Review Summary: Double platinum with no featurez.
There’s a very understandable welcoming that J. Cole is given in rap circles that stems mostly from a conservative, button-down aesthetic that stylistically sits somewhere between De-La Soul and rock acceptability (think Eminem, Immortal Technique, etc.). He is, without wanting to be dismissive, safe; jazzy, rhyming, loving, and respectful, pieced together without even the slightest attention paid towards trends or radio acceptability. It’s a marketing technique favoured mostly by rock bands that are distinctly out-of-time and out-of-touch, not unsurprising as much as nostalgic and particular. J. Cole has assimilated it as his core identity. Sure, he’s a throwback and he’s as predictable, but he sure, ‘ain't sayin' shit
,’ like those, ‘amateur eight week rappers
,’ that, ‘the streets don't fuck with
.’ No, he’s more than that: he’s a walking miasma of boredom and overt seriousness whose only quotable strength is going double platinum with no featurez.
On 4 Your Eyez Only
, he’s not even thought about addressing the serious shortcomings of this approach, and has instead chosen to double-down on the rhetoric; real-rap rapping for real-rap lovers who really only like the really-real rappers. The central conceit of that is that J. Cole is a technically skilled, if not soulless, rapper, who can write lyrical circles around Lil Yachty (or whoever). The problem with that is that Cole is good at talking a lot of shi
t but not really delivering, choosing to verbalize frustrations without actually making them interesting to listen to. Consider the opening salvo of “For Whom the Bell Tolls;” far from being a Metallica cover (because that actually might be interesting to listen to), Cole mopes about, ‘Tired of feeling low even when I'm high
,’ asking rhetorically whether or not he would be better off dead. If you’ve heard Future’s DS2
, or Kanye West’s “Real Friends,” or Chief Keef’s Nobody
, or Kendrick Lamar’s “u,” you’ve heard the narrative articulated far better and with far greater nuance. Here, it opens up sophomoric pity for a character whose ambitions are decidedly one-dimensional. On “Deja vu,” he’s a good guy in the friendzone. On “Foldin’ Clothes,” he’s doing what he needs to do to get out of the friendzone and earn his much deserved sex. And when he’s not doing that, he’s being busted for not selling drugs in North Carolina, declaring that he’ll be, ‘ … movin' back to Southside / So much for integration.
’ Lyrically, he does little, and with narrative, even less, approaching the To Pimp a Butterfly
model without the certain degree of intelligence that J. Cole fans are overly preoccupied with.
That’s without studying the production closely, which is also, incidentally, not interesting. Cole gets some good assists from Nico Segal and Boi-1da throughout, but for the most part, he’s mining the same jazz and trap tropes that he’s accustomed to. He’s abandoned some of the more radio-appropriate techniques of Born Sinner
and 2014 Forrest Hill Drive
and instead embraced that most frustrating of beat-making, the Q-Tip simulacrum without the soul to boot. It’s painfully unimaginative, and rarely helped by the complete lack of features. Not that there’s inherently anything wrong with not providing features on a mainstream rap album, but it certainly helps to make up for a lack of strengths when monotony is broken up by any other voice. Instead, we get J. Cole’s voice; flat, anaemic, and riddled with platitudes. In a year when Kendrick Lamar has decided to make unnecessary appearances his shtick, it’s a shame he couldn’t grace 4 Your Eyez Only
with a few bars. So, in pandering to an audience that would prefer to write off Lil Uzi Vert because he doesn’t pay attention to the pantheon of hip-hop tradition, J. Cole has made comfort food for rockists and rap traditionalists alike. There’s no fun to be had here; no guest spots, no radio hits, and no quotable lines at all, only the sound of tepid, pseudo-jazz beats for 44 excruciatingly long minutes. In the end, Cole has avoided being one of those, ‘ Pitchfork rappers
,’ by engaging with a calculated sense of what rap should be. It means he’s missed the point entirely, and made one of the most rigid, bland, and stilted albums of the year.