One year ago J. Cole released his fourth album, 4 Your Eyez Only, and for those 365 days, I’ve felt that the album never got its just due. Despite a platinum plaque, a sold out tour, and a documentary, it came and went in the public conversation. It’s the closest that Cole has gotten to challenging himself and his fans in a substantive way, and an encouraging sign of how he sees his role in the industry.
Much has been said about why J. Cole is so polarizing in hip hop, but I’ve never hated or loved him; I’ve mostly stayed in the middle. On paper, he’s exactly what I look for in a rapper: strong flows and rhyme schemes, reasonably thoughtful lyricism, and a dedication to cultivating a fanbase without leaning on big-name cameos. Plus, he works to make an impact on the real world with actions like visiting Ferguson, Missouri, during the protests over the killing of Mike Brown, or turning his old home at 2014 Forest Hills Drive into a safe haven for single mothers. But his music never connected with me. I always felt it either teetered on respectability politics (“No Role Modelz”), or gave surface level evaluations to issues instead of the deeper, nuanced ruminations that are needed to truly pick things apart. And of course, there’s the “J. Cole is boring” criticism: his production doesn’t pop, his corniness can be overbearing.
But what makes 4 Your Eyez Only so powerful and a significant leap beyond his previous work is the emotion at the heart of it. For much of the album, Cole constucts a narrative told from a first-person perspective of a character who runs the streets, falls in love, and gets gunned down right as he’s about to turn his life around. (Cole has said in interviews that the protagonist is an amalgamation of three of his real life friends.) The character, sensing that his death is near, asks Cole to tell his story to his daughter who will never get a chance to know him. The story culminates with the album-closing title track, which finds Cole tenderly speaking to the daughter while eulogizing his fallen friend.
The album is a watershed moment for Cole, both topically and musically. Cole usually raps about his own experience, while his fans find ways to relate. But 4 Your Eyez Only feels like an entire album that stems from his song “Be Free,” Cole’s heartfelt dedication to Michael Brown and other young black men killed by police. (He smartly refused to put that song on 2014 Forest Hills Drive so he couldn’t profit from it monetarily). 4 Your Eyez Only serves as a transition, from Cole being a spokesman for college undergrads to being a advocate for black people who are oppressed by law enforcement. That mission continues in his HBO documentary 4 Your Eyez Only, where Cole made a point to tell the stories of poor black people in the communities that he’s visiting instead of focusing on himself.
More than half of 4 Your Eyez Only’s songs channel the perspective of his imagined protagonist. On the first listen to those songs, listeners may not even realize that Cole is portraying a character. But anyone who knows his story knows he’s not talking about himself. “Have you ever served a fiend with a pocket full of soap?/ Nigga I can tell you things that you probably shouldn’t know/ Have you ever heard the screams when the body hit the floor?/ Flashbacks to the pain, wakin’ up, cold sweats/ Six o’clock in the mornin’, gotta hit the BowFlex,” he rhymes on “Immortal.” The approach builds sympathy from listeners who think they’re listening to the story of someone they already know.
But the inevitable realization that Cole is portraying another person isn’t completely clear until the stunning finale. While the protagonist is talking about running the streets on songs like “Ville Mentality,” Cole is busy dodging racial profiling at his suburban household on “Neighbors.” Both find love on “She’s Mine, Pt. 1,” but while Cole gets to laugh at himself for doing domestic chores and drinking almond milk with his lady on “Foldin Clothes,” the protagonist never gets to experience those simple pleasures after he is killed during “Change.” When it comes to police brutality, or all inner city violence for that matter, it isn’t just the killings that makes them tragic, it’s the loss of the moments that young people will never got to experience. Cole finds a way to both blur the lines and paint stark differences: While he lives a privileged life different from the people he’s portraying, he also sees a lot of himself in them and recognizes the common experiences they share.
4 Your Eyez Only also fixes most of the flaws of J. Cole’s other albums. Gone is the preachiness in songs like “No Role Modelz” or “False Prophets,” as well as the self-pity in tracks like “Let Nas Down.” On 4 Your Eyez Only he arguably portrays a character better than he’s ever done for himself, adding an attention to detail that his other releases were lacking. Cole wrote a book with this album, compared to the Cliff Notes of some of his previous works. The corny, unbearable lines that marred his previous work are minimized here; the closest he gets is in “Foldin Clothes,”
and even that has great production and delivers a sentiment that adds a new element to the album’s gravitas. His self-production can often be bland and formulaic, but here it takes a somber tone that matches the subject matter, while live instruments on songs like the title track and “Change” add to the depth. Also, as usual, less is more: 4 Your Eyez Only is J. Cole’s shortest album, and there isn’t a song wasted.
This approach was a challenge for both Cole and his fans. 4 Your Eyez Only is the first time of note that J. Cole has pushed his supporters to figure things out on their own, rather than him beating them over the head with his message. It pushes fans to be thinkers instead of listeners, and it shows discipline, restraint, and confidence from an artist who is used to giving every answer immediately. It’s what his fans, and this entire country, needs, and Cole did his part to deliver it.