The amount of pressure J. Cole presumably felt to craft a powerful follow-up to 2014’s double platinum Forest Hills Drive must have been palatable. The 31-year-old Frankfurt, Germany-born, North Carolina-based artist often comes heralded as one of his generation’s most prolific lyricists, and more times than not he delivers. On his concise new album, 4 Your Eyez Only, a 10-track reprieve from the recent trend of ridiculously bloated hip-hop releases, Cole paints a narrative from the perspective of an entirely different person, a formula he adheres to for the majority of the project.
Touching on the trials and tribulations of street life and fantasies of escaping the harsh realities of extreme poverty and violence, Cole digs deep, pulling out his most private thoughts on changing his circumstances, as illustrated on the slow, jazz-infused “Ville Mentality”. Midway through the song, a young child begins to speak about her father being murdered, a glimpse into what his character has experienced firsthand. It shines a spotlight on the inescapable reality of what so many innocent children witness in the midst of gang violence and the long-lasting impact it can have on their psyches.
Album standout “Neighbors” is as close as it gets to a more autobiographical tone. It references an incident in March 2016, when Cole’s Dreamville home studio was raided by a SWAT team on a baseless suspicion that drugs were being sold out of his home. Racial profiling apparently played a huge role in the incident. In an interview with Complex, producer Elite explained, “There was a huge investigation, like a million-dollar investigation. They flew helicopters over, sent an entire SWAT team armed with weapons, broke down the door, and searched the whole house.” Cole’s neighbors had reportedly told authorities that drugs were being made and sold in the building, which explains the hint of defiance in the hook. “I guess the neighbors think I’m sellin’ dope/ Sellin’ dope, sellin’ dope, sellin’ dope/ Mother fucker I am,” the hook repeats, a verbal middle finger to those who judged him.
While there are countless references to the grittiness of a hustler’s lifestyle, there are also several tender moments peppered throughout the project, including “She’s Mine Pt. 1”, its sequel, “She’s Mine Pt. 2”, and “Foldin Clothes”, the latter a valiant attempt at using the act of doing laundry as a metaphor for love. When it was first released, social media had a field day with it and repeatedly mocked Cole for being “corny.” However, here it comes across as genuine, and the thick, bass-heavy beat easily moves the track along. These moments are necessary to soften the character’s hardened exterior and reveal his emotional side and vulnerability.
Everything comes full circle with the nearly nine-minute opus and album closer “4 Your Eyez Only”. With raw, human emotion, Cole raps to a deceased friend’s daughter after her father’s untimely death, a result of his criminal lifestyle. “Full of adrenaline/ Ignorant to what death can cause/ Ain’t no coming back, family dressed in black/ Plus, it’s hot now, the cops outside, it’s hard to flip a pack/ And my daughter gotta eat, her mama be stressing me/ Like I ain’t the one who put them Jays on her feet/ Like I ain’t out in the field like that/ I might be low for the moment, but I will bounce back/ Despite the charges, back to the wall, I fight regardless/ Screaming, ‘Fuck the law,’ my life is lawless.” It ties up the premise of the record and exemplifies the protagonist’s determination to provide for his family no matter what the cost.
4 Your Eyez Only offers insight into the human condition, told from the eyes of a drug dealer simply trying to feed his family. It’s a reckless lifestyle that leads to his death, leaving his daughter behind wondering what happened to her daddy. The concept works for Cole, and he does a stellar job diving into the mind of a seasoned criminal, who despite his seemingly impenetrable outer shell, is still human after all. It’s a narrative that allows Cole to retain his reputation as a gifted MC while displaying his own growth and maturity as a human being at the same time.
Essential Tracks: “Neighbors”, “4 Your Eyez Only”, and “Ville Mentality”