J. Cole surprised the hip hop community just a week ago by releasing the Eyez documentary which was quickly followed by the accompanying album, 4 Your Eyez Only, his fourth studio album. It comes on the heels of the immensely successful 2014 Forest Hills Drive, an album that has since gone down in history thanks to its accomplishment of achieving double platinum status. This occurred despite its lack of featured artists, something of an industry standard in rap especially when you look at other critically acclaimed albums like Coloring Book, or The Life of Pablo. Cole has had quite a life in-between these albums; quietly tying the knot with his girlfriend and secretly welcoming his firstborn daughter into the world, two events that have a clear impact on 4 Your Eyez’ themes. At its core, 4 Your Eyez Only is an extension, if not a sequel, of 2014 Forest Hills Drive, telling the stories of Jermaine’s life after his rise to success all whilst skimming over deeper themes and issues that Cole’s lyricism can’t quite fully expose.
J. Cole sticks to his guns throughout the album, weaving personal experiences, feelings, and beliefs into his lyrics. “She’s Mine Pt. 1” and its second part are written both for his wife and daughter respectively, with Cole expressing his desires to love them, share his life with them, and provide for them. Both of his ladies have become the center of his universe, and he raps about how they’ve made him a more complete person and changed the way he sees the world. “Foldin Clothes” expresses these same sentiments; however, its conclusion is a social commentary on how certain environments can force masculinity onto young men and distort their world-view; thus making it difficult for them to share these ‘soft’ desires to make your girl’s life as easy as possible.
Perhaps the biggest difference between 2014 and Eyez, though, is the second social narrative that Cole weaves into the tracks. While the album’s title makes it seem like it’s meant for Cole’s wife or newborn daughter, it is in fact meant for Nina, the child of Jermaine’s childhood friend who’s life was cut short at 22. “For Whom The Bell Tolls,” “Immortal,” “Change,” and a few others address the narrative of his death and the context surrounding it. Cole contrasts his own life with that of his friends; while he was afforded the opportunity to attend college and broaden his horizons, his friend remained in the streets, imprisoned by forces such as institutional racism and capitalism. It’s a prevalent topic in the current climate, one which Cole feels strongly about, demonstrated by his appearances at protests during the height of the racial tension that’s swept over America. All in all, it’s a touching tribute to his friend, whose story is laid out for his daughter’s eyes, and ours in the hopes that it opens them to these harsher realities.
To accompany the overall heaviness of Eyez’ is some top-notch production handled almost entirely by Cole himself, with a little help from friends like Vinylz, Boi-1da and others. Though toned down and at times minimalist, the production is where Eyez succeeds most. The guitar riff and funky bass line on “Foldin Clothes” are exceptional and combine for one of the most upbeat tracks on the album. Elsewhere, there’s no other words to describe the piano on “She’s Mine” other than beautiful. There’s a perfect mix of hard and soft, light and dark, melody and cacophony. The mixing in general is excellent as well; its almost as if the instrumentals were softened just a touch to really allow for Cole’s voice to shine through, especially as he sings the hook for “Ville Mentality.” While the album does have its problems, they most certainly don’t derive from the production.
Quality production and deeper themes don’t make an album though. While J. Cole’s intentions are pure and his motives clear, his execution is unfortunately subpar. It manifests mostly in the form of his lyrics, a trend that Jermaine seems to have fallen into over his career. Clearly he’s an intelligent man with profound ideas, but his writing can become juvenile at times to the point where it detracts from his pensive persona. For example the line: “Today, I woke up feeling horny so it’s only right/ I got two bitches playing on my trombone,” from “Apparently” on FHD has no business being in a song where he’s showing his newfound maturity and appreciation for his past. While the ideas that are being tackled on Eyez are deep and layered, Cole manages to only skim the surface of them. In the case of “Ville Mentality”, Cole raps of how the hood brainwashes the youth into believing there’s only one way to live. But then a line like, “Bitches hit my phone when they want some dick” halts momentum and takes away from the more profound messages he’s trying to get across. It’s examples like these that take away from the important shit, and detract from the seriousness of the issue. Perhaps even more jarring is the point in “Change” where he states that tough times justify spousal abuse. How do you spend an entire songs idolizing your wife and then say something like that? It’s completely discrediting. Furthermore, the track “Deja Vú” doesn’t fit in to the overarching themes of the album at all and detracts from the feeling of cohesiveness. While it does feel like the album was meticulously crafted and the documentary clearly shows that a great deal of work and thought went in to it, when it comes down to it Eyez just doesn’t stack up well against the rest of Cole’s catalogue.
4 Your Eyez Only succeeds in bringing important societal issues to light but fails in examining them on deeper levels like it attempts to. There is no doubt that J. Cole will continue to release important music and historically relevant albums, but he just isn’t on par with fellow rappers like his friend and collaborator Kendrick Lamar, who excels at turning dark social issues into more approachable metaphors. Only time will tell if J. Cole has another double-plat-no-features work on his hands, but a shake of the magic eight ball reveals ‘not likely.’