J. Cole’s newest album has finally been released amidst high expectations from his fans and the hip hop community. Two tracks that didn’t make the final cut have been released prior to this, and I would recommend listening to them because they are lyrically fantastic have cool videos: ‘False Prophets’ and ‘Everybody Dies’. Judging by these tracks and the fact that the album was recorded at the legendary Electric Lady Studios as part of Cole’s Dreamville label, (this process has been documented in a damn good documentary available on YouTube) the smell of ground-breaking work was in the air and my hopes were also extremely high.
The album is featureless, which I guess makes sense, as it is so personal that it feels like a diary. Cole discusses the pressures on black society in America throughout the album, with ‘Ville Mentality’ describing the need to escape from the fate that your environment dictates and ‘Change’ highlighting the importance of independence in the face of turbulence and tragedy. The way in which Cole writes is allegorical and never obvious, yet down to earth; ‘Neighbors’ expresses frustration due to prejudice from the affluent community he has worked hard to become a part of, only to find that ‘the neighbors think I’m sellin’ dope’. This is also true for ‘Foldin’ Clothes’, which has been subject to a bit of shade, perhaps because it seems to be about simply doing household chores. However, knowing J. Cole’s ability to create symbols in his work, this is about so much more. The song is about finding solace in the mundane and appreciation of the fact that a ‘normal life’ can be peaceful and not boring; which is pretty profound and beautiful, in the context of the rest of the album.
This theme has lead Cole’s work to be branded as ‘raptivism’, and to be honest, this wasn’t the first thing that sprang to mind when I listened to the album. In fact, I was uplifted by the fact that finally someone was talking about something real in a non-preachy way. I think Cole is extremely gifted for expressing his perceptions in a way that is both creative and pragmatic, and I hope he will lead the way for other artists in this sense. This is what music should be about! Not that all music should be about the same issues that this album tackles, but it would be nice if it was as sincere, without the need labels like 'raptivism' to address something that isn't simply BS.
Another detectable subject of the songs is that of fatherhood, and this is where it gets a little complicated as there has been speculation about Cole’s actual character in this album. It is believed that he is speaking from the perspective of a friend, as well as himself, and to his friend’s daughter, or perhaps his own daughter? Either way, the final track ‘4 Your Eyez Only’ is undoubtedly a message to a child and serves as an explanation and apology for the life he has had, the world she has been born into, and his wishes for her future. This final title track seemed to make the whole album a dedication and almost feels like a message to Cole’s or his friend’s offspring, full of sadness at bringing a child into a world where it might experience terrible things, while offering advice as to how to combat this.
In spite of the lack of features on the album, a number of highly skilled musicians and producers were involved, among them Elite and Ron Gilmore, with an extremely hands-on approach from J. Cole in terms of production, playing bass and guitar. The full credits can be seen here, thank you Complex! So the result is that, musically, this album feels rougher round the edges and more homemade, in the best way. Stylistically, Cole harks at jazz and classic R&B but unites them with modern beats as with the hypnotic minimalism in the first track, ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’. This song, along with ‘Ville Mentality’, is in triple time - not typical for hip hop, but it sounds great. I love Cole’s singing voice and that this has had plenty of airtime on 4 Your Eyez Only; there’s plenty of luscious, dreamy harmonies (‘Foldin’ Clothes’). The album creates a range of atmospheres and goes from tasteful trap (‘Immortal’ and ‘Deja Vu’) to more vintage sounds (‘She’s Mine’ Pts 1 & 2). Both versions of ‘She’s Mine’ include a Wurlitzer of which I’m a huge advocate, and juxtaposed with melancholic strings and delicate piano make the backing feel similar to the score of a film noir, which isn’t ill-fitting given the violent and tragic themes of the album.
I have always been a fan of J. Cole, noting his intellectual observance and refined musical style. However, he should be lauded for rejecting mainstream values for this album, as it has enabled him to reach a new level lyrically and musically. The evident success of this album is a positive sign that great work is achievable and can be noticed on a large scale when independent, not just when under the thumb of controlling organisations.