J. Cole Stays in His Comfort Zone on ‘4 Your Eyez Only’
J. Cole had a hell of a task on his hands while creating the follow-up to 2014 Forest Hills Drive. His first two albums, Cole World: The Sideline Story and Born Sinner, had plenty of good about them but not everything hit the mark. That was especially evident in his attempts at making radio singles, which wasn't Cole's strong suit. On 2014 Forest Hills Drive, Cole didn't really have any attempts at being radio-friendly, even though three songs ("Wet Dreamz," "No Role Modelz," "Apparently") cracked the Billboard Hot 100. He wasn't trying to be anything he's not and by being himself, the end result was his most successful release both commercially and critically.
It's two years later, and Cole needs to follow up his greatest success yet. He's now legitimately one of the biggest stars in hip-hop. While it's turned into a meme, going double platinum without any huge singles or features is impressive. Cole's following has grown in size but remained just as dedicated since the days of his mixtapes like The Warm Up and Friday Night Lights. When rappers grow in popularity, every next step after success becomes equally important.
For better or worse, what Cole decided to do on his latest album, 4 Your Eyez Only, is to stick to the formula that got him where he is today. The album, which is just 10 tracks, feels precisely like a sequel to 2014 Forest Hills Drive. The subject matter is similar as well: a young man coming of age, dealing with success and relationships, struggling with life on the streets. The big difference is the birth of Cole's daughter, whose influence comes through all over the album. For some, the lack of much stylistic or lyrical change may be a deal-breaker.
For others, it may be embraced. Cole's always been at his best when he stays in his lane. He made his name on heartfelt, honest lyrics about coming of age and dealing with his relationships with friends and family. Changing up his style too much could make things feel like he's trying too hard. It would be inauthentic, and J. Cole is anything but that.
It's clear that the way Cole communicates his feelings about topics like these hasn't changed on 4 Your Eyez Only, and he's still a highly effective lyricist. The way he talks about seeing death as a young man on the streets on "Immortal" is harrowing: "Nigga, I can tell you things that you probably shouldn't know/Have you ever heard the screams when the body hit the floor?/Flashbacks to the pain, waking up, cold sweats/Six o'clock in the morning, gotta hit the BowFlex/Get my weight up the block, keep watch for the cops/God, they love to give nigga three hots and a cot."
The lyrics become even more interesting with the thought that 4 Your Eyez Only is actually a concept album, which is something that Cole has yet to confirm or deny. However, Elite, who serves as the projects co-executive producer, did acknowledge that the rapper spoke from someone else’s perspective. The theory is that the album is actually about a friend of Cole's who tells his story and communicates with his daughter through Cole's words. It's definitely a valid theory, and many songs do have lyrics that reference the narrator being somebody other than Cole and add depth to the songs. Other songs (like "Neighbors") seem to be directly about Cole's struggle with stereotypes despite his success, so it's a slippery slope.
Like all J. Cole projects, he takes a big role in the production of the album. He serves at least as an additional producer on every song, and produces many of them. Cole's an exceptional producer, and the beats on 4 Your Eyez Only hold up to his other works but he doesn't act alone here. Elite, Cardiak, Chargaux, Elijah Scarlett, Vinyzl and Boi-1da are among the contributors who helped craft the sound. The influence of Nate Fox, Peter Cottontale and Nico Segal, perhaps best known as frequent Chance the Rapper collaborators, comes across well in the horns of the introductory "For Whom the Bell Tolls," produced by Elijah Scarlett. Then there's Cardiak, who crafts a striking instrumental with the help of Frank Dukes for the "Immortal" soundbed, and Elite, who puts together a mellow groove full of soaring strings, drums and keys with Ron Gilmore and Cole for "Ville Mentality."
The project as a whole sounds solid, though the beat of "Deja Vu" is certainly distracting in how similar it sounds to Bryson Tiller's "Exchange" with the prominent sample of K.P. & Envyi's "Swing My Way" used throughout. Producers Vinylz and Boi-1da have said their beat came first and Foreign Teck stole it for "Exchange," but it's still hard to separate the sound from Tiller's track even if it was the original.
4 Your Eyez Only is the kind of project that will satisfy die-hard J. Cole fans but won't change the minds of his detractors. Those who criticize him for mundane subject matter or being "boring" will likely have their feelings reinforced by something that sounds so similar to his previous work. However, it's a nod to his consistency as an artist that he sticks to what works best for him and by the looks of his third LP, he's got a winning formula. 4 Your Eyez Only is a solid, short listen that relies on J. Cole's strength and comfort zone, perhaps a little too much at times, but the underlying concepts continue to add a layer of depth to his artistry.
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