J. Cole - "4 Your Eyez Only" Album Review
It surely is quite something to witness an artist’s growth. It seems like only yesterday that Jermaine Cole was the freshest face in Hip-Hop; the first signee to Jay Z's Roc Nation label who caught people’s attention for his ear-grabbing verse on Hov's “A Star is Born” off of The Blueprint III and his acclaimed sophomore mixtape, The Warm Up. He wowed again with 2010’s Friday Night Lights and was poised for imminent superstardom. It took him a while to reach it, but with his third LP, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, he cemented his place as a Hip-Hop heavyweight who could move units seemingly at ease with the aforementioned record going double platinum with little promotion.
J. Cole has earned an enormous fan base - with a group of detractors just as grand on the other side - who are resentful of Cole’s fan base giving Cole what is in their mind, underserved praise. And that has shown in the critical assessments of Cole’s albums; while they sell well, they always receive mixed reviews and not the acclaim that peers like Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper earn. In the eyes of many, Cole hasn’t delivered a body of work comparable to his mixtapes of old where he exhibited more urgency and hunger. So after three mixtapes and three studio albums spanning a near ten-year career, J. Cole drops his fourth LP, 4 Your Eyez Only.
As many already know, 4 Your Eyez Only tells the parallel tale of Cole’s transition into marriage and fatherhood whilst exploring the life of a deceased childhood friend of Cole’s from Fayetteville, North Carolina who experienced similar things through a different lifestyle. The album’s opener, “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, a nice Hemingway reference, by the way, begins with Cole’s cracked, pain-filled singing voice that was riddled throughout 2014 Forest Hills Drive. Cole delivers the urgency and unease of a paranoid man and impending death that is explored more fully on the album’s closer. Cole’s vocals are accompanied by jittery shakers, a subtle xylophone, sparse horns and somber strings, exemplifying the mind state of a man on borrowed time.
“Immortal” continues the album’s parallel concept, foreshadowing his friend’s death and speaking of the concept of immortality. One lives on through songs, history, even shirts. The legacy one leaves behind makes one immortal even after their body has expired. This cut is energetic, with its eerie flutes becoming a great accompaniment to Cole’s aggressive delivery.
The project takes a spongier approach on “Deja Vu” where Cole brings the themes of past opus “Dreams” over a beat that people recognize as Bryson Tiller’s Grammy-nominated “Exchange”. It’s a wonder that even though Tiller’s T R A P S O U L album released in 2015 that Cole and his team still thought it was a good idea to leave it on the LP. Regardless, the song itself is catchy and Cole’s melodies are good enough to catch the listener, but the sudden dissipation of furor that the first two tracks had is noticeable and it occurs far too early, interrupting the momentum of this project.
The piano-laden “Ville Mentality” contains one of the best melodies of this entire LP, which immediately gets completely ruined by Cole’s awful singing on its hook. It’s tough to listen to and stands out on a track that gets everything else right: the smooth background vocals, the solemn strings and the ironic line “Dirt on my name, never”. “She’s Mine Pt. 1” features an absolutely beautiful string section and muffled keys as Cole - tolerably, this time - sings about his wife, and then his newborn daughter on “She’s Mine Pt. 2” where he gets more detailed on American consumerism and the social media age when he expresses: “We just swiping shit here, we don’t love, we just liking shit here”.
The 2Pac inspired “Change” delves into just that, and the difficulty it takes to do so. Dreamville signee, Ari Lennox, contributes with some neat background vocals as Cole reveals the fate of the other character on this record: his place as drug kingpin gets toppled as he’s murdered at the age of 22. It’s an interesting dichotomy as Cole and his homie’s lives play out similarly: They both lived in Fayetteville, both found love, both had a daughter, but only one survived. That’s the concept. And it’s really good. It's not deep and it doesn't take a rich mind to figure it out, but it's good. The tie-ins are good too.
The issue with 4 Your Eyez Only is Cole himself. The music and concept of this project are much more interesting than Cole himself, who, besides the first two cuts and the album closer, doesn’t deliver any kind of urgency or outward emotion. The majority of this record is a dormant volcano that was waiting to erupt. “Neighbors”, one of the highlights of the record, resuscitates the record’s blasé stupor, with a charismatic hook, and lively production that hasn’t hit this hard since “Immortal”.
Unfortunately, the somewhat puzzling “Foldin Clothes” brings everything crashing back down to earth. Cole attempts to exemplify the “simpler things in life”, the little things that keep him in bliss while his wife is pregnant: Netflix, doing laundry, and drinking almond milk. Almond milk, in particular, is so special that he needed to rhyme it with itself. This is seemingly quite an evolution for Cole, as he now enjoys doing laundry: one of the most mundane tasks in everyday living. While the song obviously means well, it lacks any depth or nuance and is completely unchallenging. Take a lyric in the hook for instance: “Baby, I wanna do the right thing/feels so much better than the wrong thing.” Well, no shit Cole. The truth of the matter is that almond milk isn’t special, neither is doing laundry nor folding clothes. What it is is cringeworthy. Neither the track’s rousing bassline nor reflective outro isn’t enough to forgive how corny this cut is.
The album closer, “4 Your Eyez Only” wraps up the concept with an abundance of detail on the near nine-minute title track. Its somber horns and low bassline set the mood for the grand finale in what becomes one of the best songs J. Cole has ever written. From the flows, the lyrics, his delivery in which he raps from his fallen friend’s regretful perspective for the first three verses and then his own on verse four. Here Cole explains to his friend’s daughter that her father was a real man because he loved her. He also explains that this album wasn’t meant for anyone but for her, for her eyes only.
It’s a great sentiment to end this record, and this is a track that saves this project from being completely underwhelming. 4 Your Eyez Only introduces a great concept that the music surrounding it makes it sound uninteresting. Sonically, it doesn’t build to it properly, for the most part, it lacks emotion and urgency. The closer was fantastic and carries the weight and emotion that other tracks were missing. When the depiction of a young black man’s untimely murder translates as whole through this project as indifference, the artist has missed their mark. For example, Run the Jewels exemplified the tragedy and hollowness of loss in one song more than J. Cole’s entire project did. While Run the Jewels are great, this shouldn’t be the case with someone with Cole’s talent. This is by no means a bad album; this is J. Cole’s most daring, most ambitious LP to date: when it shines, it shines very brightly. However, when it gets murky, it's very, very tough to get through.