Album Review: 4 Your Eyez Only - J. Cole
By Benjamin Irons
J Cole’s most commercially successful release, 2014 Forest Hills Drive (2014) set a reasonable standard for the North Carolina rapper. His 5 years under Jay Z’s Roc Nation label served him well, with his two previous LP’s Cole World: The Sideline Story (2011) and Born Sinners (2013) giving him a platform to bolster his image. Billboard awards and Grammy nominations later, he’d made himself a household name. Thus, production tightened; subject matter became real, lyrics heartfelt. But his last release became something of an accomplice to a lapse in mastery. Despite its success commercially, critically it didn’t resonate duly. While it was a consistent effort, it lacked the theatrics of a ground-breaking release. 2016 could have seen Cole overcompensate for his arguable hastiness in 2014FHD, but instead he nurtured his talent and intelligence behind the mic and ended up delivering his most sonically strong record to date.
The context of 4 Your Eyez Only is relatively similar to 2014FHD as far as the instrumentation goes, and, as a result, feels like a progression. But it punches where the former prods. Opener “For Whom The Bell Tolls” touches on the trials and tribulations that are born out of being suicidal – “Tired of feeling low, even when I’m high; Ain’t no way to live, do I wanna die?; I don’t know, I don’t know”. It’s a slow burner, consisting of melancholic horns and string arrangements, but it goes deeper to suggest the impetus for the album’s composition isn’t one of fancy cars and hotel bars, but instead it concerns the real-life struggles of living in amongst a criminal lifestyle. The most confusing part is deciphering which person Cole is channelling these songs through; himself or his friend, James McMillan Jr. (who is established on “Change”)? Fan theories suggest that the lives of both Cole and McMillan run in parallel; they both were involved in the economy of street life, both have a daughter, both find a partner.
We discover this on the pairing “She’s Mine, Pt. 1” and “She’s Mine, Pt. 2”, particularly on the latter where he wavers between two voices: “I never felt so alive/ She gets him, you get me; She hugs him, you kiss me”. They explore fatherhood, relationships, love and discovering priorities in life; themes that run intermittently throughout the album. It then becomes apparent that the album’s 10 tracks seem to tell the story of McMillan’s life to his now fatherless daughter, Nina: this will explain the funereal reference in the title of “For Whom The Bell Tolls”. On “Immortal”, the follow-up track, Cole discusses the life of McMillan who became something of a kingpin in the crack game and, upon his death, was recognised as a legend. Realising that achieving this level of street-cred has chancy implications, he is reduced to admitting that dealing drugs himself (and even becoming a musician) to achieve wealth and infamy as a young black male feels sore.
The transition from the trap rhythms on “Immortal” and “Déjà vu” to the jazzy composition on “Ville Mentality” is a disparate but welcoming contrast. There is also a spoken interlude from a young girl included on the track: “My dad, he died – he got shot cause his friend set him up; And I didn’t go to his funeral – and sometimes when I’m in my room I get mad at my momma when she mean to me.” It’s not clear whether this is actually Nina, but the message is very moving, and could allude to a similar situation in which McMillan’s daughter found herself in during her father’s absence. So there are a lot of perspectives on this record but they do all build up to the concluding title track “4 Your Eyez Only”. The tracks moves in slowly, with an opening horn section followed by a slow-tempo beat, finally overlaid by an avant-garde Cole spitting hard-hitting truths. Cleverly, this track features right at the end of the record, presumably to kind of make sense of the narrative that the previous 9 tracks were assembling. Cole manifests McMillan’s fear of hid daughter finding out about his death: “My worst fear is that one day you come home from school, and see your father face while hearing ‘bout tragedy on the news; I got the strangest feeling your daddy gonna lose his life soon, and sadly if you’re listening now it must mean it’s true”. Cole here appears to shine a light on the rather vague sequence of events that lead up to this, by revealing that the record is the product of a wish granted by McMillan to Cole: to tell Nina about his life through his own eyes, because he was not able to do this himself.
Cole’s charitable efforts in this record in gifting Nina her fathers unuttered story is admirable, one that sets this record apart from his last. The composition is tailored well to the grief-stricken concept of the record, without being too out-of-proportion. And while McMillan’s death undoubtedly adds a great deal of depth to the emotion general lyricism, fundamentally, it acts as a voice for the voiceless.