Review: J. Cole’s ‘4 Your Eyez Only’

4 Your Eyez Only was dropped on the 9th December 2016, two years to the date from 2014 Forest Hill Drive, a double platinum selling album, and just under one month after Q-Tip hailed Cole as one of the four new ‘gatekeepers of flow’. Despite the fact that there was almost no promotion for Cole’s fourth studio album, other than to promise to drop it on the 9th, 4 Your Eyez Only was one of the most anticipated records of 2016, and many thought it would fall short. Those critics are now divided, unsure whether to condemn or applaud this piece of work. The forty-four minute album is complex. It requires a certain degree of decoding, making for a musical piece of literature worthy of a title beyond a simple concept album. It covers themes of racism, loneliness, depression, and death, portrayed mostly through the protagonist James McMillan Jr, who was a friend of Cole’s stuck in the downward spiral of ghetto life, which eventually and inevitably took his life. Despite this, there are some tracks, namely ‘Neighbors’, that are spoken from Cole’s point of view.

The opening track, ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls,’ serves to set up the tone of the album. Cole’s vocals are mournful, melodic and delivered as a ballad rather than a rap. He explores the ideas of loneliness and depression as a direct result of the mass incarceration and slaughter of his friends within the ghetto. Additionally, a sample of a cassette tape being put into a tape player occupies the first few seconds of the track, symbolic of Cole telling the story of McMillan Jr to his daughter, Nina. This is the first hint, although merely implicit, to McMillan Jr. ‘Immortal’ follows and it takes the opening track one step further. Peppered with aggression and protest, this track depicts the frustration and angst of a man caught in a downward spiral inflicted upon him by the socio-economic forces above. This track demonstrates the central focus of McMillan Jr to 4 Your Eyez Only. ‘Immortal’ also boasts intricate and powerful lyrics that truly highlight the de facto racism that has engrained itself in places of poverty:

They tellin’ niggas sell dope, rap or go to NBA, in that order
It’s that sort of thinkin’ that been keepin’ niggas chained
At the bottom and hanged

‘Déjà vu’ is the succeeding track and is a weak example of Cole’s talent. Other than a strong instrumental, which was allegedly stolen by Foreign Teck for Bryson Tiller’s song ‘Exchange,’ the track falls short of expectation. The lyricism is poor, it appears to be an inverse to his hit song ‘No Role Modelz’ from his prior album and in relation to 4 Your Eyez Only, it seems irrelevant and peculiar to the rest of the album. However, despite this, it is the most played track on the album on Spotify, Apple Music, and Tidal.

J. Cole on What Dreams May Come Tour.

Lyrically, ‘Vile Mentality’ is the logical successor to ‘Immortal.’ It depicts the deep insecurities of the protagonist McMillan Jr, revolving around the notion of inevitable death and the search for asylum, both physically and emotionally. The music is harmonious yet disconcerting and the juxtaposition of a heavy bass, lullaby piano and self-loathing lyrics proves to be a unique listen. It also features a monologue from a small girl, intended to represent McMillan Jr’s daughter Nina, where she details her need for her late father, which only exacerbates the aforementioned contradiction.

‘She’s Mine Pt. 1’ and ‘Pt. 2’ use the exact same instrumental bar a crying baby heard in Pt. 2. This effect is used to portray the idea that the love for a spouse is equally powerful but contextually different to one’s love for their children. It is unclear from what perspective the lyrics are delivered, whether it be Cole or McMillan Jr, but the beautiful floating piano, played by long-term producer Ron Gilmore, plays well with the theme of love and runs a lot smoother than ‘Vile Mentality.’

‘Changes’ joins ‘Déjà vu’ as one of the tracks that compromises the album’s potential. Its position in the album warrants an eye-opening track akin to ‘Fire Squad’ or ‘G.O.M.D,’ which are middle tracks from 2014 Forest Hills Drive, yet ‘Changes’ is a lull of pale, ornate music indicative of poor production. Fortunately, the following track, ‘Neighbours,’ is exceptional. Widely considered the best single on the album, it is a protest against a police raid carried out on Cole’s home in March 2016 on suspicions of drug dealing. It plays on the idea of de facto racism and the act of implicit segregation. The instrumental is bass-heavy and the lyrics complex and relevant. This is one of the essential tracks of the album.

‘Foldin’ Clothes’ is Cole’s third love ballad of the album. Its central focus is the importance of carrying out the little things that make a loving marriage what it is, such as folding laundry. This type of content is becoming increasingly evident in hip hop with the likes of Stormzy exercising the same ideas.

J. Cole performing on What Dreams May Come Tour at London Music Hall

The title track is, personally, the best song on the album and is pivotal in understanding the album as a concept. The first three verses are spoken from the perspective of McMillan Jr and contain insightful lyrics that ultimately demonstrate the moral nature of the protagonist despite his immediate appearance as nothing but a criminal. Cole then goes on to finish the song with a verse dedicated to Nina, explaining why he wrote this album for her through her father. The song and album is summed up by the concluding lines: “Your daddy was a real nigga ‘cos he loved you. For your eyes only.” This is undoubtedly one of the most authentic and moving conclusions to a hip hop album, if not of all genres. To add to this, a sample of the cassette player finishing cements the notion that 4 Your Eyez Only was intended as a means of McMillan Jr leaving his true legacy behind for his daughter 

4 Your Eyez Only is written by an artist at the top of his game, striving to go even further. Whilst some songs could be considered to distort the album, the overall consensus is that it is exceptional, incandescent, provocative and a moving tribute to both McMillan Jr and the struggles of the impoverished black community. However, it does lack the cutting edge of 2014 Forest Hills Drive through inferior production and this sometimes makes the album occasionally tiresome. That said, a political concept album was the expected venture for Cole and he has lived up to his new title as one of the ‘gatekeepers of flow’. Hopefully, we may live to see the collaboration between Cole and some of the other new gatekeepers, particularly Kendrick Lamar.

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