Album Review: #11: J Cole - 4 Your Eyez Only
by Sarah Muhammad
In 2016, there have been a large number of artists that have taken drastic departures from their traditional sound in an attempt to push past boundaries. However, North Carolina Rapper J. Cole did this two years ago with the release of his 3rd album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive. The album gained much positive acclaim from both critics and fans, saying it was an honest, inspiring body of work and very distinct compared to other hip hop in the mainstream. It is now exactly two years since that release and the rapper has removed the barriers completely with his 4th album, 4 Your Eyez Only. The 10-track album tells a compelling story through themes of life, death, depression, marriage, fatherhood and black politics and is told from the personal accounts of Cole and his journey to gratification. The opening track “For Whom The Bell Tolls” parallels the tone of the opening track “Intro” from 2014 FHD, with a trumpet feature from Chicago artist Nico Segal (formerly Donnie Trumpet), delving right into Cole’s struggle with depression and hopelessness (“But what do you do when there's no place to turn?/I have no one, I'm lonely, my bridges have burnt down”) and represents the beginning of the story on his journey to happiness. The bells Cole describes throughout the song represent the church bells that are rung when someone dies, which is explained later in the album. The next track “Immortal” delivers the first glance we get into the life of Cole’s late friend James (pseudonym) and his struggle with selling drugs and making it through a life of danger and despair. As the chorus sings “Real niggas don't die/Forward with the plot...My niggas don’t die/Form on the block”, Cole is signifying how he immortalizes his fallen friends through his rhymes and upholds their memories despite losing their physical being. In the outro, he again plays back and forth with the idea of his own death, a morbid reality (“To die a young legend or live a long life unfulfilled/'Cause you wanna change the world/But while alive you never will/'Cause they only feel you after you gone, or I've been told/And now I'm caught between bein' heard and gettin' old/Damn, death creepin' in my thoughts lately/My one wish in this bitch, "Make it quick if the Lord take me"”) representing his innermost thoughts. While the next track “Deja Vu” represents a style similar to past work, with the controversial “Swing My Way” sample shared in Bryson Tiller’s “Exchange”, the track “Ville Mentality” tackles Cole’s desperation to run from his current life of fame and being being put on a pedestal and the idea of abandoning this for inner peace and freedom (“You call it runnin', I call it escapin'/Start a new life in a foreign location”). We begin to see a shining light at the end of the tunnel in “She’s Mine Parts 1&2”, where Cole begins to come out of his depression in the triumph of love for his wife and his newborn daughter (“I’ve never felt so alive...catch me/don’t you/catch me/I’ve fallen in love”); Cole now sees the true meaning of his life and is given purpose, as this story is told from the perspective of his late friend regarding his own daughter. He continues with this jubilance, on “Foldin’ Clothes”, the anti modern rap song where Cole candidly and unashamedly describes the joys of married life and fidelity and the satisfaction that he receives from this (“Baby I wanna do the right things they/feel so much better than the wrong things”). Cole also toys with the idea of traditional gender roles in this track, as laundry is considered a domestic and feminine task. On the track “Change”, the story shifts back to a darker side where in the first part of the story, Cole is explaining how growing up and becoming a man has allowed him to change his outlook on life (“Life is all about the evolution”), but in the second part, he is describing how he lost James through gun violence which has plagued the youth as a false solution to anger and desperation (“I made it home/I woke up and turned on the morning news/Overcame with a feeling I can't explain/Cause that was my nigga James that was slain, he was 22”).The story itself is a tip off to everyday life where senseless murder is a large issue amongst Black men. “Neighbors” is witty and stinging track that describes Cole’s real life account of racial profiling in the affluent neighborhood of a home he rented in North Carolina known as the “Sheltuh”, which he used for him and his friends to record in. The house was raided by the SWAT team because his neighbors became paranoid that Cole and his associates were up to illegal activities (“I guess the neighbors think I’m sellin’ dope”), and in a clever response Cole says “Well motherfucker, I am”), referring metaphorically to his musical genius as ‘dope’. In the final and title track on the album, Cole sums his story and thoughts into a dedication to his daughter and the daughter of his late friend James, as “4 Your Eyez Only” represents a collection of memories that are intended to be private and special for his family, in the way that Cole presently lives his life and that these tracks he has chosen are what he deemed worthy of sharing with us. The story on this album represents a beautiful tale of triumph in the perils of life and how fate is not always as concrete as we may think given our current grapples with reality. Despite the sound given to this album not being deemed as a sound that the average audience wants to hear on a rap album, it was the sound appropriate to deliver the message of the story.
Best Tracks: “She’s Mine Parts 1&2”/”4 Your Eyez Only”
Best Production: “Ville Mentality”/”Neighbors”