Dead tired and trapped by the ever looming work week, I return for another Sunday Soliloquy. Unlike last week, where I had something that was very clearly and presently on my mind, this week I’m a little less impassioned. However, I do feel like there are some music related things that I can talk about.
This past weekend, J. Cole’s fourth album 4 Your Eyez Only was released and, for the first time since 2013’s Born Sinner, I stopped everything to listen. Well, actually I didn’t. I heard some clamor and some whispers from a variety of people who wanted to praise the album or call it good, but I didn’t hear the right hype. I wasn’t hearing the kind of hype that would make me ignore the hype and listen to the album as it is. That finally changed when I began to talk to my closer friends about it and hear that they weren’t quite sure how to feel about the album. My brother said to him it sounded like a mixtape. One of my friends found that it was very different than what he’s heard from Cole before. Mixed hype signals make for positive listening experiences and Cole’s album is no exception.
I won’t spoil too much, but just know that 4 Your Eyez Only is a periodic sentence in the form of a rap album. It may take two listens and a re-listen to understand where Cole is coming from. Lyrically the album is well done and takes on a similar tone and presentation to the highlights of Forest Hills Drive. Production wise it feels about the same. Sonically, Cole is in his lane and has advanced further up it. There isn’t a banging of well-known production styles and no “if Young Metro….” taglines. In more ways than one, the album is quiet and intimate. Its the kind of album that you listen to with a close friend or partner in lieu of a Netflix movie or documentary. It requires your attention, which is something I didn’t fully give it in my initial two listens (I was grading). However, I will admit that as critical as I am of J. Cole (he’s got the ability and intellect to push all of the boundaries lyrically but has admitted to choosing relatability and simplicity for the sake of popularity (and financial gain??)), this album was actually a major improvement.
Jermaine Cole is the rapper who, while technically gifted, was never good at extended concepts throughout his albums. He came to underground fame with “sideline stories”, but used these more as a cover for his story as an artist than as a table of contents. You couldn’t listen to or read song titles and lyrics and REALLY see the sideline story come to life. Born Sinner, while a good album by all means, suffered from much of the same. Cole could collect the songs, some of which that dealt with the theme extensively, but struggled to tie his own authentic life into this concept very fluidly. 4 Your Eyez Only is the album that J. Cole wished he could’ve made five years ago. This is an album that pushes the boundary of what we’ve been looking to as concept albums, just like Kendrick’s seminal work to date To Pimp A Butterfly…did.
While there are surely concept albums that take on personal things, I am hard pressed to think of a concept album that so purely and innocently became a concept album. 4 Your Eyez Only is an album that tells the story of someone else’s life (now that I think of it like The Mars Volta’s Deloused in the Comatorium), but at the request of the person FOR someone else. In a way that is magical and is, again, extremely authentic, J. Cole has created an album to spread life lessons without preaching. And the subject of the album asked for it to be done.
In a role that surprisingly suits him, Cole plays the biographer for someone else’s life throughout the entirety of his album, choosing only to rap from his own perspective on a few rare occasions. In a beautiful twist, Cole creates a rap album for someone who neither had the words, the ability, or the time to say these things himself. And that’s real. That’s authentic. Essentially, Cole is Alex Haley. His subject is a Malcolm X, one who never was able to truly act upon the redemption that he found. And in an innocent pursuit, J. Cole has done something truly monumental.
People may not bump it on every speaker or sing its highest praises, but to me, this personal rap album is the greatest album that J. Cole has made. In making it, J. Cole has done something that no other rapper on his level has done AND J. Cole has found a way to leverage some of his greatest strengths. Is it replicable? Perhaps not. However, for the time being, Cole has all eyez on him.