4 Your Eyez Only (released December 9, 2016)
Man, the Internet can be a fickle place.
Barely a week ago, J. Cole announced the release of his fourth studio album out of nowhere and dropped off two fiery starter tracks – one that even dared to criticize your favorite rappers for their constant mediocrity.
The hype machine was gassed up and the buzz was louder than your barber’s clippers.
But when I awoke this morning, the reaction to the overnight release of 4 Your Eyez Only was polarizing – half my dudes (longtime Cole fans, mind you) hit me with texts saying the album was weak, the other half were flooding my timelines with endless flame emojis, proclaiming it album of the year.
As with most things, the truth is in the middle.
The divided response to Cole’s album really shouldn’t be a surprise. For the past five years, he’s been eating off potential. And don’t get me wrong, he has all the tools for superstardom – his stellar Friday Night Lights mixtape is probably my favorite mixtape of all time. But his album releases always seems to fall juuuust short of the hip-hop classic we know he’s capable of delivering.
Spoiler alert: 4 Your Eyez Only ain’t classic material. In fact, it’s not even the album most fans expected – those two teaser tracks that set the Internet ablaze a few days ago are nowhere to be found. There are no street anthems, no club bangers – barely anything that resembles a radio hit. Instead, Cole, like Childish Gambino before him, finds inspiration in his newfound fatherhood.
It’s not the album y’all expected but it’s still required listening.
While the set’s very understated production and Cole’s off-key crooning do the album no favors, 4 Your Eyez Only excels at storytelling. On “Deja Vu,” Cole shoves aside cliched rap bravado to chase his dream girl:
Every saint got a past, every sinner got a future
Every loser gotta win and every winner gotta lose someday
They say it’s just a matter of time
And if I had my way then you would be mine
And then five tracks later, he finds simple joys in drinking almond milk and folding his girl’s laundry on, um, “Foldin’ Clothes.” I’m sure the eThugs on Twitter are already rolling their eyes and calling the guy “soft” but the song’s message isn’t weakness, its maturity, a fact that’s clearly presented in the song’s great outro:
N****s from the hood is the best actors
We the ones that got to wear our face backwards
Put your frown on before they think you soft
Never smile long or take your defense off
Acting tough so much we start to feel hard
Playing off those themes, the triumvirate of “Change,” “Neighbors” and the title track unfold like a John Singleton score. “Change” depicts the evolution of a boy into manhood before “Neighbors” fires back at the observers who have criticized his ascent. Then for the title track, Cole reaches out to the daughter of his friend, who succumbed to street life.
Girl your daddy was a real n****, not cuz he was cold
Not because he was the first to get some p***y 12 years old
Not because he used to come through in the Caddy on some vogues
Not because he went from bagging up them grams to serving O’s
Nah your daddy was a real n****, not cuz he was hard
Not because he lived a life of crime and sat behind some bars
Not because he screamed f*** the law, although that was true
Your daddy was a real n**** cuz he loved you
It’s not just affirmation to that girl that her father loved her, it’s a reminder to Cole himself to be more than his circumstances.
Thematically, 4 Your Eyez Only is Cole’s most compelling album, but the experience is not without its pitfalls. And I’m not just talking about the aforementioned dreary production and weak singing – many tracks, especially on the first half of the album, really suffer from Cole’s unenthused delivery. A lot of critics have called this album “boring,” which of course has caused Cole stans to grab their torches and pitchforks. Here’s the reality – the album’s content is fine but the washed out vocals and drowsy flows on tracks like “Ville Mentality” and “She’s Mine Pt. 1” really make the first 20 minutes or so tough to sit through.
I wouldn’t call the album “boring” but it’s got some NyQuil tendencies for sure.
The debates over 4 Your Eyez Only will continue to rage (just wait till all those “Foldin’ Clothes” think pieces hit your timeline!) but one thing’s for sure – marriage and fatherhood have forced Cole to grow up. He’s just asking that y’all do the same.
Best tracks: “4 Your Eyez Only,” “Change,” “Neighbors”
3.5 stars out of 5