Review Summary: Cole stops with the self-mythologizing in favor of narrative depth and payoff.
J. Cole is the kind of rapper that inspires very strong opinions. He’s an ardent student of the craft, the kind of hip-hop head whose copies of All Eyez on Me
and The College Dropout
have seen a lot of use, the kind who believes that there’s such a thing as “real” hip-hop. He’s the kind of person who gets personally offended whenever a Lil Yachty
song hits the radio. In other words, he’s everything the old heads wanted hip-hop to inspire. But that doesn’t necessarily make him a good rapper, and time after time Cole has proven himself to be a deft, if not inspiring, lyricist. 2014 Forest Hills Drive
was the first J. Cole project that, at least to me, fully illuminated Cole’s potential and ambition. It was far from perfect, but it produced just enough goodness to warrant praise. It wasn’t a masterpiece, but it definitely was a capital-s Statement. And on 4 Your Eyez Only
Cole produces another heavily refined, workman-like album with lofty ambitions, and an even bigger payoff. Mileage may vary, but to me it’s quite good.
What’s interesting about Eyez
is that it is, for all intents and purposes, a concept album. Told from the perspective of one of Cole’s friends (ostensibly the one in “’03 Adolescence” who didn’t make it out of the trap), the story details how he sold drugs in hopes of providing his daughter and wife with a better life. In terms of originality, it’s the least original narrative in rap music. However, it is
the most often effective narrative in hip-hop, and Cole’s definitely hoping to channel the Tupac and/or Biggie Smalls he knows
lurks within him. The story is told with Cole’s characteristically plain delivery, absent allegory, simile, and the like. And this refusal to engage in too-complex wordplay helps Cole overall, as his previous attempts at being witty have been staid at best and cringeworthy at worst (“she shallow but the pussy deep,” anyone?). It is worth noting that his delivery and dexterity have improved markedly since 2014 Forest Hills Drive
. This becomes evident on the more titanic tracks like “Change” and “4 Your Eyez Only,” both of which swell well past the 5-minute mark (“Eyez” is nearly 9 minutes, and not a second is wasted). “Change,” with its lithe flow and jazzy beatwork could pass for a TPAB
demo in a pinch. “4 Your Eyez Only” is heartbreaking in its payoff, as its revealed that our protagonist has died and the POV is switching back to Cole. The verses that Cole delivers as Cole are a bit of overkill on the concept (after our protagonist tells his story, Cole basically comes in and says "that's all folks!"). It's ironic that the most likable protagonist on a Cole album is not
J. Cole per se. The whole concept of rapping using someone else's story, to essentially inhabit someone else's life, is weird as hell
, but it’s effective.
And that’s probably the best sentence summarizing this album: it’s weird, but effective. “Immortal” apes an N.W.A. chorus about how “real niggas don’t die” seconds after the elegiac opener “For Whom The Bell Tolls.” Five minutes into the album, the “Exchange” beat fades in, and Cole delivers an eerily similar paean to love. There’s an entire song dedicated to the joys of domestic life, and it’s a damn good song (someone outside of rap like Kate Bush could be forgiven for this, but to have one of the top 5 commercially successfully rappers do it is weird!). “Ville Mentality”’s chorus is swanky and stupid, but it somehow works. There’s an extended riff at the end of “Change” where Cole tries out his best newscaster voice, and then his best crying widow, and then his best pastor.
That’s the core conceit of this album. So much of it shouldn’t work. No rapper should be able to straight up steal someone else’s beat (I don’t care what Boi1da says, “Deja Vu” is “Exchange” because “Exchange” came out first). No rap album’s gimmick should be the same as a ***ing David Cage game. The amount of singing Cole gets away with just because of how well he rides the beat is insane
in light of his actual range and capabilities. But as soon as the album gets almost unbearably weird, Cole delivers lines like “It's this society that make/Every nigga feel like a candidate/For a Trayvon kinda fate/Even when your crib sit on a lake/Even when your plaques hang on a wall/Even when the President jam your tape,” making the whole thing feel orchestrated and intentional. The only real analogue for this kind of off-kilter appeal is Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly
, which this album is not. To say that “4 Your Eyez Only” is peerless oversells its value a bit, but it isn’t inaccurate.
What’s more is that the lyrics on this album often get at a depth and immediacy that Cole’s prior projects just assumed he’d reached. Contrary to what most #real hip-hoppers believe, just saying innocuous things like “the government is corrupt” or “open your third-eye” doesn’t make you a deep or lyrically advanced or important rapper. Prior outings from Cole showed that he hadn’t quite internalized this (his Iggy Azalea diss on “Fire Squad” demonstrates this perfectly). However, he seems to better grasp this interplay on Eyez
, especially on tracks where he really inhabits the role of his friend and describes in intimate detail the micro-aggressions and earnest thoughts that color the Black experience. On “Foldin Clothes,” he details how black masculinity is tied to circumstance, and how just doing housework can feel like a subversion of traditionally masculine behavior. “Niggas from the hood is the best actors/We the ones that got to wear our face backwards,” he admits. “Put your frown on before they think you soft.” Cole interrogates this toxic notion of “realness” and masculinity on “Change” a LOT, most notably with lines like “Niggas die over bitches disrespecting dollar bills/Bloodshed that turned the city to a battlefield/I call it poison, you call it real.” On “Neighbors,” he tells the story of how he moves out of the hood only for his neighbors to question him at every turn and call the cops on him simply for being there. It’s undermined a bit when he says “well mother***er I am” in the chorus (the neighbors are being racist and assuming ***, but they assumed right soooo….), but it’s still pretty effective.
It should go without saying at this point that J. Cole is, like Kanye West
, a better producer than a rapper. And the production here is lush and undeniably pleasant. While in some places it can be a bit too maudlin (ironically, these are the beats Cole didn’t
completely produce, like “Deja Vu” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls”), the vast majority of the album is immensely satisfying. The beats for “Change” and the title track are the two best beats Cole has produced, full stop. The beats for “Neighbors,” “Folding Clothes,” and the two “She’s Mine”’s are definitely some of Cole’s better beatwork.
The biggest litmus test for your enjoyment of this album is pretty simple: did you like 2014 Forest Hills Drive
? If you did, then you’ll absolutely love this album. In almost every respect, it’s better (it helps that the mammoth ending track is shorter and full of bars instead of Kanye-style hubris). If you didn’t love FHD
but saw the potential in it then, again, you’ll probably like this album. But if the very thought of Cole’s overly-earnest and sometimes-elitist take on hip-hop is revolting, if your definition of a good rap record is Views
or Lil Boat
, then this album isn’t for you. Or maybe it is. If there’s one thing about this album I can say with certainty, it’s that the message is for everyone, even if the messenger isn’t.