Note: My music reviews will always be “late.” It is my belief that albums should be listened to in different moods, settings, and after extended breaks, all while conditioning yourself to accept what you were given as opposed to what you wanted. Only then can you give a legitimate and honest critique of the material.
Before I get into this, let me clear the air about something: I have never liked J. Cole. He’s had a few decent singles here and there, but overall, the massive image of him being Hip Hop’s “savior,” which was thrust upon him by his fanbase, never really fit the bill, in my opinion. Don’t get me wrong, I believe Cole has a lot of strong pro-Black beliefs that stem from his upbringing, I think he’s a smart individual, and I think he plays an important role among his contemporaries. However, his musical efforts have always felt a little shallow to me, a little half-baked… Until now.
4 Your Eyez Only is Cole’s fourth studio album, coming two years after his much lauded 2014 Forest Hills Drive. While the latter was bloated both in its run time and with the faux-deep lyrics that often plague Cole’s work, 4 Your Eyez Only is a tight, concise 45 minutes. However, what Jermaine does with those 45 minutes is greater than anything he’s attempted thus far, which is ironic considering this is his shortest record to date. The difference here is purpose and intent, because this album is more than just a collection of random songs, it’s a concept album, and if I may, it’s one of the most coherent concept albums I’ve ever heard.
While most concept albums tend to be ambiguous in nature, 4 Your Eyez only is very direct, with a story that plays out as more of an audiobook. Now, I’ve always loved the idea of concept albums, but despite how great some of them are, they never really delivered on what I was looking for, which is what made this record such a surprise for me. There’s a clear story being told, and while some may debate the finer points, there are really only two instances where we’re clearly hearing Cole rap from his perspective. Everything else is told from the perspective of James, our anti-hero.
I say “anti-hero” because, by all accounts, James lives a rough life, as he’s fallen victim to the same trap a lot of young Black males fall into. He’s rough, he’s rebellious, and he’s selling drugs. However, as the listener, there is this overwhelming sense of pain, with Cole embodying this character in a way that feels almost autobiographical. His voice is constantly straining and cracking, and in “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” the album’s opening song, you’re hit with these lyrics:
“Tired of feeling low even when I’m high. Ain’t no way to live, do I wanna die? I don’t know! I don’t know!”
Those last “I don’t knows” are shouted with such earnestness that the pain James is feeling is palpable. When I first heard this song on release day, I hated it, as Cole’s sung vocals were so rough and off-putting, but you soon realize this was an intentional artistic choice, because it makes James vulnerable. Here, like at many points on this album, he feels like a like a person who is slowly losing a grip on his humanity and will to live. It’s more than just angst, it’s unfiltered desperation and sadness.
Still, this tone doesn’t last long, because as he points out later on “Foldin Clothes,” that mask of strong, male bravado needs to return in order to survive, which is why “Immortal” is ruthless and aggressive; showing not James the human, but James the hustler. Yet even through this aggression, there is still pain evident in his voice, further pointing to the forced nature of the proceedings. Our protagonist knows this system is bullshit, because if he wants to survive, he’s forced to “sell dope, rap, or go to NBA.” And all of this is backed up with these eerie woodwinds and off-kilter hi-hats that make the intensity and internal turmoil feel tangible.
Though its built on an emotional and negative premise, 4 Your Eyez Only isn’t really a story about defeatism. Instead, it’s about love, and how something so simple and innocent can make someone strive for more, making them hopeful for a life greater than their own. This is why it’s so important James falls in love on “Deja Vu,” because this is the first moment on the record where our protagonist actually feels the seed of hope being planted, as he falls head-over-heels for someone he meets at a club. While the intro and outro feel a little lazy here, the song itself is adorable as hell.
And it’s amazing how quick that love can manifest itself in a positive way. Following their meeting, “Ville Mentality” presents the listener with this light piano-led instrumental. The lyrics are a little bare by traditional Hip Hop standards, but his sung vocals give the impression of someone on the verge of a breakdown, as James begins questioning the cycle he’s trapped in. To top it off, when looking at the entire narrative, the interlude in the middle is enough to make the hair on the back of your neck stand on edge, especially considering the girl’s story was coincidence, because it gives the album’s message an incredible amount of weight and meaning.
If the seed of hope was planted on “Deja Vu,” the tree has sprouted on “She’s Mine Pt. 1,” as we’re led to believe the woman he was pursuing came around, and not only has he fallen in love with her, but she’s fallen in love with him, as well. It’s hard not to find joy in his happiness, because the man who was questioning his will to live earlier in the album is now full of life, claiming:
“I wanna cry and I ain’t even tryna fight it. Don’t wanna die ’cause now you’re here and I just wanna be right by your side.”
This was another song that I didn’t love at first, because the core melody sounds like something that was written after spending too much time with Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago, but it’s such a beautiful moment for this character when you notice the change in his mental state, an idea that carries over onto “Change,” which is arguably the most positive song on the entire record. It’s bouncy and contemplative, which is great, but the true joy comes in hearing James approach his problems through a new lens.
Unfortunately, the end of this track spells out the eventual demise of our protagonist, ironically concluding his joy with a moment of tragedy, which is where “Neighbors” comes in–the first moment where Cole breaks character. While I do love the song, and it’s undoubtedly one of the best tracks on the record, the fact that it breaks the narrative is a little frustrating, if only because Cole had done such an incredible job of sticking to the concept up until this point. Still, the song is the album’s biggest earworm, and the beat is probably the meanest, as well.
James is quick to return on the infamous and aformentioned “Foldin Clothes,” though, marking Cole’s biggest misstep on the record. While I don’t think it’s nearly as bad some people make it out to be, it is incredibly corny, and the hyper funky bassline, which is infectious as hell, doesn’t seem to fit into the generally dark and low-key nature of the surrounding production. With that said, I understand and respect the sentiment here, and it still presents an interesting look into James’ psyche, showing how smart the man really is:
“Niggas from the hood is the best actors. We the ones that got to wear our face backwards. Put your frown on before they think you soft. Never smile long or take your defense off.”
As we near the end of the narrative, James finally has his daughter on “She’s Mine Pt. 2.” This is one of those moments on the album where people contend it’s coming from Cole’s POV, but other than the mention of Ibrahim Hamad in the second verse, it still feels like we’re with James here. Plus, breaking away from James at this point on the record would really detract from the impact of the album’s final moments. There are a handful of spots on this album where people argue Cole is talking about himself, but by doing so or falling victim to that way of thinking, it diminishes the album’s value, in my opinion, so I like to believe we’re still with James.
Because if we weren’t, then the title song, which closes the album off, simply wouldn’t hit has hard as it does. The first three verses feel like we’re listening to James’ stream of conscious, as he rambles in a dark room by himself, or perhaps he’s even holding Nina, his daughter. It’s unnerving and chilling, because we know this man’s fate, but then Cole comes in for the final verse, speaking directly to Nina, describing what can only be assumed was his last conversation with James.
It’s a somber moment, and though the beat never climaxes, Cole’s performance does, and there is a great deal of emotion and tension in his words. As he spits his final bars of the album, it’s hard to fight back the tears that have started swelling in your eyes, if only because it feels so real. Even thinking about it now, I still feel the power in his words, I still feel their impact, because they’re real and they’re representative of a large portion of the Black community.
4 Your Eyez Only works as well as it does because Cole clearly had something to say here, and though it’s easy to get bogged down by semantics or get lost in minor details–like the fact that James is actually a composite of two men Cole knew–even with the inclusion of “Neighbors,” this is still an incredibly vivid and cohesive concept album, and an emotional roller coaster for those who take the time to sit with it in its entirety, doing nothing other than absorbing the narrative it presents you with.
Occasionally, the album does suffer from some of the more corny and unappetizing elements of Cole’s personality, like the fact that he tries dismiss domestic abuse on “Change” as simply a brother’s “bitterness and pain,” but taken within the context of the record as a whole, most of my issues are nothing more than minor transgressions. 4 Your Eyez Only is an excellent lyrical effort from Cole and one that is backed up by subtle, but effective production that beautifully incorporates elements of jazz music while occasionally adopting more contemporary sounds in a way that doesn’t feel distracting or out of place.
I really hope Cole continues down this road, because while a lot of his fans seem to dislike this record, the artist present on this album is the kind of artist they’ve always built him up to be: smart, conscious, and focused. The only difference is he’s finally living up to their praise, which means what exactly? They only loved the idea of him? They loved the idea of what he represented? I don’t know. For someone who’s always been touted as a conscious emcee to be dismissed for making a conscious record, it just doesn’t make sense to me. I love it, though, more so now than when it came out, which surprised the hell out of me.
“Girl, your daddy was a real nigga, not ’cause he was cold. Not because he was the first to get some pussy twelve years old. Not because he used to come through in the Caddy on some vogues. Not because he went from bagging up them grams to serving O’s. Nah, your daddy was a real nigga, not ’cause he was hard. Not because he lived a life of crime and sat behind some bars. Not because he screamed, “Fuck the law,” athough that was true. Your daddy was a real nigga cause he loved you. For your eyes only.”
Favorite Songs: “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “Change,” “Neighbors” & “4 Your Eyez Only”