Cole bares his soul on his highly anticipated fourth studio album, the underlying narrative of which tells the true story of the life of his late friend, James McMillan
J. Cole’s last album release, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, received critical acclaim and was met with exceptional commercial success, making it the first LP in 25 years to sell over a million copies without a guest appearance. On 27th November 2015, J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar raised fans’ hopes of finally hearing their rumoured joint album by simultaneously dropping their ‘Black Friday’ freestyles over each other’s beats. On Cole’s ‘Black Friday’ he had his fans’ hearts racing by ending the song with, “But this February, bet shit get scary when I fuck around and drop…”, however February 2016 came and went and shit did not get scary… J. Cole had gone into recluse mode. In July 2016, J. Cole featured on DJ Khaled’s monster Major Key album, appearing on fifth track, ‘Jermaine’s Interlude’ exploring topics ranging from police brutality to his internal struggle. He ends his verse toying with the idea of retirement – “Said all I could say, now I play with thoughts of retirement” – which had fans worried that we’ve heard the last of J. Cole, especially given his well-documented dislike for the fame which accompanies commercial success in the music industry. The fans’ excitement was practically palpable when, on 1st December, the artwork and track listing of J. Cole’s latest offering, 4 Your Eyez Only, were released and the album made available for pre-order. The album was eventually released last Friday, marking the two-year anniversary of the release of 2014 Forest Hills Drive and came with little promotion, save for a 40-minute documentary, Eyez, and two teaser tracks, ‘False Prophets’ and ‘Everybody Dies’.
These tracks didn’t make the album, but still made waves, laden with subliminal disses aimed at the likes of Kanye West, Wale and the so-called new school of hip-hop. Once again, Cole has opted to go solo and release an album with no guest appearances. The album’s title references 2Pac’s classic All Eyez On Me, with both of these marking the two rappers’ fourth studio albums respectively. Within hours of its release, a fan theory suggested the underlying narrative of the album tells the true story of the life of J. Cole’s late friend, James McMillan Jr. (Cole may have changed the name to honour his late friend’s memory), as he goes from selling drugs and generally leading a life of crime to falling in love, having a daughter and attempting to turn his life around. This theory has since been confirmed by J. Cole’s producer, Elite.
The album opener, ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’, is much like the intro tracks to Cole’s previous albums in that it is a melodic slow jam. The song refers to the ringing of funeral bells and the title references Ernest Hemingway’s 1940 novel of the same name. Like Hemingway’s novel, this song centres on themes of death and suicide and serves as a dark introduction to the album. In the second track, ‘Immortal’, Cole spits some lyrical heat and continues to explore the theme of death while also lamenting the popular misconception that, to be a successful Black man in America, you have to deal drugs or be an athlete or musician: “They tellin’ niggas sell dope, rap or go to NBA, in that order// It’s that sort of thinkin’ that been keepin’ niggas chained”. The third track, ‘Deja Vu’, briefly departs from the album’s narrative as Cole addresses a female love interest and discusses sex, relationships and love. The keener listeners amongst you might notice that the beat is almost identical to that behind Bryson Tiller’s ‘Exchange’ and this has sparked beef between producers Boi-1da, Vinylz and ForeignTeck over who originally produced the ethereal infectious beat. The fourth track, ‘Ville Mentality’, returns to the narrative.
Cole has previously mentioned “Ville mentality”, describing it as the misconception that opportunity is not present in his small town. The track includes a spoken interlude from a little girl telling us about her dead father. This leads nicely into the stunning ‘She’s Mine Pt. 1’, in which Cole focuses on falling in love. ‘Foldin Clothes’ and the second part, ‘She’s Mine Pt. 2’, further explore the themes of love and fatherhood and their power to inspire a man to make a change in his life and reassess his priorities in life: “You are now the reason that I fight// I ain’t never did nothing this right in my whole life”. On the sixth track ‘Change’, Cole talks about maturing from the mind state shown in tracks like ‘Immortal’ and also reveals his guilt over James’ murder at age 22. In the song’s outro, we hear a news report about James’ murder and the re-enactment of James’ funeral. The seventh track, ‘Neighbors’, briefly departs the narrative so Cole can tell a story from his own perspective and touch on the broader topic of race relations in America. The true story refers to an incident where a house in North Carolina that Cole had rented for studio use was raided by a SWAT team following complaints from neighbours. Upon seeing so many Black people coming and going from the property in the predominantly white neighbourhood, the neighbours assumed that the house was being used to produce and sell drugs. The album ends with the nine-minute outro ‘4 Your Eyez Only’, in which J. Cole reveals the album was created by James for his daughter to listen to after he dies: “Write my story down and if I pass / Go play it for my daughter when she ready / And so I’m leaving you this record for your eyes only”. In the track, he reveals James’ worst fear that his daughter will one day come home from school to see on the news that he’s been killed. This fear unfortunately came to pass, as the final verse is told from J. Cole’s perspective. James is representative of the young Black men in America that have met a similar tragic fate.
In the current hip-hop culture, where “turning up” is the priority and most songs seem to be bragging about money, sex and drugs, it is refreshing to hear a calm album with no recognisable hype tunes which discusses more pertinent subject matter. With 4 Your Eyez Only, Cole delivers chill vibes and reminds us that he’s one of the best at telling a story and creating a narrative with his music, and cements his place as one of the top five rappers in the game (number 3 right now in my opinion). Time will tell if this album can also go platinum with no features like 2014 Forest Hills Drive and, with LA rapper Ab-Soul revealing that J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar’s fabled joint album is not just a rumour and is actually in the works, let’s hope that we hear more new music from J. Cole very soon.