J. Cole performs at Capital One Arena during his KOD Tour. (Kyle Gustafson/For The Washington Post)

The huge banner obscuring the stage ahead of J. Cole’s performance at Capital One Arena on Monday night spelled out the three meanings behind the title of the North Carolina rapper’s most recent album, “KOD”:




“KOD,” Cole’s fifth consecutive No. 1 album, was released (strategically, no doubt) on April 20. Each meaning alludes to the struggle to regain control (that which was lost to drugs, alcohol or ego; in the worst cases, all three) while coping with life’s pain. Some interpreted this as writ-large criticism of a new generation of rappers who seem to glorify their drug use and opt to live myopically, for the moment. It furthered the argument that J. Cole, 33, was nothing more than a pedantic rap snob who looked down on the younger generation. But on Monday night, he reasserted that he isn’t above the struggle.

J. Cole is still navigating the confusion. And while what may come across as dry, surface-level lecturing annoys his detractors, Cole’s willingness to ditch the veil of celebrity — even as a notoriously private person away from music — and expose his own vulnerabilities is what endears him to his legions of fans and makes him a superior live performer.

After spelling out each meaning of “KOD,” Cole explained that he’s still trying to conquer his own demons. “That’s when you look your bulls--- right in the face, you overcome it and stop running from it,” he said. Following his performance of “Photograph,” during which rectangular screens displayed pixelated images of women as Cole detailed the difficulty of navigating love in the social media era, he described “KOD” as coming to grips with the reality that the people closest to you can hurt you the most. This was the prelude to “The Cut Off,” where Cole faced off with Kill Edward — an alter ego modeled after his stepfather.

(Kyle Gustafson/For The Washington Post)

(Kyle Gustafson/For The Washington Post)

Sticking with the theme of loved ones hurting each other, he performed “Kevin’s Heart.” In the song, Cole uses infidelity (chiefly, Kevin Hart’s 2017 scandal) as a metaphor for addiction.

Because J. Cole loves a good mid-show monologue, he took a moment to dissect the myth of overnight success. His transition from the first signee to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation imprint in 2009 to one of the most commercially viable figures in hip-hop nearly a decade later happened incrementally. He recalled the journey by performing clusters of songs from his previous albums, including hits from 2011’s “Cole World: The Sideline Story,” 2013’s “Born Sinner” and 2016’s “4 Your Eyez Only.”

In between, Cole performed two songs from 2014’s “2014 Forest Hills Drive” that best framed his anti-celebrity allure: “Love Yourz” and “Apparently.” The latter was a playful admission of his flaws, but “Love Yourz” — during which he found a stool to sit on to reach levels of maximum sincerity — was a reminder to value life’s most precious aspects, primarily the people who care about you the most.

One line from “Love Yourz” was the most quietly stirring moment of the night, especially considering the concept behind “KOD”: “I’m tired of livin’ with demons ’cause they always inviting more.”

Fame is no insulation from inner turmoil. J. Cole’s willingness to share his own struggles (and the frank manner in which he does it) alienates some, but it’s also why he’s adored.