J.Cole blessed us with his fourth studio album 4 Your Eyez Only at the end of last year. The album title is inspired by one of Cole’s biggest influences: 2Pac. In fact, the album title is specifically based on 2Pac’s All Eyez on Me, which interestingly is also his fourth studio album.
Although Cole raps from his own experience throughout 4 Your Eyez Only, he also raps from the perspective of a character called James McMillan Jr, which is revealed in the song “Change”. We get to hear about this character’s experiences, which range from gang violence, racism, falling in love and having a child. Interestingly, this character is presumably based on Cole’s late childhood friend, which makes the feelings the songs produce more heightened.
Unfortunately, I must admit that the first two songs (“For Whom The Bell Tolls” and “Immortal”) didn’t hook me, even though they explore interesting topics such as loneliness, paranoia and gang violence, given that they focus on how James suspects that he may die soon. However, the third song ,“Deja Vu”, grabbed my attention straightaway and is arguably the best track on the album. What works great about this song is its unique sound. For instance, Cole samples K.P. & Envyi’s “Swing My Way”, which contrasts to nicely with his slightly aggressive rap style in the intro.
He also distorts his voice in this track, which is not new to his music, and which is something that he also does elsewhere in the album, such as in “Neighbours”. However, what’s interesting about “Deja Vu” is that he distorts his voice so much during the hook that he sounds like another rapper – I’d even go as far as to say that he sounds like 2Pac. Another great aspect of the song is that he sings at the end of it, which again isn’t something new to his music, but is quite surprising on the track given that he raps so aggressively in the intro.
“Deja Vu” isn’t the only song that features Cole’s singing. In fact, he extensively uses his voice throughout the album on other great tracks such as “Ville Mentality”, “She’s Mine Pt.1”, “She’s Mine Pt. 2” and “Foldin Clothes”. This aspect of the songs adds a hint of vulnerability to them, especially in “She’s Mine Pt. 1” and “She’s Mine Pt. 2”, which focus on falling in love for the first time. In fact, these are arguably the sweetest songs on the album due to Cole’s and James’s declaration of love accompanied by the soft sounds of violins and a piano.
Although the title track outro is not my favourite song on the album, it mentions pertinent and current problems, such as the racial aspect of mass incarceration. For instance, Cole raps James’s narrative and says “I try to find employment even if it’s wiping toilets/But these felonies be making life the hardest/Resisting the temptation to run up and swipe a wallet”, which makes a reference to how ex-felons experience discrimination in employment and that this often drives them to commit further crimes. Elsewhere Cole raps, again from James’s perspective that “Took me two felonies to see the trap/This crooked-ass system set”, which alludes to the inherent racism in mass incarceration. The final song also powerfully concludes James’ story as well as the album itself, because we learn what becomes of James and also discover the reason behind the album’s title.
The greatest aspect about 4 Your Eyez Only is that it tells a story. Yes, we’re listening to music, but Cole goes above and beyond music. By telling James’s story he allows us to see that Black American men are multifaceted beings, who experience love in multiple ways, fear, loneliness and gratitude, amongst other things. This is a refreshing representation of Black masculinity, which often renders Black men as hypermasculine caricatures. Ultimately, Cole humanises Black American men, which is important during a time when they’re so often dehumanised by police officers in the USA and by the country’s judicial system.
The only critique I have of 4 Your Eyez Only is that it wasn’t long enough. Just as I was coming to the realisation that I really liked this album, I noticed that the last song was playing. Nevertheless, I’d give it a 4.5/5 overall.