The Ville is back, the real is back. With his hair grown-out and his lyricism sharp as ever, Jermaine embarks on his most conceptual project yet.
Back in 2014, on the run-up to 2014 Forest Hills Drive, J. Cole popped by The Letterman Show, and during a performance of his unreleased song “Be Free”, he sang “There ain’t no gun they make that can take my soul”. Two yea s later, arguably at the peak of his musical career (despite a J. Cole release being rarer than a shooting star), the Fayetteville rapper seems to have fleshed out this initial sentiment to create 4 Your Eyez Only.
Considering how long the stretches are between J. Cole releases, this project is impeccably well-timed, with ‘Black Lives Matter’ being at the forefront of everyone’s minds and media coverage in the United States. However, do not expect this project to be political, rather the album makes allusions to many of the sentiments and hardships at the centrepiece of this movement (such as racial identity, and profiling) without directly mentioning them.
Take for example the ‘Neighbours’ cut, where Cole references how his neighbours assume he and his friends are selling drugs, based solely on the fact that they are wealthy black men smoking weed, and call the police on him. He briefly mentions that their profiling is a result of the media depiction of black men as criminals, or in his words: “Only time they see us we be on the news in chains”. And if the story doesn’t seem worrisome enough, consider that this is a true story that happened not too long ago to Cole and his Dreamville team.
“Thematically, this appears to be Cole’s most cohesive effort.”
Thematically, this appears to be Cole’s most cohesive effort. Even though 2014FHD flirted with the idea of being a conceptual album, this one fully embraces it. At first listen you might think the lines “Do I wanna die? I don’t know” or “Show em my pain never, dirt on my name never” are simply allusions to his own troubled psyche and while you’re not entirely wrong, there is another level to what Cole raps about which reveals itself while listening to the almost 9-minute closing track, the eponymous “4 Your Eyez Only”.
Spoiler alert if you haven’t heard the album yet, Cole reveals at the end of the track that the whole song was written from the perspective of an estranged childhood friend, that called him as a grown man after a life of crime. Shortly before dying he delivers this ‘record’ for Cole’s eyes only, and with the hope that if he does pass, Cole can deliver it to his daughter Nina when she’s ready. It is one of those plot twist, ‘mind blown’ moments that Cole has experimented with in the past (namely in “Wet Dreamz”) but that he has never truly explored to this extent.
The track uses the word “record” fairly ambiguously, but if you re-listen to the whole album you can spot several similarities between Cole’s friend’s description of his life and the things the Dreamville rapper narrates. Perhaps the perfect example of this is the track “Ville Mentality” where Cole raps over a beautifully melodic string arrangement backed by classic boom bap drums about how his hedonistic, prideful lifestyle might be the death of him, while also asserting a certain inescapability from it (“give up my chain never, give up my pride never”). These sentiments echo much more with those of a deceased drug slinger than they do with the mostly humble and successful rapper.
“The more you delve into the album, the more you realise it is story focused and like every story, there’s progression.”
The more you delve into the album, the more you realise it is story focused and like every story, there’s progression. Take the two tracks “Immortal” and “She’s Mine Pt. 2”. The former, a song on the first half of the album, whose instrumentals resemble the closest to a staple trap tune (with the rattling hi-hats and the distorted production). Despite having some conscious lyrics, it is in essence a glamorisation of drug dealing lifestyle.
The latter track, however, does not only sound instrumentally completely different, boasting a luscious piano melody and string section with no drums in sight, but thematically it also has a completely different approach. Cole here promises to “drop the tough guy shit” for his daughter and claims he’s “fallen in love for the first time”. Sentimentally, it would have had a lot more impact if these were the words uttered by the same troubled man who says “only thing I’m proud to say: I was a father”.
Two tracks I want to point out are “Folding Clothes” and “Déjà vu”. While it is the least lyrically sharp of the songs on the tracklisting, “Folding Clothes” is actually a lot of fun to listen to, with a funky production following what many of Cole’s contemporaries are doing. Even if it doesn’t progress the album’s narrative, I think it’s fair to say it fits with the overall sentiment of homeliness that dominates the latter half. “Déjà vu” feels like a classic Cole song.
It appears to be a spiritual successor to previous tracks “Dreams” and “Power Trip”, where Cole is lusting over a woman but something gets in the way. The hook is also a banger and has the same flow and delivery he used in “G.O.M.D.” reminiscent of Tupac.
“I can confidently state that thematically and lyrically Cole has come the closest he ever has to creating his own Villematic”
Of course, all the praise for this album is not without its downside. A lot of criticism has been given to Cole for being monotonous in songs, and this album is no exception, although this is a notable effort away from that stigma. There still are overly familiar flows and instrumentals that attempt to be different (like the two parts of She’s Mine) yet lack variety or anything interesting flow-wise to separate them from your standard rap ballad. Because of these flaws, some of the songs can sound monotone and put off the listener, which is really a shame because the content on these songs is some of the best J. Cole has put out. In this area, Kendrick has always outshined him.
To conclude, Cole has often talked about Illmatic being his favourite album and how he struggles to reach the level of quality in his art as Nas did. Although inevitably there isn’t anything that would lead me to believe Cole’s latest project will become a hip-hop classic, I can confidently state that thematically and lyrically Cole has come the closest he ever has to creating his own Villematic, a crude depiction of love and death in the Ville, and for that, he deserves recognition.
Image courtesy of J Cole via Facebook.