A deeply personal album 4 Your Eyez Only represents J. Cole's most mature and cohesive record to date.
4 Your Eyez Only was previewed by a 40-minute documentary, filmed at the Electric Lady Studios in New York during the album recording sessions, which provides some insight into the creative process behind the record. It presents Jermaine Cole as a humble, grounded man, inquisitive in nature, grateful for his success and invested in making positive change. This suggests why so many fans have taken to him so keenly, particularly in a genre famed for its larger than life characters and bravado. Indeed, much of 4 Your Eyez Only feels like Cole's pitch for spokesman of a generation, the voice of the young, isolated and exasperated. Above the snarling snaps of "Immortal" this feels very much a reality. The stark graphic storytelling is absorbing, packed with rhetorical questions and social insight and reflection. Sonically, the thick drum lines and rolling hi-hats are a fusion of new and old aesthetics, with Cole putting a foot in each camp; a student of old school hip-hop but a product of modern times.
Throughout the album, there are fantastic examples of his long lauded lyrical and songwriting prowess, driven by social outrage and emotional investment and pulled together by an often compelling narrative. The album acts as a loose telling of the life and times of James McMillan Jr, a childhood friend of Cole’s (whose name was changed for privacy), who was shot dead, leaving behind a young daughter and had asked Cole to tell his story in the event he died. It charts his decisions to run the streets and sell drugs (“Immortal”), the conflicting desire to provide and care for his girlfriend and daughter (“She’s Mine”) and the anxieties and fears that he won't be around to do just this (“4 Your Eyez Only”). However, the album is also laced with autobiographical details of Cole’s life, as he himself recently became a father, and more broadly it could be taken to be the narrative of so many young black people living around the world.
There are also reflections on the social forces driving racial relations in modern America. Highlight “Neighbours” reflects on the mentality of the white elite of America, the inherent racism that can quickly rear its ugly head and, particularly in light of recent events, lead to more threatening situations. It is based on the raid of the Sheltuh, a creative space for Dreamville (Cole’s label and social foundation) associates with a studio in the basement, which was raided for drug offences. The raid is reported to have followed a tip from the local community, who were concerned by the comings and goings they had seen at the property. Similarly, on “Immortal” Cole laments the racial inequality that has seen just 14 black astronauts at NASA and none of these have stepped foot on the moon and the injustices that leave so many people feeling they have little choice in direction but to follow the pre-ordained route of “sell dope, rap or go to the NBA".
However, alongside the exasperation and frustration there is hope and the desire to make positive changes. “Change” sees the lead character embrace the idea of reform and distancing himself from the negative influences of the past. However the startling reminder at the end of the record is that however hard someone tries to pull away from their past they can always be pulled back in twice as quick, as the perspective flips back to Cole himself as he reads and hears reports of McMillan’s death at the age of 22. Most startlingly, the words from his funeral provide a grim reminder of the reality of many families across America.
Alongside the work of artists such as Sly and the Family Stone and Marvin Gaye through to more recent contributions from the likes of Kendrick Lamar and Solange, it is important that major label artists focus on these community and social issues in a positive manner, recognising the conditions and pressures that lead to the difficulties and imploring change at all levels; personal, local communities and governmental. Whilst 4 Your Eyez Only may not be full of the political rage and rhetoric of Run the Jewels or the figurehead positioning of To Pimp a Butterfly, it presents another perspective, a simpler, more grounded viewpoint. The record is written from the point of view of the very people who the media frequently discuss but rarely talk directly to. In its own way, it makes 4 Your Eyez Only as powerful as any of these other releases that have been held up by critics and fans alike.
To that end, for the most part, 4 Your Eyez Only places the narrative above any pursuit of chart success. The one moment that is something of an outlier on the record is “Deja Vu”, based on a sample of “Swing My Way” by K.P. & Envyi, and one of the weaker tracks on the album. Cole has previously suffered criticism for his self-righteous and at times corny approach to bigger issues. Album preview “False Prophets” sees Cole reflecting on the disillusionment he feels looking at the work of those musicians he had previously considered his idols. Whilst no one is called out by name, and however credible Cole is as an artist, this standpoint is likely to alienate someone. Luckily much of this grandstanding is missing from 4 Your Eyez Only, with “Deja Vu” the closest he comes to falling foul of this again as he questions, “I hear you got a man but who in their right mind is letting you out the house alone, is your house a home."
Elsewhere on the album, “Folding Clothes” threatens to be another corny moment in the vein of “Crooked Teeth”. However, in the context of the record if presents a picture of domesticated bliss amidst the turmoil of life outside, a moment of serene peace and happiness. Whether this is the continued narrative of McMillan or Cole reflecting on his own life, it is so refreshing in a genre so often tarred by misogyny and testosterone-fuelled posturing to hear a major label artist who isn’t afraid of the backlash that may sadly result from that decision.
It also introduces the only other co-stars of the record, Cole’s own family and his daughter, who can take much credit for the inspiration which drives some of the softer and more sincere moments on the record. This makes 4 Your Eyez Only his most personal release to date, as well as his most mature, sombre but rewarding. Nowhere is this more evident than the title track, which closes the record and pulls together all of the narrative streams of the album across its near nine-minute running time.
Cole’s constantly improving ear as a producer is also very evident, as he handles production on the whole record, ably supported by a roster of Dreamville collaborators and bigger names such as Boi-1da, Frank Dukes and Donnie Trumpet. The warm, rich and organic full band compositions are laden in strings, punctuated by keys and guitar lines and underpinned by thick drums and heavy basslines. This is refreshing to hear in an era of handclaps, trap and 808s and can feel like the antithesis to many modern electronic hip hop productions. Barring “Deja Vu”, there is also sonic cohesion throughout, supporting and complementing the lyrical narrative. However, the production can, over the course of the 10 tracks, feel like Cole is too entrenched in his own comfort zone and no single song possesses the cannon punch of the high points of 2014 Forest Hills Drive, namely “G.O.M.D” or “03 Adolescence”. The brevity of the record feels like another sign of Cole’s pursuit of classic status. Unfortunately 4 Your Eyez Only does not quite reach Illmatic status, with the production not quite as consistent as that record nor the content as focussed. The narrative can at times be confused, with the death of McMillian coming before he has had a chance to reflect on his domestic position for example. Maybe this lack of narrative linearity is in part a conscious effort to reflect this story is not isolated to one situation or person and the way Cole interweaves his own personal story as part of a broader multi narrative approach is clever and well delivered.
That this record is not a classic is not to say that this isn’t a great album and it has some outstanding high points. Cole deserves great artistic credit for approaching such a challenging topic in an original manner, supported by some of his best songwriting and an openness that adds real credence to his message. He has been on a path of gradual evolution ever since he appeared to lose his way upon signing to a major label at the turn of the decade and realising the weight of success was a heavy burden to carry. He has matured into a one of the most important figures in modern hip hop and 4 Your Eyez Only is the evidence of this. We can only hope his message can inspire hope and change in communities across the world.