Few rap artists are as polarizing as Jermaine Lamarr Cole. The Roc Nation rapper from Fayetteville, N.C., better known as J. Cole, has split listeners for years. Critics have called him corny, boring, and preachy. Others have praised him for speaking out on issues other rappers won’t touch, such as fears of death, love, and ultimately most aspects of life that do not revolve solely around fame, money, sex or drugs. I have always respected J. Cole for his ability to craft dense narrative stories in his work. Cole showed the world he could craft an entirely individual album worthy of platinum certification on 2014 Forest Hills Drive. With this year’s 4 Your Eyez Only, Cole takes an even greater step back from mainstream rap, and a leap forward as one of today’s strongest lyricists.
The ten-track album linearly explores aspects of an individual’s life with each song. Through the first half of the album, J. Cole illustrates the shifting nature of the mind during formative years of youth, searching for purpose and reason. On For Whom the Bells Toll, arguably one of Cole’s most somber tracks to date, he admits to fears of dying and worries he holds about the legacy he will leave. With Immortal, the focus shifts to false pride and confidence those surviving on the streets are expected to keep. “All I see is that C.R.E.A.M. n—a, that green, I’m a black king, black jeans on my black queen,” Cole raps in one verse, before cautioning against such beliefs in the outro, “They tellin’ n—-s ‘Sell dope, rap or go to NBA’ (in that order), It’s that sort of thinkin’ that been keepin’ n—as chained.” Deja Vu, a track I expect to explode in live performances, examines a struggle with conflicted romantic feelings. In Ville Mentality, Cole reflects on these themes and seems to realize the need to mature past them.
On She’s Mine Pt. 1, J. Cole shifts forward in life. On the melodic love song, the artist expresses his adoration for a woman and his need to open to her about his troubled past. “The same wall that’s stopping me from letting go and shedding tears, from the lack of having father, and the passing of my peers. While I’m too scared to expose myself, it turns out, you know me better than I know myself,” he says. With new-found love, Cole takes on a more positive perspective in the rhythmic Change. One of the densest tracks on the album lyrically and my personal favorite, Cole remains conscious of his splintered identity, but finds that “the only real change come from inside.” Listeners are also given the first direct reference to the death of J. Cole’s friend James McMillan Jr. in the mournful outro. With a back-and-forth flow and a bass-heavy beat, Neighbors, may be the closest to a mainstream rap track on the project, yet Cole never wavers from his conscientious approach. “I can’t sleep cause I’m paranoid, black in a white man territory. Cops bust in with the army guns, no evidence of the harm we done,” Cole raps. Finally, in Foldin Clothes, J. Cole takes a rather unprecedented approach for the genre in discussing the ways he hopes to aid his pregnant significant other.
With She’s Mine Pt. 2, Cole expresses new love once again, this time for a newborn girl. The track is another shift of maturity. The previously troubled artist has found his purpose. “Don’t want to die, ‘cause now you’re here,” he says, bringing the album full-circle from the opening track, leading into the crucial finale, 4 Your Eyez Only. The album’s title track reveals the metaphorical nature of the entire album. In the first verse, the true character of the album, whom many believe to be the previously mentioned McMillan, reveals that the project is a way of connecting with his daughter after his death. “If the pressure get to much for me to take and I break, play this tape for my daughter and let her know my life is on it,” Cole raps. The father gives his daughter a glimpse into his own life and the circumstances that took him away, hoping desperately that she will find a better life outside of the cyclical pattern he knows he was caught in. Marked by an extended drum and violin instrumental, Cole returns as himself in the final verse to explain the album’s meaning in his own words. The father tells Cole “The only thing I’m proud to say ‘I was a father,’ write my story down and if I pass, go play it for my daughter.” With his final bars, J. Cole expresses his thoughts on mass incarceration and life in the projects before revealing to the daughter that her father was a special man because of his love for her if nothing else.
Upon first listen, many will take J. Cole’s fourth studio album as another slow, and preachy project. Rather, I believe the narrative arc and metaphorical continuity drawn across these ten individual tracks are masterful examples of the fact that lyricism in rap music is not dead, but forgotten by those calculating artistic prowess using mainstream success.
Written By: Aaron Nelson