Carolina’s finest returns
3 years ago Jermaine Cole, better known as the abbreviated stage name J. Cole, was not a name synonymous with the words ‘platinum with no features’. Neither was he a presence many considered to be even near the top of the hip hop game, with no real standout release – an underdog maybe, but an underdog that was yet to fulfil his potential. That all changed in 2014 when the Fayetteville-raised MC released his 3rd full-length studio album ‘2014 Forest Hills Drive‘. A musical biography of sorts, the LP was a a brand new Cole that had been hidden away for whatever reason for most of his career, a raw, purposeful and more ambitious rapper than the one we’d got before. It blew minds, sky-rocketing Jermaine to A-list rapper status, a lyrical contender with the likes of Kendrick, all without a single feature (as the internet will frequently remind you). Now, exactly two years later he’s released his follow up. ‘4 Your Eyez Only‘ continues his story, similar in aesthetic and again; not a feature in sight.
The surprise genius of ‘FHD‘ was the way Cole approached each individual soundscape – whether it be an old school soul number about losing his virginity or the grimy trimmings of an industry diss track – with the same conviction and unwavering emotion. From a naive young man to a matured professional with his eyes on the top spot, he lead us through an album that resonated at every sentimental moment with attention to detail the likes of that isn’t seen all too much in music today. But how do you follow a project that tells your story? What more is there left to say? Well, in the case of ‘4 Your Eyez Only‘ he shares the story of someone else.
Beginning with the morbidity of ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’, the song paints a bleak picture Cole has on his life as he contemplates his position – “But what do you do when there’s no place to turn? / I have no one, I’m lonely, my bridges have burnt down“. It’s a stark contrast to the warm, hope filled introduction to his last effort, but a welcome one complimented well by rattling bells and horn licks that provide good backing to Cole’s crooning. The hopelessness he now feels is a great reminder of what made his last album so lovable too, with the same openness he exhibited on moments like these showing he never lost his touch for it.
As the album goes on it seems we’re in for another string of tales told chronologically by Cole, as the following two tracks ‘Immortal‘ and ‘Deja Vu‘ tell of a young man and his hunger for change, taking shots at the conventions of the American dream and its passive attitude to the inclusion of the black community within it. Admittedly however, this is the generally the weakest part of the album when taken as a overall package. Both tracks feature banger beats with a trap flavouring, which aren’t bad in themselves and Cole keeps a steady flow over them both, however they’re just not that exciting. ‘Deja Vu‘ is especially jarring with its use of the same instrumental as Bryson Tiller’s ‘Exchange‘, not helped by the weak intro/outro “Aye, put a finger in the sky if you want her, nigga / Aye, put two fingers in the sky if you want her“. The song details his longing for another man’s girl, making it even more comparable to a Tiller track – in the end it just feels like he’s revisiting trodden ground that him and a host of others have already talked about.
After this the album pulls a 180 and jumps right into a jazz infused slow jam entitled ‘Ville Mentality‘, an exploration of the requirements needed to make it out of a small town and to be a big city celebrity. Cole compares his escape of his childhood home to the plight of those evading jail time: “You call it runnin’, I call it escapin’ / Start a new life in a foreign location / Similar to my niggas duckin’ cases / Can’t take the possible time that he faces” over a smooth piano melody and the welcome strings section in the breakdown. The same vibe continues with the song ‘She’s Mine Pt. 1‘ and its sequel down the line ‘She’s Mine Pt. 2‘, both embodying a beautiful arrangement of live instrumentation as Cole expresses his utmost feelings on firstly his lover and then his daughter. Both are real standouts, encapsulating Cole’s persona of both fragility and fatherhood.
As we continue the MC details the perversion of the dreams he outlined in the hopeful ramblings of ‘2014 Forest Hills Drive‘. A property owned by the rapper was raided by a SWAT team back in March after the neighbours reported suspicions of drug-dealing, sparking the bitter rebuttal of Eyez’ grimmest track ‘Neighbours‘ as Cole spits at the results of him moving to a brighter, ‘whiter’ neighbourhood and the distrust that came with it. A track like this sees Cole’s penchant for weighing up both sides of the spectrum, as on ‘Foldin Clothes‘ he turns his attention to his pregnant wife and questions what he could do to make her life easier, albeit in a pretty basic fashion: “I wanna fold clothes for you / I wanna make you feel good / Baby, I wanna do the right thing / Feels so much better than the wrong thing“. Both tracks detail Cole’s duality when addressing both his family life and the events he experienced as a youth (brought back to him by the abrupt and sudden death of his friend James McMillan Jr.).
The outro to the 10-track LP sharing its name with the project cleverly outlines the parallels between Cole’s and McMillan’s lives – their love for their wife and daughter, their shared attitudes towards police and their shared dreams as youths. Except their lives become different at the point where Cole leaves his hometown and finds potential in the wider world, while McMillan is left jobless thanks to employers positions on felons. The first 3 verses are told from the point of view of Cole’s close friend as he awaits a death that’s certain to come as his surroundings force him into a life of crime, while the last is told through Jermaine himself as he dedicates the album to the story of the deceased man and his promise to his daughter to let the world hear it. Lyrical storytelling and sombre production come together to really entice you into hearing what Cole has to say, and the track is a cold yet hopeful reminder of what being stuck in a rut can lead to, especially for a black man living in an American system.
J. Cole proves he is a vivid storyteller on ‘4 Your Eyez Only‘, setting aside the accolades to take the time to sit down and give the listener a dose of reality. He tells the story of not just his fallen friend, a victim of a spiralling system that condemns those that ever did wrong once to a lifetime of chasing something better, but of the experience of being a father figure to not one but two little girls – his own daughter and the girl that never really knew hers. It’s a sobering tale that may bite off a little more than it can chew sometimes, dabbling in less excitable production and no real memorable anthems unlike its predecessor, but what it does well it does in abundance. It won’t be remembered like ‘FHD‘ will most likely be but it is a testament to the talent of a rapper that very few can deny; platinum or not.
Highlights: Neighbours, 4 Your Eyez Only, She’s Mine Pt. 1 / 2, Ville Mentality