With a double platinum-selling album under his belt, North Carolina rapper J. Cole has little left to prove. Known for being one of the absolute hungriest spitters to ever grace the microphone during his come-up, Cole’s skillfully unpredictable bars and rhyme schemes earned him the honor of being Jay Z’s first choice to start his Roc Nation label. His mixtapes The Warm Up and Friday Night Lights feature ultra clever wordplay and similes unheard at the time from an unsigned artist: “I practiced till that sh*t made perfect / And served it to the people on a silver platter / Now where’s the ladder? / ‘Cause either you gonna whine or you climb; I chose the latter / Know you haters is pissed hold your bladder though / ‘Fore you get tossed like a forward lateral”. It was clear from the beginning that J. Cole’s future in the rap game was a bright one. Even on a freestyle like “Just to Get By” where Cole is essentially telling you how dope of a rapper he is, he remains a fluid storyteller and exhibits his forward-thinking mentality.
Currently, J. Cole has flourished by putting his ego to the side. He raps from his heart and is brave enough to genuinely be himself in the booth while many of his contemporaries cling to guises or trends in attempt to stay relevant. Jermaine proved early in his career that his bars were lethal, his flows were unique and fun to listen to, and his intellect was both conscious and catchy. And although Cole has reached tier-one status in today’s hip-hop scene on his own accord, his albums have consistently had a similar flaw: they’re missing some umph. In this case, “umph” pertains to songs with memorably versatile production and timeless hooks. At this stage in his career, J. Cole has achieved GOAT-level respect from fans and peers alike. By no means is he the greatest rapper of all-time (or even in my top 10 for that matter), but he has affected hip-hop culture more than enough to place him on a higher artistic pedestal within the genre.
On 4 Your Eyez Only, Cole’s lyrics are heartbreaking, tender, and, at times, pinpoint sharp. But for the third album in a row, his backing music underwhelms, putting his out-of-tune singing on center stage. The emotions here are raw because they need to be for this type of narrative. Cole’s storylines throughout this album are grim, uplifting, and thought-provoking. But the conceptual vision this album aims to convey is too jumbled to clearly comprehend. In this age of boundlessly accessible information, we have all the facts we need to fully digest an album. Facts are essential and can aid in one’s understanding of an artist’s intended perspective. What is the music saying, though? With only ten tracks this album is almost an hour long yet feels criminally short when the 8-minute title track finally concludes. The production is dreary and jazzy, making it difficult to stay attentive for an hour straight.
Two of the album’s tracks have the exact same beat and melody. The twin “She’s Mine” tracks are heartfelt odes to the loves of his life: his lady and newborn daughter. Despite being incredibly touching songs, that doesn’t erase the fact that together they don’t add any unique spice to the already fleeting track list. Also, the beat on “Deja Vu” is one we’ve heard in the past. To be fair, that is not completely J. Cole’s fault. Bryson Tiller’s “Exchange” from his TRAPSOUL album released last year is a surefire hit. Oddly enough, news has surfaced that the “Exchange” beat was in fact stolen from producers Vinylz and Boi 1-da sometime last year and sold to Bryson Tiller without him knowing of the theft. Unfortunately for Cole, this makes a possible hit song sound outdated and recycled even though technically it isn’t whatsoever. Either way, I would’ve liked to hear Cole use those aforementioned raw emotions to lash out against the beat thief and cleverly use the song’s title to make an anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better, fourth wall-breaking classic.
All in all, if it weren’t for J. Cole’s earnest storytelling this album would have been a huge disappointment. Nevertheless, it is still a minor one. 4 Your Eyez Only is dedicated to Jermaine’s close friend who was tragically shot and killed at the age of 22, falling victim to the harsh realities of life in the streets. You can hear the pain associated with this tragedy in Cole’s vocals on multiple tracks. However, the album’s concept is wildly inconsistent as he jumps from coping with the loss of his dear friend (“Immortal,” “Ville Mentality,” “4 Your Eyez Only”) and puppy love (“Deja Vu”) to motivational insight (“Change”) and everyday romantic sacrifices (“Foldin Clothes”). With other ten-track rap releases such as Yeezus and JEFFERY, a cohesive conceptual direction is imperative in boosting the impact and longevity of both the project and the respective artist. The music here is good; the rhymes for the most part are good; the subject matter is meaningful. But at the end of the day, music needs to have replay value in order to be considered timelessly great. 4 Your Eyez Only simply does not have much.