J. Cole’s 2016 album is a shining example of how it can take time to recognize greatness and fully grasp the message behind the music.
Even the greatest musicians have an album or two that seem to fall flat. Plenty of hip hop legends have dropped projects that have garnered negative attention from both fans and critics. Jay-Z’s Kingdom Come, Eminem’s Relapse, and Kanye West’s Ye are all proof that even the most heralded artists just come up short from time to time. Even the seemingly invincible Lil Wayne, who put out a run of classic mixtapes, along with his acclaimed Tha Carter (I, II, III) collection in the early 2000s, crashed back to earth in 2010 with the release of his forced and messy rock-crossover Rebirth. I don’t know anyone who likes that album and if you do, delete their number.
J. Cole however is an artist that seemed immune to putting out a bad project. His lyrical prowess and impressive body of work are unrivaled by most, if not all of his peers. He’s often mentioned with Kendrick Lamar and Drake as the brightest MCs of his generation. Since his 2007 mixtape release The Come Up, he has put out a run of outstanding projects; doing so without relying on features from other rappers. Cole’s hardcore (some call them annoying) fans have made the phrase, “J. Cole went platinum with no features” meme-worthy by constantly reminding everyone of the fact. As an artist these days you know you are in the upper echelon of your craft when your music is the subject of a viral meme. At this point it’s basically more important than a Grammy.
The release of Cole’s late 2016 project 4 Your Eyez Only had many people feeling that his hot streak had ended though. Naji Chill, the host of Rap Radar’s popular YouTube interview series “Cigar Talk” sat down with the uncompromising radio host and New York Times bestseller Charlamagne Tha God to discuss 4 Your Eyez Only shortly after it’s release.
Naji: “Cole’s album this go round, 4 Your Eyez Only…”
Charlamagne: “I didn’t like it.”
Naji: “Me neither man. But I feel like the culture at large kind of gave Cole a pass…”
Charlamagne: “Cuz hes Cole.”
This conversation is a perfect representation of the larger opinion of hip hop culture at the time. Cole seemed to be universally loved. He was at the height of his powers in 2016. It was just that nobody seemed to understand 4 Your Eyez Only. It was a drastic change from his prior work and fans just couldn’t seem to wrap their heads around it. Misunderstanding can often lead to hate. The average listener usually equates “different” with “bad”.
Charlamagne goes on to make an interesting comment further on in the video,
“I didn’t like the album…but I have not gone back to listen to it. And what I mean by that is that sometimes timing is everything. You know? The energy around me might not have been ready to receive that.”
The point he makes here is something that plagues a lot of great albums that sound different from their creators’ usual work. Take Kanye West’s 2008 808s and Heartbreaks for example; a huge change in sound and tone from his previous work. At the time it was seen by the average hip hop consumer as a misfire on Kanye’s part. An autoned mess that couldn’t really even be considered hip hop. Fastforward to 2021 and it can be seen as one of the biggest influences on the current generation of emotional, melody driven rappers that rule popular music. Artists like Juice WRLD (RIP), Lil Uzi Vert, Travis Scott, Trippie Redd and even Drake all work off the sonic blueprint laid out by 808s. Proof that sometimes the greatest artistic achievements take time to be properly digested and recognized. I found this to be true with 4 Your Eyez Only.
The Cole I had grown to love wasn’t who I was hearing when I listened to the album for the first time. He doesn’t even rap on the first track “For Whom The Bell Tolls”, he sings. I certainly didn’t listen to Cole for his vocal range.
The change in sound immediately distracted me and took my attention away from what Cole was actually saying. Songs like “She’s Mine (Pt. 1 and 2)”, “Foldin Clothes” , and “Ville Mentality” weren’t registering with me. I was looking to hear the braggadocious lyrical assassin that I was used to when Cole stepped in the studio.
I was falling into the “different equals bad” trap. I was being a narrow minded listener. So much so that I wasn’t recognizing the larger story at play. A story that grabbed me by the ears and didn’t let go months later when I went back to listen to the album again.
I realized that 4 Your Eyez Only is a carefully crafted concept album. A collection of songs that hold a larger purpose or meaning and address certain themes. Each song is a snapshot that when looked at under a wider scope, all add up to form a cohesive story.
Throughout the album Cole is telling a story that isn’t his own. Through the first half of the album he raps from the eyes of James McMillan Jr., one of his late childhood friends. James’ story is sadly the same as many other disenfranchised black men in America. A story of tragedy that has been told on countless other hip hop albums. One filled with the sadness that comes when someone’s life is cut short and they are unable to realize their full potential. But here Cole pulls back the curtain further. He gives us insight into life beyond just the violence, drugs, and struggle. He goes deeper than glorifying it all. Something we as hip hop consumers don’t get often enough.
Early in the album on “Deja Vu”, James flirts with a girl at a club as he tries to find love. On “She’s Mine Pt. 1" he deals with the excitement and pressures of that new found love. He expresses how he wants to open up and expose all of the demons from his broken upbringing. Something that he has never been able to do before.
“Ville Mentality” sticks with you long after its 3 minute and 14 second runtime is over. On the track, James deals with the anxiety and depression that comes along with feeling stuck in his and Cole’s hometown of Fayetteville, North Carolina. As James, Cole raps,
“You call it running, I call it escaping. Start a new life in a foreign location. Similar to my niggas ducking cases. Can’t take the possible time that he’s facing.”
James longs to break free from the poverty and violence of his current surroundings. On the same track we hear two heartbreaking audio clips from a little girl that we can presume to be James’ daughter.
“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’s mean to me. And she — and she says, “clean up” and I say …”
“I get mad and I slam my door and go in my room. And then, I get mad and I say, ‘I wish my dad was here.’”
The gut wrenching reality is that this is life for too many black families in an America that always seems to turn their back on them. While Cole is speaking from James’ perspective he is simultaneously telling the story of so many others.
As we approach the midpoint of the album we get a song called “Change”. The track includes a gorgeous feature from singer Ari Lennox and is among the strongest tracks on the record. On it Cole reflects deeply on the cycle of violence and crime that eats away at communities like the one he grew up in and his understanding of why this cycle continues. He knows that a change is needed but recognizes that this change first needs to come from inside of the individual.
“I know you desperate for a change let the pen glide, but the only real change comes from inside.”
The song is aptly named, as its title fits its lyrical content, but it serves a larger purpose. It has a double meaning and serves as a literary device for the album. “Change” also refers to the album’s change in narrator as Cole is no longer rapping from James’ point of view. He is now observing through his own eyes.
We hear Cole describing a scene of a shooting that occurred in his neighborhood. He runs home and turns on the news the next morning, “I made it home, I woke up and turned on the morning news. Overcame with a feeling I can’t explain ‘cause that was my nigga James who was slain he was twenty two.”
As “Change” comes to an end we are transported to a vigil being held for James and we hear two voices. One belongs to the speaker addressing the crowd at the vigil saying, “We gotta do better people. Twenty two years old this boy was too young. My condolences are with his family and prayers. We know he’s in a better place.” The other voice belongs to James’ friend, passionately exclaiming, “I promise you bro, I’ma kill them niggas, yo…” These voices represent two sides of dealing with this tragedy. One offering thoughts and prayers and one offering vengeance; but neither offering a plan for change. The cycle continues.
The switch in narrative point of view continues in the next track “Neighbors”, which refers to the true story of SWAT officers raiding a home that Cole rented in a wealthy neighborhood of North Carolina. This home was referred to as “The Sheltuh” and was used mainly as a haven and recording studio for Cole and his friends. The raid came after neighbors called authorities with suspicion that drugs were being sold out of the home. The reason for said suspicion? Just some black dudes hanging out. Surely worth calling the SWAT team for.
“Neighbors” is a reminder for Cole that even after fame and fortune is secured racism still rears its ugly head. He cleverly paired the release of the song with a video showing actual footage of SWAT raiding his home and of course coming up empty handed. The visual added to the effectiveness of message behind the music.
The last two tracks of the album are connected as they center around the joy and pressures that come with having a newborn. During the time that 4 Your Eyez Only was released Cole had a daughter. A milestone in his life that very well could have served as a catalyst to write this album. “She’s Mine, Pt. 2” is a beautiful love letter to Cole’s daughter. The track shows Cole flexing his ability to make his fans not just listen to but feel his words.
The last track on the album is an eight minute and fifty second lyrical tour de force that transports listeners into James McMillan’s conscience as he records a tape for his daughter. He outlines the winding and bumpy road that led him to this point in his life and what ultimately lead to his death:
“I’m writing this because me and the devil had a dance. Now I see death around the corner, ‘pologizing in advance. Don’t know if I ever had a chance. At a glance, I’m a failure. Addicted to pushing paraphernalia. But Daddy had dreams once, my eyes had a gleam once. Innocence disappeared by the age of eight years. My Pops shot up, drug-related, mama addicted. So Granny raised me in projects where thugs was hanging…”
The narrative perspective shifts to Cole in the last verse. He is having a conversation with James which leads him to realize that their lives could have mirrored one another if it wasn’t for Cole’s parents being able to provide him with more opportunity. James begs Cole to play the tape for his daughter when he dies. This was the moment during my second listen that the greatness of this album registered with me. I realized that what I just listened to was an effort by Cole to humanize a group of people that are so often villainized by the media. He was giving the world a first person view of what it’s like to grow up poor, black, and without a chance.
“He said, ‘Listen, I got no time to dive into descriptions. But I been having premonitions. Just call it visions from the other side. I got a feeling I won’t see tomorrow. Like the time I’m living on is borrowed. With that said, the only thing I’m proud to say, I was a father. Write my story down, and if I pass, go play it for my daughter when she ready.’ And so I’m leaving you this record, for your eyes only. Don’t you ever scratch or disrespect it. This perspective is a real one, another lost ‘Ville son. I dedicate these words to you and all the other children. Affected by the mass incarceration in this nation That sent your pops to prison when he needed education.”
Here we are hearing an artist at the height of his fame using the spotlight beaming on him to try to spark change. Cole could have taken the easy route and made a radio friendly, accessible album that would have raked in even more fans and dollars. Instead he laid down powerful poetry aimed to educate and widen perspectives. In his own words, “I’m never guaranteed to be this high again. So while I’m here let me take this opportunity to say the realest shit I have ever said.” I’d say he made the right choice.
4 Your Eyez Only taught me a few valuable lessons. First, just because something is different doesn’t mean it’s bad. Give it a chance (this applies to more than just music). Second, greatness takes time to recognize. And most importantly, never judge someone solely on their mistakes, because you don’t know the road that led them there.