Every year we debate about it. At the barber shop, the classroom, the in-office water cooler, the club, at brunch, and most commonly in the group chat.
But this year is different. This year, there is no discussion. In his December 2018 freestyle, Jermaine told us that he had the album of the year. And his proclamation was as correct as it was prescient.
With K.O.D., which would go platinum just 8 months after its release, J. Cole secured his third straight platinum record, all of which were recorded with no guest features. But simply going platinum is not enough to earn album of the year in 2018, a year that rivals 2016 for the best year of Hip-Hop music releases over the past decade. With drops like AstroWorld, DAYTONA, Oxnard, Scorpion, Swimming, Invasion of Privacy and HiveMind, you had to do more than just go platinum.
But beyond the hundreds of millions of streams, it is the combination of lyrical content, musical production and overall message that make K.O.D. the year’s most power tape. Through this project, J. Cole foreshadowed a headline that would later dominate the discourse of the Hip-Hop community as we witnessed the tragic passing of one of the genre’s brightest stars (and legends, I will argue). This is why K.O.D. is my Album of The Year.
Today, Hip-Hop has shifted its focus to talk about the drug culture of our times, one that is more concerned with drug consumption than drug dealing.
K.O.D. tackles something that is often acknowledged in our society, but seldom understood: mental health. The issue of mental health has been exacerbated by technology, with our generation developing greater attachments to their cellular devices and social media feeds than to their own complex emotional realities. Cole critiqued the prevalence of this issue and challenged us to find a better way to heal from our emotional trauma.
This conversation in Hip-Hop has been around for a while, but perhaps the easiest way to pinpoint its origins is to circle back to an artist by the name of Scott Mescudi, aka Kid Cudi.
The Current State of Hip-Hop
Hip-Hop, and specifically the themes of its social commentary, has evolved significantly since its inception. The genre has gone from DJ Kool Herc’s Back to School Jam, to being about the message (in songs like “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five), to being about our people’s oppression (much like “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy), to the drug dealing hustler and their environment (either living by the “Ten Crack Commandments” like Biggie, Jay and Pusha-T or slanging out the trap like Tip, Jeezy, and 2 Chainz).
Today, Hip-Hop has shifted its focus to talk about the drug culture of our times, one that is more concerned with drug consumption than drug dealing. Much of today’s lyrical content is derived from celebrities struggling to balance fame with the challenges of everyday life we all experience as human beings. Often, the resulting imbalance causes artists, and by extension their lyrics, to turn to drugs to cope.
Arguably, Kid Cudi started this conversation with his 2009 album Man On The Moon: The End of Day, and this theme has kept pace through today with albums like Kids See Ghost by Kid Cudi and The Guy in The Red Hat (Kanye West) and Swimming by Mac Miller.
Though Hip-Hop’s content has changed, one thing that has remained constant is its influence. Hip-Hop’s reach is greater today than ever before, as evidence by a Rolling Stone piece earlier this year noting Hip-Hop’s dominance as the number one genre in music, having leapfrogged Rock back in 2017. This, in part, is due to artists having easier access to infrastructure to release a slew of new music, hence the generation of Soundcloud rappers was born.
In many ways, music festivals can serve as a breeding ground for addiction, with people desiring to carry the feelings of drug-induced euphoria in the context of a concert over to their everyday lives.
But also contributing to this rise in popularity is a burgeoning music festival scene. Festival culture is comprised of having a great time, listening to several of your favorite acts, and for some partaking in recreational drugs. From popping Percs (percocets), Molly (MDMA), Shrooms (psychedelic mushrooms), X (MDMA), or if you’re feeling dangerous, candy flipping (mixing LSD and MDMA… yikes), the music festival landscape is littered with a dangerous combination of recreational street drugs (and let’s just say a lot of kids play in the street in the summer).
Complicating matters, you have artists like Future spitting “Mask Off” at you with a hook that boasts, “Percocet, Molly Percocet!” on loop. All of a sudden you find yourself doing the cyber goth so hard, sweating, further dehydrating yourself. Of course your brain is not signaling “Hey, you need water” because the Molly pill you took earlier has kicked in and the next thing you know you’re waking up in a hospital hooked up to multiple IVs.
This sounds like a horror film, but sadly it is a reality. And this phenomenon is not new. Dating back to 2014, Daily Beast writer Abby Haglage captured the sentiment well in her article entitled “Why Molly is Especially Deadly At Summer Music Festivals”, which detailed the drug-related deaths of multiple kids on Molly. Fast forward to this past year, Ryan Middleton documented a number of deaths at festivals over the span of a week in September. He cites 12 alleged drug-related deaths in his opening paragraph of his piece for Magnetic Magazine.
While these are only a few examples, there is no question that the drug-friendly festival culture reinforces and further fuels the drug culture promoted by Hip-Hop. In many ways, music festivals can serve as a breeding ground for addiction, with people desiring to carry the feelings of drug-induced euphoria in the context of a concert over to their everyday lives.
Addiction is nothing to play with. Some will call it a mental illness, others will say it is a disease. Either way, addiction causes a person to become a prisoner trapped inside of their condition. Some are able to seek help and escape, while far more often addicts end up paying the ultimate price – their lives.
April 20th, colloquially referred to as “4/20”, is a notorious day in the drug community. Aficionados call it a “holiday.” Fans use the day as an excuse to partake. And others may celebrate without even knowing its origins simply because the legend has grown so large.
And this is where things can become dangerous. There’s Really A Wolf rapper Russ highlighted the problem of drug use at Hangout Music Festival by rocking a t-shirt reading “How Much Xans and Lean Do You Have To Do Before You Realize You’re A Fu*king Loser”. Following the show, he also tweeted a picture of himself wearing the shirt with a caption reading “After show. Message.”.
This jab stirred controversy. Artist Freddo Santana responded in by saying “Until I stop thinking about my dead homies and the trauma I’ve been through in my life that’s when I’ll stop.” Another artist chimed in saying, “I drink a pint [of lean] a week & I’m cool as fuck.”
This is the disconnect.
Music has the power to influence, and the drug culture perpetuated through Hip-Hop is planting a dangerous seed. The t-shirt was a shot at impressionable youth who hear Future & Juice WRLD’s album WRLD on Drugs and think drug use is cool. They think, “Oh, I’m gonna pop pills because Future is doing it!”, and next thing they know they are addicted and have a real problem that is difficult to undo. A momentary escape from reality can slip into a condition that ends their life.
On 4/20/2018, J. Cole dropped K.O.D., the most important album of the year. Inspired by Kendrick’s DAMN, Cole opined about the overall trauma kids go through and took a shot at today’s drug culture. Cole rattles off lyrics like:
“How I grew up only a few would of loved, I remember my first view of the blood, I’m hanging out and they shoot up the club, my homie got pharmaceutical plug, I smoke the drug and it run through my vein, I think it’s working, it’s numbing the pain. Don’t give a fuck and I’m somewhat insane.”
The point Cole is making with his album is not to tell the youth to stop using drugs. Of course, there are documented benefits to certain prescribed medication. MDMA in its nature is an antidepressant, pain killers can provide necessary benefits to those in chronic pain, and marijuana has saved people from illnesses, the likes of cancer and many others.
Rather, Jermaine’s point is for people to choose wisely, arguing that there is a better route to dealing with and healing from pain. He highlights this in his song “FRIENDS”, which follows a powerful track titled “Once An Addict (Interlude)” where he discusses his struggle with his mother’s alcohol addiction.
The track “FRIENDS” – which serves as a microcosm for the larger album – features only one verse, but a close reading of its lyrics illustrates why K.O.D. is the album of the year:
(Side note, I highly suggest throwing the track on while reading through the lyrics below)
“I wrote this shit to talk about the word addiction
To my nigga, I hope you listening, I hope you listening
This is for the whole fucking Ville I hope you’re listening.
Smoking medical grade, but I ain’t got prescription
All the way in Cali where they ain’t got precipi-
-tation, feeling like the only one that made it
And I hate it for my niggas ’cause they ain’t got ambition
Fuck did you expect, you can blame it on condition
Blame it on crack, you can blame it on the system
Blame it on the fact that 12 got jurisdiction
To ride around in neighborhoods that they ain’t ever lived in
Blame it on the strain that you feel when daddy missing
Blame it on Trump shit, blame it on Clinton
Blame it on trap music and the politicians
Or the fact that every black boy wanna be Pippen
But they only got twelve slots on the Pistons
Blame it on the rain, Milli Vanilli with the disk skip
What I’m tryna say is the blame can go deep as seas
Just to blame ’em all I would need like twenty CD’s
There’s all sorts of trauma from drama that children see
Type of shit that normally would call for therapy
But you know just how it go in our community
Keep that shit inside it don’t matter how hard it be
Fast forward, them kids is grown and they blowing trees
And popping pills due to chronic anxiety
I been saw the problem but stay silent ’cause I ain’t Jesus
This ain’t no trial if you desire go higher please
But fuck that now I’m older I love you ’cause you my friend
Without the drugs I want you be comfortable in your skin
I know you so I know you still keep a lot of shit in
You running from yourself and you buying product again
I know you say it helps and no I’m not trying to offend
But I know depression and drug addiction don’t blend
Reality distorts and then you get lost in the wind
And I done seen the combo take niggas off the deep end
One thing about your demons they bound to catch up one day
I’d rather see you stand up and face them than run away
I understand this message is not the coolest to say
But if you down to try it I know of a better way
August 3rd, 2018 was a huge release day in Hip-Hop. Houston native Travis Scott blessed us with the long-awaited AstroWorld. Bompton’s own YG released Stay Dangerous, and our brother Mac Miller gave us a gem with Swimming.
A month later on September 7th, the Hip-Hop world suffered a devastating loss when Malcolm “Mac” Miller unexpectedly died of a drug overdose. I remember anticipating the release of Swimming and being excited for the album set to follow the cult classic Divine Feminine. In what seemed like a promising next step for Mac, Swimming is a beautiful album that showcased he had finally found his lane as a pure musician in the industry. The loss was devastating.
Mac was the leader of our generation’s “Backpack Rap”. He was a huge catalyst for acts like Vince Staples, Earl Sweatshirt, Syd, Odd Future, ThunderCat, Anderson .Paak, SchoolBoy Q, this list could go on forever. Mac was a shining light, but even the seemingly happiest of people have their own struggles.
No other project accomplished as much as Cole’s – offering its own state of the union on the culture, opening the aperture on taboo issues, challenging us to be introspective and begin healing, and packing all of this into a beautiful sonic journey.
We can track the beginning of Mac’s issues to some harsh criticism he received over one of his early projects Blue Slide Park, the follow-up to his KIDS mixtape. Pitchfork called him a “crushingly bland and intolerable version of Wiz Khalifa”, which was certainly not a ringing endorsement. Nonetheless, Mac’s celebrity continued to rise after Blue Slide Park, and like most celebrities he moved west to California.
Years later in a 2016 FADER interview called “Stopped Making Excuses”, he shared that his experimentation with drugs started when he moved to California and dropped Macadellic in 2012. He admitted that the amount of freedom he had was beautiful, but too much of a good thing can turn sour. Staying inside all day led him to smoking weed, getting high and making music, and over time weed was not enough to fulfill his escape. Combine this insatiability with a seemingly never-ending amount of money and access, things quickly morphed into a slippery slope.
Later in 2012, Mac offered another moment that upon reflection could have been interpreted as a cry for help. During a USTREAM in 2012, Mac sat in his bathtub, fully clothed, and in a rant asked, “Does it look like I’m on drugs? Drugs are on me.”
In the same FADER interview cited earlier, Mac admitted, “I’d rather be the corny white rapper than the drugged out mess that can’t even get out of his house. Overdosing isn’t cool. There’s no legendary romance with overdosing, you just die.”
This FADER interview came shortly after Mac’s release of his third studio album GO:OD AM. Later in 2016, while in a relationship with pop star Ariana Grande, he dropped Divine Feminine, which contained a number one hit in collaboration with Anderson .Paak called “Dang!”. The next album in Mac’s discography came following his breakup with Ariana Grande… Swimming.
To be clear, in no way am I suggesting that Ariana is at fault for Mac’s overdose. Rather, this is a demonstration of how powerful the emotions of love and pain can be; we need to find healthy ways to cope with the highs and lows.
Swimming is a story about grappling with emotion and trying to gain control of one’s issues. Mac opens the album with “Come Back To Earth” where he admits to wanting to find a way out of his own head and grappling with his regrets (which manifest in the form of text messages he probably should not send).
The most alarming song on the album in my opinion is “Perfecto”. As the friend in my circle who always says everything is “okay” when it is not, this song is something I relate to on a personal level. With bars like, “I don’t say it, I swallow it, when living off borrowed time.” The hook goes on to sing, “It ain’t perfect, but I don’t mind, because on the surface I look so fine. But really I’m buggin’ buggin’ making something out of nothing.” Admitting that if he stops swimming, he’ll probably just float. I feel you Mac, trust me.
The follow up to “Perfecto” is “Self Care” where Mac admits that eventually everything will be alright. The second half of “Self Care” is what he calls “Oblivion”, admitting he was doing too much and he was caught in the oblivion of his high.
The album is a somber reminder that our favorite artists are human, just like us. They go through their own emotional trials and tribulations, just like us. And they seek comfort for their emotional trauma – often in the wrong ways, like drug abuse – just like us.
After his death, the Hip-Hop community collectively mourned Mac by holding the “Mac Miller: A Celebration of Life” concert in California on Halloween. The star-studded act list was comprised of artists whose lives Mac affected most, from Travis Scott to Vince Staples to John Mayer and ThunderCat.
Many Forms of Addiction
There are many forms of addiction: drugs, clout, crime, even love. Cole alludes to this on the “Intro” of K.O.D., admitting that he is trapped inside himself. He informs us that life brings us pain, and that it is up to us to choose how best to deal with it.
Our generation faces an unprecedented challenge around addiction. Not only are we confronting a drug culture whose appeal has grown to all-time heights through the influence of Hip-Hop, but we are also navigating a new form of addiction, one that results from the proliferation and ubiquity of social media. The 21st century has ushered in an era of vanity, with people demonstrating an insatiable appetite for chasing “clout” and “likes”.
Take, for example, the internet sensations BoonkGang and Tekashi 69. After building cult followings online – much of which was accomplished by doing and saying outlandish things to generate views, clicks, and likes – each of these artists spun into a narcissistic cycle of addition. In order to stay “high”, these artists needed to continue feeding their dangerously large egos through greater and greater acts of foolishness.
But as with drug addiction, the pursuit of the “high” ultimately results in self-destructive behavior. Tekashi 69 is currently on trial for racketeering charges and is looking at a minimum of 25 years in jail. To date, Boonk has faced near overdose multiple times, documented most vividly in an interview with Adam22 on No Jumper where he passes out at the end of the interview.
I remember seeing responses to the Boonk interview on Twitter, the majority of which were jokes and people laughing. Do we not see this kid is dying?
Famous Dex is the most recent artist seen passing out on his IG Live while playing new music, and once again the majority of the comments are jokes. It’s all fun and games until you either become addicted or worse yet, die.
Mac Miller’s impact on the music industry, and more importantly on people’s lives, will never be forgotten. Unfortunately, a dangerous culture of drug abuse led to his heart wrenching passing. This only further cements J. Cole’s message.
In a 2018 interview with Angie Martinez, Cole alluded to the power of music. Following the release of his album, he received a DM on Instagram from a kid telling him a story about the relationship this kid had with his mother, who was an addict. It was 4/20 and the kid racked up on drugs for the day, but after listening to K.O.D. he realized he was doing the same thing his mom was doing, he was running away from his layered, internal issues. For this kid, the album served as an important reminder that there are other ways to heal. Getting over pain is not easy and there is no one direct answer, but there is a better alternative than abusing drugs.
This is the brilliance of K.O.D. and is why it outshined all of its competition. No other project accomplished as much as Cole’s – offering its own state of the union on the culture, opening the aperture on taboo issues, challenging us to be introspective and begin healing, and packing all of this into a beautiful sonic journey.
Oh, and did I mention no guest features?
Mac Miller’s untimely death only further amplified K.O.D.’s message. Cole shared this connection with fans as he paid tribute in an emotional dedication during his show in Vegas following Mac’s tragic passing.
LA-based band The Internet held an interview with Apple Beats 1 Radio the day after Mac passed to celebrate his life. Syd, lead singer of the band, made it a point to say, “Do not think that Malcolm was sad, he wasn’t. He was happy. This was a total accident.” Her words are a constant reminder that no matter our intentions with drug use, things can go awry in a hurry if we are not careful.
If you feel like you need a drug to escape your problems, I understand. Just know that there are better ways to deal with your pain. Therapy works for some, meditation works for others. There are many solutions, but ultimately it comes down to an individual understanding of what will work best for you.
If you need any reassurance that you are not alone, listen to Mac’s “2009” on Swimming and know everything will be okay.
Just please, choose wisely.
“I do not snort powder, I might take a sip.
I might hit the blunt, but I’m liable to trip.
I ain’t poppin’ no pill, but you do as you wish.”
J. Cole, “Middle Child”