At approximately 11:00 pm last Thursday, our country experienced a major quake which, further polarized our already divided nation into two camps. On one side, the die-hard ‘Dollar and a Dream’ stans dropped everything to praise their lord and savior Jermaine Cole for his brilliance via twitter. On the other, the Anti-
Christ Cole camp tuned in solely for the purpose of dozing off to the sounds of Jermaine singing about laundry and proceeded to bash him in their dreams. Both sides, unrelenting in their opinion. Both opinions formulated within seconds of the release. Or maybe even before. But in a world that needs unity almost as much as it needs a new president-elect, can we find common ground on this project? Well after 5 days of nonstop listening, here’s the “4 Your Eyez Only” breakdown.
In a short but sweet 10 song project with no skits, no interludes, and of course, no features, J. Cole captures a new stage of his life as it parallels that of his friend James McMillan Jr., whose life pattern follows a similar but tragically different path. The album explores themes of parenthood, death, and racial inequality in the smooth and seamless way only King Cole is capable of doing. The album also lacks any major radio singles as he maintains his standard of rapping from his heart and not for stardom, which he set on his 2014 album Forest Hill Drives (which, if you haven’t heard, went double platinum with no features).
The main narrative of this project is twofold, written both from the perspective of Jermaine, a new husband, and father, and from that of James who also fathered a daughter, but his life was cut short due to gang violence. Jermaine uses the life of James to contrast his own life struggles as he attempts to navigate the mundane aspects of adult life while contemplating the harsh realities of James, who never made it out of a life of drugs, violence, and poverty. The first half of the project primarily follows James as his past life of gang banging catches up with him, foreshadowing his own death. The second half of the album gives us a look into Cole’s life having left the inner city for the ‘burbs. Both characters reflect upon raising daughters and their abilities to do so given their upbringing in a world of both implicit and systemic racism. The album closes with a message from the since-past James to his daughter through J. Cole reminiscent of Kendrick Lamar’s “Sing About Me”.
To be blunt, this album literally sounds like adulthood; relatively unexciting but very real. Unless you’re married with children, this probably isn’t the album you want to turn up to. J. Cole’s made it clear that he has no intention of producing music for the radio so each song sounds best within the context of the album. Having said that, songs like “Immortal” and “Change” stand out for their exceptional lyricism and flow while “She’s Mine” Pt. 1 and 2 may be the most important songs J. Coles ever recorded. Cole does not deviate from his typical jazz influenced production style, opting for live instruments and old R&B samples over heavily computer-generated sounds standard to the industry. While his verses are poignant and inspired, his hooks are less so, although thankfully, they never get as bad as “I ain’t never did this before” on this album.
4YEO’s brilliance lies in J. Cole’s ability to take his experiences and complex social issues and explain them through simple, clear cut lyrical narrative. Lines like “Affected by mass incarceration in this nation/ that sent your pops to prison when he needed education” both challenge our notion of criminal justice and display his lyrical prowess. To some extent, you can make the argument that his songs are about as deep as a 5th-grade interpretation of “Catcher and the Rye”, but that’s the point! Cole’s extremely accessible to listeners of many backgrounds which tend to bothers some of the more
elitist ‘highbrow’ listeners who want something complex and abstract enough to exclude the common listener. So no, you’re not ‘enlightened’ because you understood a double entendre about gentrification, but you’re also not pretentious for seeking some social commentary in your music.
Branching from a long tradition of conscious rap, Cole represents a break from the production driven artistry of industry rappers. He makes music for himself and that’s precisely what music fans both love and hate about him. But is it really too much to ask for an artist to be both socially conscious and radio-ready? To say this is the best project Cole could make is to sell him short on his ability to create both sonically captivating and poignant songs. Songs like Crooked Smile or Power Trip. In a way, Cole’s separation from the industry is to be expected from someone who is, for the most part, extremely low key. The man has millions of fans in an age where anyone with a cellphone is a journalist and no one realized he got married or that his wife was pregnant. It’s clear this isolation helps Cole tap into his innermost self which revolves around his family and friends but what does that mean for us that arguably one of the most socially conscious artist is cut off from society? On one end, we can always expect the same Cole we know and love, uninfluenced by the constantly changing tide of the game, but on the other end, we may just continue to hear a cycle of the same couple stories. While there is no doubt J. Cole’s fan base will keep him at the top of the rap game through this album, it’s questionable whether he can keep this up with hip hop fans only getting younger and lyricism valued less. In his own words, “how long can [he] survive with this mentality’?
The bottom line is, this album was good but regardless of if you agree or not, you’ll be hearing it a lot considering J. Cole fans could probably make his album go double platinum with no songs.
On a scale of 1 – Friday Night Lights this album is a 7.6
“She fuck with small town niggas I got bigger dreams”
“I can’t sleep cuz I’m paranoid/ black in a white mans territoty”
“Every saint’s got a past, every sinners got a future/ every losers gotta win and every winners gotta lose someday”