The real is back. While Christmas is still a ways away, hip hop heads got to open an early present as North Carolina rapper J. Cole put out his fourth studio album, “4 Your Eyez Only.” This comes on the heels of his record label, Dreamville Records, releasing the 39-minute short film “EYEZ” on Tidal, and putting out two singles that surprisingly did not make the final cut.
The two songs, “False Prophets” and “Everybody Dies,” were incorporated into the documentary as a sort of formal return from his two-year hiatus. They made a big splash on social media, as “False Prophets” addresses fellow rappers and “Everybody Dies” calls out the new generation of rap.
In the first song, Cole raps about Kanye West’s fall from grace and Wale’s struggle for mainstream success over a Joey Bada$$ “Waves” beat (written by Freddie Joachim). The latter track is more incendiary as he calls out “Lil’ whatever,” referencing Lil Yachty and Lil Uzi Vert and the growth of mumble rap.
With so much weight and media attention surrounding these two songs, and to have them not make the final cut, avid listeners were definitely excited for the drop on Dec. 9. If the album could be summarized in one word, it would be real. Cole talks about real problems while remaining true to himself.
He raps about contemporary segregation in “Neighbors,” love in “She’s Mine Pts. 1 and 2,” and raising a little girl under trying circumstances in the album’s self-titled finale.
The whole album is addressing his late friend’s daughter, and swaps between first and third person points of view, from his eyes to his deceased friend’s. Although the perspective flips can be confusing, Cole understands and empathizes with the little girl (who is on the back of the physical copy) since he has his own child on the way.
Throughout the album, there is a balanced combination of slow sentimental songs, smooth pop music, and hard, trappy bars. This versatility exemplifies Cole’s range and music ability in singing, producing, and rapping. It also tells listeners that Cole is not afraid to experiment with new techniques, something he is constantly knocked for.
For example, the track “Ville Mentality” encapsulates the ideas of pushing the envelope and maintaining healthy apathy towards critics as he includes soulful, yet off-key singing in the chorus, which is set to an orchestral string backdrop. The rapper is drawing from his old habits while testing new waters, an encouraging sign of progress.
Other songs worth noting are “Deja Vu” and “Change.” Listening to the former might give the listener actual déjà vu since Cole raps over Bryson Tiller’s “Exchange,” which lead to some production controversy. Lyrically, it tells a tale of love and Cole’s maturation as an individual. “Change” is quite possibly my personal favorite on the 4YEO, since it is reminiscent of the smooth, head-bumping rhymes that got people invested in Cole in 2009, with works like “The Warm Up” and “Friday Night Lights.”
Cole is a very polarizing musician. People either love him or love to hate on him, the in-between is very uncommon. He is often attacked for being boring, corny, and having a stale and mundane rap style. It is encouraging that this album shows more diversity, weaving a storyline within a collection of politically and socially influenced tracks.
His experimentation with new types of songs and incorporation of topical issues might change the way Cole’s haters think of him. As for Cole, he does not care about what the media or music critics have to say: he tries to be authentic and speak the truth in the face of adversity.
Much like his last work, “2014 Forest Hills Drive,” Cole had no outside assistance on this album. “FHD” was synonymous with the phrase “double platinum with no features” and it looks like “4 Your Eyez Only” is on pace, as it reached number one on the iTunes charts within minutes of its release. Also, like his previous album, the rapper did not hype up a late December release date, downplaying the commercial success of what is a remarkable work.
He has always adopted this style of presentation. Cole has a low key personality, never excessively flaunting, keeping quiet on social media, and hardly advertising his new tracks or works. This mentality reflects beautifully in the authenticity of his work, as his message is clear: stay true and genuine to the art form.