Right when we thought that all the music had been released this year, J. Cole surprised us by announcing his follow-up to 2014 Forest Hills Drive. That record was probably my favorite in Cole’s discography and I am glad it did as well as it did. I also enjoyed the two singles that were released prior to 4 Your Eyez Only, and while neither made it onto this album I was still excited to see what J. Cole would deliver.
After listening to this album several times, I can safely say that there really was not a place for either of those songs on here. Even with just 10 tracks, I believe this album is the perfect length to accomplish what it sets out to do. The album’s production is also softer, more muddied, than Cole’s previous material which might turn off some fans but I think it worked for this. The themes on this album are also very personal for Cole, making the decision to soften to production to put more emphasis on his lyrics even smarter. Throughout the album there are references to James McMillan Jr., a man J. Cole knew and was friends with. The two were both from the same area of North Carolina, roughly the same age and became fathers. The difference between them is Cole went off to college, never falling into a life of gang violence and drug dealing, and McMillan did, costing him his life. These parallels are frequently alluded to, with Cole switching as both himself and for McMillan.
While the first half of this record is weaker, I think it started off well. “For Whom the Bell Tolls” is a solid intro track, as Cole raps about feeling hopeless and possibly wanting to end his life, presumably at McMillan’s funeral. “Immortal” is definitely intended to be from McMillan’s point of view, as Cole raps about selling drugs on the street and alludes to the demise he knows is coming. He is confident that if he hustles hard he will remain a legend and immortalized for it.
The first misstep for me came with “Déjà Vu” which is not entirely Cole’s fault. As many have mentioned before, the beat for this was used in Bryson Tiller’s Exchange” and while there is plenty of controversy about Tiller’s producers stealing the beat from Cole’s producers, the fact remains “Exchange” did it first. Even as someone who does not love Bryson Tiller, all I could hear was “Exchange” and I think it would have just been smarter for Cole to take the loss and get a new beat.
The next two tracks suffered for me because they feature Cole singing for a large portion of the tracks. Especially on “Ville Mentality” where Cole sounds incredibly weak on the hook. I know Cole has a reputation to maintain with not having features but this is a track that could have benefitted from a more trained vocalist. The lyrical content is solid, however, as Cole reflects on how much more time he can put into the music industry. The parallels with McMillan are also clear as it could also symbolize McMillan realizing he cannot keep hustling without getting hurt. The McMillan story is brought forward even more as a young girl, likely his daughter, talks about living without her dad and how she wishes he was around.
“She’s Mine, Pt. 1” is a sweet song, even if Cole’s singing is not amazing. The piano on it gives it an authentic feeling to it and the lyrics about Cole and his wife are definitely touching. Even if that “head game stronger than a few Excederin” line is a bit much. “She’s Mine, Pt. 2” is definitely my favorite of the two, as Cole sings about the responsibilities of becoming a father in a very real and heartfelt way. The song has another layer to it when looking at the parallels between McMillan and his daughter, making the song have a tragic tone to it as well.
The second half definitely contains the bulk of this album’s great tracks. “Change” being the main one, as Cole raps about his personal growth over the years. This is one of the heavier songs on here, which is not really saying much, but sees more energy from Cole than the previous tracks. After rapping about his own growth, Cole reflects on his past before going into the moment he realized McMillan was killed. It is a cinematic moment on this record, really letting the final leg of this song emotionally hit the listener.
While it does not fit neatly into the album’s narrative, “Neighbors” is certainly another well produced track. Cole raps about how his neighbors do not believe that he could actually afford to live his lifestyle without selling drugs. The song is one of the most direct socially charged tracks, besides the messaging with black incarceration sprinkled in. It definitely leaves a good enough taste in my mouth to get through “Foldin Clothes” which I wish was better than it is. I really like the beat here and Cole is charismatic as hell on it but it is way too corny for my taste. It also goes on much longer than it needs to.
The final track closes everything perfectly, tying up all the themes that were brought up and addressing McMillan’s daughter directly. The first three verses are rapped from the perspective of McMillan, telling his daughter he feels his time has come. He tells her everything he thinks she should know, letting her know if she is listening to this song then he has been killed. As a father, Cole is definitely able to capture the feeling that McMillan is supposed to feeling as he clearly wants his daughter to have a great life. The final verse is where the emotional impact was felt the most for me. This is where J. Cole raps directly to McMillan’s daughter about how great her father really was. His final lines hit the hardest as he says what made her father great was not all the typical stuff that most guys are proud of, like protesting or getting laid. As he states in his final bar, “your daddy was a real nigga cause he loved you,” a line that hits hard on each listen and is the kind of emotional climax this album was building up.
This is a flawed record, I can acknowledge that, but that did not stop me from enjoying it as much as I did. It could have used some more time to develop certain ideas better, and it definitely takes a couple listens to hit hard, but it is short enough where it is not hard to put in the time. This might not be at the level of 2014 Forest Hills Drive, but it is another mature hip-hop record and that is something we seem to rarely get anymore.
Best Tracks: For Whom the Bell Tolls, Immortal, Change, Neighbors, She’s Mine, Pt. 2, 4 Your Eyez Only
Worst Track: Foldin Clothes