4 Your Eyez Only isn’t the grand departure some have been begging from Cole.
To promote his fourth studio album 4 Your Eyez Only, J. Cole released a throwaway track called “False Prophets,” whose opening verse that, without naming names, vilifies Kanye West and his recent catastrophic fall from grace. The problem isn’t that the passive aggressive darts Cole sends Ye’s way are wrong. But more than any of his protégés, Cole represents the style West made famous in the mixtapes that preceded The College Dropout, with dusty drums, soul samples and hefty self-obsession. The difference is that, over the last several years, Cole has failed to evolve as an artist, while Kanye has reinvented himself countless times.
4 Your Eyez Only isn’t the grand departure some have been begging from Cole. Sonically, he’s become a more proficient, disciplined version of the man who first caught the public’s attention with blog era mixtapes like The Come Up and The Warm Up. His production is tighter, more textured, his wordplay less bogged down by awkward punchlines. If you love J. Cole, this album preaches to the choir. If you’re the admin of a Facebook meme page dedicated to skewering his sleepy musical stylings and his condescending fan base, you can go ahead and begin photoshopping Steph Curry shooting this album cover into a recycling bin from the three-point line.
A game changer, this is not. But it’s an improvement on Cole’s previous studio efforts. At a lean ten tracks, it’s one of the more concise rap releases of the ‘10s. 4 Your Eyez Only is the rare hip-hop concept album confident enough to tell a story without the cloying crutch of multiple skits and interludes.
It helps that the narrative is painfully simple. Cole interpolates his own “State of the Union” style updates on his life and place in the pop culture landscape with the more compelling tale of his deceased friend “James.” This is a fictionalized version of one of Cole’s peers who was slain gangbanging. Much of the LP has Cole stepping into James’ shoes and dramatizing his life for the sake of the daughter his friend left behind. It’s a straightforward conceit, but one that provides serious mileage to the otherwise staid J. Cole sound.
The album’s title is a clear homage to Tupac Shakur, an artist who above all else embodied a kind of emotional honesty few rappers since have come close to, let alone match. While a blasphemous comparison to make, there’s just a little shred of ‘Pac in the intensity and passion that Cole gives the album’s hooks. Tracks like “Immortal” present a self-aware sureness that Cole had only hinted at before. Now that he’s made it, he’s beyond faking it. At times, his delivery is so full-throated and sharp, it suggests a hunger deeper and more consuming than his early years. The production, aided by more guiding hands than previous outings (among them Drake collaborators Boi-1da and Vinylz), follows a similar tack. Closing numbers “She’s Mine Pt. 2” and the title track are powered by the richest, most cinematic string arrangements on a major hip-hop album since Late Registration.
J. Cole isn’t as restlessly inventive or innovative as Kendrick Lamar. He’s also not as charismatic or solipsistic as Drake. Here he smartly splits the difference between his closest competitors. Cole can’t match the wild berth Kendrick possesses as a storyteller, so he keeps his focus small and centers the tale of James with emotional specificity above ambitious rhyme plotting. He’s nearly as comfortable falling down the rabbit hole of his own insecurities as Drake, but here, contrasting his discomfort in the limelight with his friend’s life being cut short, Cole is able to make keener, more resonant observations than on his last album.
“Foldin Clothes” still reeks of the corniness Cole’s detractors love to point out, delivered with such sweet, nourishing sincerity it’s hard to hate. His fan base still believes he’s hip-hop’s heir apparent, but this album makes a counter argument. Perhaps this niche is where Cole shines best. Not on the throne, but on a park bench, speaking plainly about hard-to-parse elements of the black male experience.