There seems to be two streams of thought when it comes to J. Cole. Some see the conscious rapper as viciously poignant, which has led to the now hand-in-hand mention of his platinum album sales and featureless songwriting habits. Others see the rapper as lackluster, either suggesting that his mellow beats bore or his philosophical contributions may not be as groundbreaking as the more dedicated fans seem to believe. On 4 Your Eyez Only, we certainly don’t see a massive departure from Cole’s past. His mellow flows touch upon a lot of the same issues of his last effort and—again lacking features—Cole doesn’t exactly conjure up catchy hooks or stand-out hits. Still, with analysis of toxic masculinity and mental health issues in the black community amongst his personal anecdotes, including the death of a friend—whom he later embodies in the narrative—Cole’s lyricism certainly leaves something to talk about.
Opening the album is the quick “For Whom The Bell Tolls” with methodical keyboard sounds highlighted by sparse trumpet phrasing as Cole’s strained voice sings about desperation and hopelessness. Next comes a more typical slow, punching Cole beat on “Immortal” where Cole presents his perspective as a young kid in a black community. Asking questions like “Have you ever heard the screams when the body hit the floor,” “Have you ever seen a fiend cook crack on the spoon,” and “Have you ever seen a ni**a that was black on the moon,” Cole paints a bleak picture to match the darkness in his beat. “Déjà vu” continues with a very similar beat, only adding a bit of chipmunk solo deep in the background. Generally, the song discusses wanting a girl that is in a relationship with another guy, but Cole also seems to be above the drama, suggesting that “She fuck with small town ni**as, I got bigger dreams.”
Cole finds a bit more of a mature edge on “She’s Mine Prt. 1” where he speaks about how important his significant other is to him: “I wanna tell the truth to you/I wanna talk about my days as a youth to you/Exposing you to all my demons and the reasons I’m this way.” The beat and Cole’s voice on this track still combine for a somewhat bland sonic effort unfortunately, but luckily, “Change” then picks up the pace for what might be the best track on the album. The fast, highly-articulated beat showcases some quick-witted flows from Cole with vocals from Ari Lennox filling in space at the breaks. Cole touches upon the systematic problems facing his community and although he wants to stay positive and change himself, he still faces obstacles. Also, the song reaches an emotionally heavy climax with the death of Cole’s friend “James that was slain, he was 22,” which replaces the optimistic front of the track with twinkling keys and brooding space to emphasize the weight of this moment on Cole.
As far as the end of the album goes, Cole continues with mildly socially conscious moments on “Neighbors” and “Foldin Clothes,” then a reprisal of sorts hits with “She’s Mine Prt. 2,” which addresses a new born baby rather than a significant other. The lengthy final cut suggests that the “She’s Mine” tracks as well as some of the other anecdotes come from the perspective of his friend James. Speaking to his daughter, the character suggests that he wrote this album for her to hear is perspective in the case that he passed away. He feels bad that he grew up without a father and because of his actions his daughter may have to do the same. Later, he tells her that life in the street manipulated him and that he regrets selling drugs and working without goals, attributes that he hopes her significant other may find. Between the vivid details and the droning, solemn beat this track certainly adds more emotional weight to the work as a whole.
J Cole continuously mentions mental health—an important subject particularly in the rap community, which tends to value rugged, emotionless men. Cole explains phenomena with his quote: “Ni**as 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.” In an underprivileged community, danger is always possible, so Cole finds it important to show no weakness. Cole also talks about how this need to wear a mask may contribute to the issues of violence in his community: “See I believe if God is real, he’d never judge a man/Because he knows us all and therefore he would understand/The ignorance that make a nigga take his brother’s life/The bitterness and pain that got him beating on his wife.” This line runs a little bit close to excusing violence. Obviously people should be held accountable for their actions, however—to my knowledge—the black community has a bit of an issue addressing mental health issues, which can contribute to issues of violence. Especially when men must shape such a harsh outer shell. These topics are certainly very important to talk about and it’s great to see this discussion in a mainstream context.
Besides Cole’s moments of vivid storytelling and socially conscious rhetoric, the lyrics certainly carry some weak one-liners that might be more suited to a high schooler’s twitter account. “To die a young legend or live a long life unfulfilled” runs dangerously close to the infamous Dark Knight quote; “Trials and tribulations/I’m facing in this age of information, I hate this shit/Cause ni**as hit my phone when they want some shit/Bitches hit my phone when they want some dick” serves as filler; and on “She’s Mine Prt. II” we get some slightly immature commentary on corporations use of Santa as a marketing tactic. Also, Cole’s metaphors can be a bit ham-fisted, as displayed on “Foldin Clothes.” The whole track uses “Foldin Clothes” as a metaphor for being around the house and acting as a positive father figure, which is a good sentiment, but making up for his pregnant wife’s struggles by doing the laundry really doesn’t sound like Cole is going out of his way.
“4 Your Eyez Only” isn’t completely unlistenable, however, save a few standout beats, the work really doesn’t stick out sonically at all. This combined with the onslaught of mediocre one-liners makes the project occasionally cringe-worthy. What saves Cole from complete disaster is his vivid storytelling and depiction of his mental health issues; I hope he focuses on these talents in the future.
J Cole clearly has some talents and he is addressing important issues in his community, but sonically the album is bland and the rampant twitter worthy one-liners likely won’t appeal to listeners above the age of 16.