the actual consumption of it makes you realize it. It might have been a good look to mix it up with another artist at this point in the sequencing.

7. "Kevin's Heart"

[Prod. T-Minus, Mark Pelli]

It's nice to hear J. Cole on a song he didn't produce. It gets me thinking that I'd like to hear more. It would be interesting to hear him flow on other producer's sounds. The distorted lead really does it for me. The next element that stands out is the hi hat composition and sound selection. There was a lo-fi direction taken on this track. It works well with the song's melancholy content.

8. "BRACKETS"

[Prod. J. Cole]

The Richard Pryor intro is clever. It fits with the song's content well. The chorus is so simple that I don't want to imagine it any other way. "Whoa, whoa, whoa. Yeah, yeah, yeah." There's a calming soulfulness in it all. I appreciate that simplistic take on songwriting here. Kill Edward isn't featured, but it sounds like they did some vocal processing in the same vain as his alter ego. The percussion section is a win for me here. Shakers, hats, and that woody snare combine to perfection.

9. "Once an Addict" - Interlude

[Prod. J. Cole]

Robotic/otherworldly vocal lady is back. "Once an Addict" contains a sample from "A Day in the Park," performed by Michał Urbaniak and Urszula Dudziak. It provides a smooth but eerie vibe for Cole to spit on.

10. "FRIENDS" ft. Kill Edward

[Prod. J. Cole, Childish Major]

The higher vocal layered under "cop another bag and smoke today" sounds like Pharrell. That's just an observation. The production is good, not because its complex, but because it fits the song's need. J. Cole seeks a lot of space to rap in most of his songs. He doesn't have a need for extremely lush sonics or a crowded soundscape. 

11. "Window Pain" (Outro)

[Prod. J. Cole]

J. Cole rides well in a mid tempo to slower range. "Window Pain" is at 75 bpm. This speed allows him to dominate the narrative in a sense. His raps take priority. We can also see this due to the song structure, he spits one long surrounded by two choruses.

12. "1985(Intro to The Fall Off)

[Prod. J. Cole]

Cole ends the album with "1985" where we find him talking to the next rap generation. "1985" contains an interpolation of "We Don't Care", performed by Kanye West, and a sample from "Couches", performed by Frank Dukes. From the start of the track, Cole employs the sample. It is a very drowned out, pitch-lowered usage, but listen closely and you will hear it. Fun Fact: Kanye's "Real Friends" also samples "Couches."


J. Cole knows himself. He knows himself to the point that it pisses off people who aren't actually fans of him. He has long entered a phase of his career where he can do what he wants and not have to worry about the status quo or whatever casual listeners think.

A macro, one word description of J. Cole's typical production style is open. It is present on KOD, also. When I say "open," I'm referring to the composition and space on the songs. He doesn't delve heavily in lush, full soundscapes. At times, he leans towards lo-fi styles. He doesn't allow the instruments and samples to take up too much room. He needs space for the final instrument, which is his voice. His lyrical content needs room to fit into the song's composition and sound spectrum.

I would definitely love to see J. Cole collaborate with more producers and featured artists. It would be interesting to hear him on different styles and drums, in general. If he mixed it up with a number of other producers, I think the fans would enjoy the variation. 

I like the position J. Cole is in where he doesn't have to heavily collaborate with others. If I had a large fan base that consumed my work, no matter what it was, I might create in the same way he does. Think about all the publishing and splits he gets to maintain. J. Cole is a case study in honing one's craft and playing the long game. He knows his audience, delivers the goods, and wins. His formula and strategy are a winning recipe.

About the Author
Darren Gooden

Darren Gooden

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[istandard] Editor / Content Specialist

Darren Gooden
[istandard] Editor / Content Specialist