4 YOUR EYEZ ONLY by J. Cole
Genre: Conscious Hip Hop
Favorite Tracks: “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “Change,” “4 Your Eyez Only”
There’s a common perception that the artist has a pure, perfect version tampered with by executives who care more about commercial success than artistic expression. However, sometimes an artist gets so caught up in creating something groundbreaking, unique, and singular that they go past the boundaries of good taste or palpability and create something solely for themselves. Sometimes other people’s opinions and inputs are required to reel an artist in and prevent bloated, baffling products such as the Star Wars prequels or Kid Cudi’s recent mental-breakdown-disguised as an album, SPEEDIN’ BULLET 2 HEAVEN. The lack of other input and his refusal to use other singers or rappers to enhance a mood is part of what makes J. Cole such an inconsistent artist, especially on 4 YOUR EYEZ ONLY.
After a few shaky early albums, J. Cole decided to remove guest artists and handle the primary production of 2014’s FOREST HILLS DRIVE himself. He released the album suddenly, with no singles beforehand and a lack of any songs with big choruses engineered to kill on the radio or beats to take over the dance floor. While the album dipped its feet into conscious themes, the strength and relatability of his personal stories can be pointed to as the main reason for the massive success of the album. Given its success, it’s not surprising the 4 YOUR EYEZ ONLY continues to use the same musical blueprint, but it should have been a strict concept album rather than consisting of a concept that gets repeatedly sidetracked and unnecessarily complicates the devastating storyline at the album’s core.
The production and mood start off very well on the opener “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” with its whimpering horns and opening vocal line describing the fall of rain before him. The percussion is among the best and punchiest on the record, the violin near the end perfectly compliments the sorrowful mood, and J. Cole slowly rising to a frenzy questioning his life and thoughts of suicide is a wonderful build that feels natural, relatable, and harrowing. It also introduces a heavy preoccupation with death that matches the story of James, a friend of J. Cole who settled down with a woman and tried to remake his life in Cole’s image, but eventually died anyway; 4 YOUR EYEZ ONLY is him telling the story to Cole’s own daughter as a cautionary tale.
Cole’s most baffling trait is that many of his greatest strengths are also his greatest weaknesses. Even after his commercial and critical success, he doesn’t sound like one of the biggest rappers in the world. Fame has not erased his chosen image of an ordinary man constantly unsure of his place in life. However, his attempts at being relatable can come across as horribly corny and desperate to make any kind of connection, and the dangerous and threatening moments on “Ville Mentality” and “Immortality” where he raps from James’s perspective about gangster life seem hollow as a result . His instrumentals tend to suffer from a similar problem; they are often pleasant but low-key, and more hard-hitting beats have always felt out of place with J. Cole’s usual humility.
The songs describing his friends’ gangster antics are paired with boring instrumentation featuring dull snare rolls and overly ambient moods that never match the macho posturing. Perhaps it would have helped if guests came in who are better equipped to portray criminal antics and confidence, but even on the album’s highlights Cole’s singing is never perfect and always leaves the listener wanting a little more soul or control. Bold proclamations of “Real n***** don’t die” on “Immortal” and “She fuck with small town n*****, I got bigger dreams” on “Deja Vu” have zero impact with the sleep-inducing beats and vocals, and the 4 YOUR EYEZ ONLY’s story becomes harder to follow as it introduces new, unnecessary topics like racist neighbors on “Neighbors.”
While it makes sense for there to be sweet moments as Cole and James adjust to romance and a life previously foreign to them, there had to have been a better way than the corny “She’s Mine Pt. 1” and “Foldin Clothes.” The intentions of the tracks are clear and interesting, but Cole’s descriptions of married life are so sentimental and groan-inducing that immersion is impossible, and he doesn’t have the vocal charisma to pull off lines like, “You read me like a book/Like the bible you’re the reverend” and “I want to fold-clothes for you/I want to make you feel good.” Cole’s ode to his daughter on “She’s Mine Pt. 2” is also interrupted by a bizarre rant about capitalism and Santa Claus that once again kills the immersion and believability of a normal guy going through the newfound joy and euphoria of being a parent.
What’s even more frustrating about all the dull beats and confusing storylines is the title track that ends 4 YOUR EYEZ ONLY on an incredibly high note. It starts off from the perspective of James and expertly captures his paranoia and anxiety over trying to find a legitimate job, securing a future for himself and his new family, and constantly having to fight against the ever-present allure that is street life. The melancholy horns, violins, and piano fits with the friend’s fear of death around any corner, and the track seamlessly switches to Cole telling the story to his own daughter and hoping they both don’t turn out like James. It’s a touching, tragic story that unfortunately feels like a massive exposition dump of information that previous songs should have more effectively conveyed.
Tragic is a good word to describe both the song and the entire album, because the song’s story is so good that nothing else on 4 YOUR EYEZ ONLY comes to match it. Cole’s decision to handle everything himself comes back to bite him, as his singing vocals aren’t emotive enough to handle the dynamics of the tales here, and his takes on these topics could have been handled better by features in order to portray the various parts of the central story. His need to insert himself into the story wasn’t automatically a bad decision, but it ends up muddying the narrative rather than creating an interesting parallel, and what’s left is one fantastic song that ties up ends that were never there to begin with.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend