J Cole // 4 Your Eyez Only
Jermain Cole returns two years after his immensely successful 2014 release Forest Hill Drive with his most ambitious, introspective album yet – 4 Your Eyez Only. Fans expecting an album filled with the hip-hop hits that saturated his previous projects will be disappointed – Cole’s music has matured with him, stepping away from creating chart topping singles to share his meditations on life, love and death. Interwoven with these topics are repeated references to Cole’s deceased friend James McMillan Jr, which culminate in the title track ‘4 Your Eyez Only’ – an elegiac ode in dedication to McMillan Jr’s daughter, Nina. Cole takes on the task of telling the story that McMillan Jr is unable to tell himself; masterfully displaying his infamous storytelling abilities, he gives a raw insight into the world of a trapped father, caught in the paradox of needing to support his daughter while being unable to get a job: “I try to find employment even if it’s wiping toilets / but these felonies be making life the hardest / resisting the temptation to run up and swipe a wallet / or run up on your yard, snatch your daughter’s bike and pawn it”. He is by no means a one off tragic story, as Cole, shifting back to his own perspective, states that he “dedicates 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”.
Cole tells the story of those in the struggle, displaying the realities of the life of a drug dealer free from the glorification that rappers have a history of inflecting onto the lifestyle. As well as telling others’ stories, Cole also covers his own in two of his most intimate songs to date. In both parts of ‘She’s Mine’, Cole raps slowly and softly about his love for his child, his voice cracking with emotion as he attempts to balance the innocence of his daughter with the vices of the modern world. It’s these frank and intimate songs where Cole really shines, giving his fans an insight into his world and displaying just how aware he is of the problems of our time.
It’s not all perfect, however; ‘Foldin’ Clothes’ is Cole’s lyrically weakest track, detailing his love for the daily routines he and his wife have created. Whilst his love for her and the change she’s brought about in him is evident, lyrics like “I never thought I’d see the day / I’m drinking almond milk” in the song simply don’t compare to the depth and wordplay of the rest of the album. Similarly, in ‘Déjà vu’ Cole regresses to his former self as he waxes on a girl he’s fallen in love with in a club. These kind of songs are best left in the past; Cole has settled down, making that attitude seem forced and artificial.
4 Your Eyez Only is a successful step in a new direction for Cole, as he displays a sensitive, emotional and perceptive side that is sadly rarely shown in the genre. Cole is also showing himself to be socially and politically aware, understanding the power and reach his music has, and using it to spread important messages. Album by album, Cole is cementing himself as one of the greatest, with comparisons to 2Pac no longer sounding so far-fetched.