Producers Explain How J. Cole’s ‘4 Your Eyez Only’ Album Came Together
J. Cole's new album, 4 Your Eyez Only, sounds unlike any other album from the North Carolina rapper before it. His rhymes are still down to earth, his tone still subdued, but it's the production that brought his music to the next level this time around.
We got a sneak peek at Cole's process in the Eyez documentary, where he's seen working with session musicians and playing a little guitar and piano himself. But after exploring the full production credits on the album, it turns out there was live instrumentation on all ten tracks, fleshing out the beats to become larger and more intricate than anything Cole's ever rapped on before.
XXL tracked down some of the key producers and contributors on the album, including Elite, Cardiak, Elijah Scarlett and Chargaux, to talk about the making of 4 Your Eyez Only and how they each contributed to the final result. Here's what they had to say.
J. Cole fans are more than familiar with producer Cardiak. Two years ago, the New Jersey native joined forces with Illmind and CritaCal to craft the beat for “Love Yourz,” off the rapper’s third studio album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive. Now Cardiak’s production talents are being showcased once again on the 4 Your Eyez Only cut “Immortal.” Cardiak, with an assist from Frank Dukes, crafted the beat with Cole in mind shortly after 2014 Forest Hills Drive dropped. Little did the beatmaker know he'd play a part in the making of the North Carolina MC's fourth LP. Here, Cardiak discusses how the beat ultimately came together, a secret J. Cole revealed and one of his favorite tracks on the project. -- Georgette Cline
XXL: How were you contacted to be a part of this project?
Cardiak: Well, you know, I worked on the last album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive. I was a part of "Love Yourz." And I’m also close with somebody in J. Cole’s camp. His name is Money Makin' Matt. You know I was just always workin' on stuff for J. Cole. I had a idea of like the type of tracks he wanted, the sound and all that. I was just crafting a couple tracks. Shortly after 2014 Forest Hills Drive came out, I sent that beat over and he liked it and he told me to put it to the side and here we are today.
When did you realize he was going to use that beat for "Immortal”?
I wanna say probably about a week ago. He had the beat and he said he wanted it back then but this is 2015, you know, we’re about to be in 2017. So I actually had forgot about it. And then Matt hit me up and he was like, "Hey, you still got that beat" Cole wants to use it." Nobody knew when he was wanted to drop. Nobody knew anything. Then all of a sudden he came out of nowhere that he was dropping on the 9th.
I saw you wrote on Twitter “no samples thanks to the god @frankdukes.” What did that mean in regards to how you created the beat?
Frank Dukes is like a composer so he creates like musical compositions aka samples or whatever but it's not necessarily his samples because it's original music. That’s what he’s known for. He’s been on like every project that’s even come out this year, last year, like the previous years. So I got a batch of samples from him and I just flipped that actual sample 'cause as soon as I heard it, it had J. Cole all over it.
How do you feel after listening to the project as a whole and hearing where your beat actually fits in?
All together I love it. I feel like it’s one of those albums, like his previous album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, he had to prove himself to the masses. I feel like with this album, he's more comfortable with himself. He doesn't have to explain anything to anyone, you know? You know, he's just doing his own thing. He doesn’t need the social media, the glitz and glamour, or anything like he's in his own world. I mean I know that’s how I am too. I feel like I'm the same way. I don’t really need all of that stuff either. You have to really understand J. Cole to really get this album. It appeals to a lot of people. Everybody go through the same stuff he go through. He's just like us, like regular people, but just with a voice. You got everybody else out here wanting to be in the spotlight and all that. He don’t really wanna be in the spotlight. He just wanna speak his mind and speak to everybody.
Once you found out that he was going to use the track did you and Cole have a conversation about it?
I actually haven’t had a conversation with him yet. I just been communicating with Matt.
Were there any other songs that you gave to Cole besides the beat for “Immortal”?
I sent a few beats but that was the only one that really stuck. I probably sent maybe 10 beats.
Why do you think the fans and the internet just went so crazy for the new music and there was such a big response to what he was dropping early on?
Other than him putting these albums out, you don’t hear from him. He’s not in the spotlight. He's not on social media. You don’t know what he's doing or what he's thinking. To me, that’s what draws people in. It's like “I wonder what Cole’s doing. What is he thinking?” Just like, What is he doing. Everybody's wondering. When you just putting out music and that’s it, you leave the people wondering and all that. Whenever he announces that he has an album coming out, everybody jumps on it 'cause everybody’s interested in what he’s thinking and what he has going on. He just had a daughter. Nobody knew that until the album came out. It’s crazy. Nobody knew anything. I think it’s dope he’s such a private person and when he comes out everybody just goes for it. That’s dope.
When you were making the beat for “Immortal,” what was the zone you were in?
You know Cole is known for coming up with different flows, so I was just thinking about the bounce of the kind of track he would rap on, like the actual drum bounce, like the actual drum patterns and all that type of stuff. I was just creating different type of drum patterns that depicted his style and that track happened to stick. He spoke about that in the [Eyez] documentary actually, saying “Immortal” has that bounce and that’s what I was really focused on.
Which other song on 4 Your Eyez Only are you feeling?
The final track, "4 Your Eyez Only." That track is crazy, that track is dope. Just the topics he was touching on. The beat, of course, the beat was dope. And, you know, he's just venting. He's just speaking about everything he got going on. And the track is like eight minutes long. He has a lot to say.
It took one message on a Canibus fansite for Elite and J. Cole to connect. The two talents met back in 2002, when Elite started working for the Ruff Ryders as a producer, while Cole was still just a grinding teenage rap artist. The producer took one listen to Cole’s first song “The Storm” and was blown away.
Now, 14 years later, Elite is the co-executive producer of J. Cole’s highly anticipated LP, 4 Your Eyez Only. On 2014 Forest Hills Drive, the “Deja Vu” rapper took fans on a personal journey, but this time, it’s different. While his Dreamvillains continue to dissect the album and its message, XXL chopped it up with Elite about how the album came to fruition and the message behind 4 Your Eyez Only. -- Bianca Torres
XXL: How did you connect with J. Cole?
Me and Cole, go back from a long time. Basically, he reached out to me. I was about 18, 19 at the time I started to work with Ruff Ryders. He was probably, 15 or 16 [years old]. We both posted our music on a Canibus fansite, ‘cause we were both fans of the rapper Cannabis. I had just started working with Ruff Ryders as a producer and I was posting about it, like, Oh you know, I’m doing this, and he saw and sent me a message. This was a long time ago so the Internet a little bit less chaotic. He hit me up saying, “I’m really dope, you should check me out.”
He sent me this song called “The Storm,” it’s the first song, he was like, 15,16. And, I was just blown away, especially for his age. We just kept in touch and built a relationship from there.
How involved were you with 4 Your Eyez Only?
Well, this was the most I have been involved in anything with Cole. I think it just started because I was around a lot and he was entrusting me with a lot of things. Like, tracking musicians, maybe the string sections, whatever live musicians he was having coming through. He was entrusting in me more and more. I just took the role and went with it. I decided to work my ass off and give this opportunity my all.
I honestly didn’t know what my involvement was gonna be, I just went in head-first. I wanted to help him with his vision. As a producer I think it’s important to let your ego go and connect with what the artist is trying to do and help him see that through. Sometimes the artists need another perspective to keep them aligned with what they’re trying to do because it’s easy to get distracted when you’re going through the process of creating. So, I think that was my real role—serving as the other perspective to keep him aligned with the original intentions with this album. I found out the other day I got credited with being co-executive producer and that meant a lot to me. I really appreciate it, it’s a beautiful thing.
What was the process of putting a song together for this album?
I produced “Ville Mentality.” Me and Ron Gilmore, we were at the Sheltuh in North Carolina, which is like an artist safe-haven that Cole created out in the middle of the woods where he brings all his Dreamville artists and producers to work. Me and Ron Gilmore—who is a producer and a keyboard player—we were just hanging out and started the beat. I started the drums and he started playing the keys, we collaborated and Cole kinda popped his head in like, “What’s this?”
It grew from there and Cole added some stuff, string players and the horn. That’s one example of how the process would be. For the other songs Cole would have them pretty much done and I would kind of step in and help arrange things or sequence things, add and pull stuff out. It varied with each song.
So, it’s safe to say that you recorded with him. Some times beats get sent and that’s how they’re used but you were there.
Oh no, I’ve always been with him. I don’t even really believe in the other way of working where you send stuff. But, I’m lucky to be able to be around him because that’s the key. I feel like as a producer you have to around to catch an opportunity but you have to be around to connect with the person to understand what they’re really trying to do.
Did you produce any other beats or songs that didn’t make the final cut of the album?
Oh, yeah. There’s so many songs that we worked on, countless amount of songs. He never stops working. There’s a misconception that maybe he took a break because it took two years, that’s really not the case. I’ve never known him to take a break, ever.
A lot of fans are speculating that this album is all about Cole's life experiences, but with some of the verses he talks about street life, so now we are assuming Cole’s talking about a friend’s situation. Is 4 Your Eyez Only a mix of Cole’s own life experiences along with his friend’s or is this solely about his friend’s life through his eyes?
I think most of Cole’s career has been autobiographical, where it is the J. Cole story with him and his very personal story. Like,  Forest Hills Drive, it was a narrative but it was his story. And, I think with this album it’s the first time he stepped out of his own story and spoke from somebody else’s perspective. That was a clear intention that he had and I think people are picking up on it, which is cool. So the answer is yes, there is an alternate perspective being shared. It parallels with him too, he comes in and out with commentary and he gives his views here and there. But, there is another perspective being spoken about on this album.
NYU student Elijah Scarlett, 20, earned the first production credit of his career almost by accident with "For Whom the Bell Tolls," the first track on J. Cole's 4 Your Eyez Only. Though instrumentation was added by Nico Segal (formerly Donnie Trumpet), Nate Fox and Peter Cottontale, it's Elijah's moody beat that welcomes the listener into the album. Scarlett was just a college kid when he made the beat on his laptop. Find out how this producer made a dream come true by landing a placement on 4 Your Eyez Only. -- Sidney Madden
XXL: Take me through the series of events of how you were introduced to Cole or Dreamville and how this happened.
Elijah: Honestly, I wasn't super familiar with his music before they reached out, but I just put up my beat on SoundCloud and his manager, Ibrahim, reached out and said that Cole liked it and wanted to use it for the album. I said, "Yeah, definitely!"
When did you originally make the beat?
I made it like two years ago, my freshman year of college. It was just off my laptop in my dorm room. I was just trying to grind out good beats, you know?
When did they contact you?
They contacted me January of this year, almost a year ago now.
Great. Did you ever meet Cole or Ibrahim, the President of Dreamville?
No, they said I could go out and work on some stuff but I was just super busy with school and stuff so I haven't gotten a chance to get out there yet.
When did you know that beat was going to make the cut for the album?
When I saw all the paperwork. It was very soon before it dropped, I wasn't sure it would actually happen.
Are there any rappers you want to work with in the future?
I definitely want to work with Earl Sweatshirt, Earl would be cool. Lupe Fiasco might be my favorite rapper since I was a little kid. No real specific plans, though.
When the album dropped, was that the first time you fully heard the song?
Yeah, because I'm sure he didn't want it to leak or anything. So yeah, first time. It's dope. The album in general's amazing. That folding clothes song is so tight [laughs]. I'm gonna send it to my girlfriend like, "This is the shit I wish I could say."
Two things immediately stand out upon first listening to 4 Your Eyez Only—J. Cole's harmonies and the lush string arrangements behind him. The latter are thanks to Chargaux, a classical string duo comprised of Charly and Margaux who dabble in vocals as well. They're on seven of the album's 10 tracks and were on many more that got cut, and here they tell XXL about how they started working with Cole, what the working environment was like, and how they got additional production credits on "She's Mine, Pt. 1 & 2." -- Max Weinstein
XXL: How did you and J. Cole get together to work on the album?
Margaux: Back when Kendrick Lamar was recording his debut album [good kid, m.A.A.D. city], we were at SXSW and we were put in contact through a mutual friend with his producer Soundwave and we worked on “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe.” We did the… I’m gonna go ahead and say iconic string part in that song, and from there we continued to stay in touch. So when Sounwave went back to L.A., he kept us in mind for future string parts and we ended up working with ScHoolboy Q on his project, and because the music world is so small, he also knew people from J. Cole’s camp. So when [J. Cole] was creating 2014 Forest Hills Drive, [Sounwave] sent over our info and said, ‘Hey, these girls our dope. We’ve worked with them.”
So when we finally got in contact with [J. Cole], it was at the very end of [2014 Forest Hills Drive] and he was on a deadline to turn the project in to the label, so we were only able to work on one of the tracks, which was “St. Tropez.”
From there, when he was working on his next project in New York, he reached out to us and we were able to come in. The vibe for this project [4 Your Eyez Only] was totally different. It was at Electric Lady Studio, he had all his people there. We met Ron Gilmore on the keys, we brought in our friend Yuki who’s also a keys player, and the energy around the project was much more open and getting in at the ground level. So we were able to hear some of the songs from the very beginning, when they were just drum loops or there was only guitar on it. Whatever it was, we were able to leave our mark on the beginning process, and from there we were able to build and arrange and be integrated into the process in a whole different kind of way. So it was really amazing. That was our first time as artists, string arrangers and composers being able to work through an entire project, on each song, in a unique kind of way.
You guys have additional production on “She’s Mine, Pt. 1 & 2” separate from the string arrangements you’re credited for. What does that entail?
Charly: It was 5 a.m. and Cole, Mez (engineer) and Elite had just left the studio. Only Beatrice (engineer), Gosha (engineer), Charly and Ron [Gilmore Jr.] remained. We had composed a little for the song earlier that night and I asked [Beatrice] to run it back. I listened a few times and nervously followed this strong intuition that we needed to compose for the words Cole was actually saying.
I asked B to mute everything from halfway through the song until the end and slowly built up this imaginary orchestra with layer after layer. It needed to sound like there were four to six musicians playing each line so I have this technique—I just let each take sound as human as possible, holding some notes longer than others, etc.—as it would in a group session. Doubling human takes creates a great auditory illusion.
Ron was both in an observant and meditative state. He had laid all his parts down before, but after the new section we discussed a new approach with his contribution that would really set this entire song apart from all the other pretty ways we expressed ourselves on other songs. Cole's lyrics are deeply personal (just listen to the song!), this piece was specifically dedicated to the ones Cole loves most, and our parts had to reflect that. I probably annoyed Ron because he's already so amazing but this song needed a strong, unique musical accompaniment written by trusted musicians and he agreed that that's what we were there for.
At seven in the morning, Ron took some breaths and played from the middle all the way through. “It was cool, but can you do another one?” I asked. Better to have and not need. He did one more take and decided to hold the magic right there. That's all I remember of that morning.
Beatrice eventually muted the parts and it wasn't until Thanksgiving weekend, while everyone was finalizing the music, that someone noticed all these muted parts. Elite told us Cole said, "Hey, unmute that!" and after listening once it was kept.
Were you guys working under the guidance of Elite? Cole?
Margaux: It was definitely a symbiotic situation. The way they had it set up, it was like a family situation where there were several rooms in Electric Lady. So Mez might be in the engineering room mixing a track, and then in another room, the lounge area, Elite might have his recording equipment set up and be working on a beat. In the live room, we’d be recording strings and Cole would be in there, listening to what we were doing and then we would go out, he would go in and record a verse.
So there were always different things happening at the same time, and there were times when it would be me and Beatrice in the room. I would have the song and I’d just be recording different ideas, laying them down, and then Charly would come in and hear what I did and put layers on top of it. And then we’d say, “Hey Cole, we have something that you should hear. Why don’t you come in and listen to it.” So he would listen to it and go, “Oh, that’s dope. I want that. Maybe we should go back and try this other thing again.”
And then maybe I would go into the room where Elite was recording and he would be making a beat and I’d say, “Can I play something on that real quick?” and he’d say, “Yeah, of course, are you serious? Yes, let’s do it.” And I would be recording something with him. So it was always a different vibe. It was very open creatively, which is why we were able to create such interesting arrangements.
Were there any songs that got cut off the record that were your favorite?
Margaux: None that got cut off. My favorite song that I worked on was “Ville Mentality.” That’s still my favorite song to listen to, because the way that it swings is so gnarly and the way the string arrangements are put in there are like flowers that add dimension to it. But the song itself I thought was amazing.
There are some other [songs that got left off] that I feel like are amazing songs and I think they may consider them for another album or another release but I don’t want to give it away, but the things I’ve heard are definitely in the same vein as what are on the record and they just tell a different story. When that story is ready to be told, I think the songs will come out because they are great and the musicians that worked on them are incredible.
What was the most surprising part about working on 4 Your Eyez Only?
Margaux: How much creative freedom we were given. We’ve worked on albums before and a lot of times we would get a song and everything was sown up, and basically they’re just like, “Can you just sprinkle a little extra whatever on it?” For this particular album, to be given the opportunity to work with people who were so kind and so open and so willing to let us do our thing and let us contribute vocals on the track and have this creative freedom is kind of unprecedented for us, and it gave us the opportunity to get our first production credit and really be fully integrated into the sound of the project.
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