A week before J. Cole released his fourth studio album he posted a documentary to Youtube called “Eyez”.
The documentary offers an intimate look at Cole’s creative process, from when he enters the studio in New York City, to when he rides back in a black SUV to his apartment. We get to see Cole riffing on a guitar, talking to producers, and even playing basketball in his free time.
In the opening scene, a violinist toys with melody lines in a dimly lit studio, seemingly trying to construct the perfect motif. “That was dope,” a voice calls out in the background. The musician continues to harping on the instrument, recording more takes, each one a tiny bit different from the last.
In another scene, J. Cole sits meditatively in a room in the New York City studio, pen in hand, crafting the lines that would probably soon become the lyrics to the ten track album, “4 Your Eyes Only”.
J Cole’s documentary as well as his new album gives us a look at a re-imagining of one of our favorite lyricists. Look it’s the return of the — Mister burn suckers/ Not herpes infested, just perfectly blessed…. He raps in Everybody Dies, while sitting on the back of a moving pick up truck, wearing a Penn State Jersey and a haircut that might have been inspired by an earlier Abel Tesfaye.
However, something is different about this J Cole. On Forest Hills Drive, we met a brilliant lyricist who mused on everything from relationships to his unrequited problems with his father, to his memories growing up in a suburb, and struggling with adolescence.
But, on 4 Your Eyes Only, J Cole has come to make a point. The ten-track project is reminiscent of a personal letter to a friend, exploring private pains and anxieties. Tired of feeling low, even when I’m high/ Ain’t no way to live, do I wanna die? He raps on For Whom the Bell Tolls.
However, his vulnerability is sharpened with aggressiveness. Cole delivers a treatise on the current state of rap, voicing his disapproval. On “Everybody Dies,” he comes for the “…fake deep rappers/The OG gatekeep rappers/The would-you-take-a-break-please rappers/Bunch of words and ain’t sayin’ shit… I hate these rappers, he concludes. On False Prophets, he paints a picture of a rapper who is past his prime, succumbed to the pitfalls of fame and personal flaws. The track, which many assume is about Kanye West, bars no holds. And we can’t look away due to the days that he caught our hearts/He’s fallin’ apart, but we deny it/Justifying that half ass shit he dropped, we always buy it/When he tell us he a genius but it’s clearer lately/It’s been hard for him to look into the mirror lately
To label J Cole’s reimagined style as unwelcome would be unjust. Yes, it’s different, but it’s the good kind of different. Each of the ten songs is simple, and does away with the recipe of glossy, over synthed instrumentals, and super star featured artists that we’ve become accustomed to, and forces the listener to confront the simple combination of J Coles most authentic and intimate lyrics ever.
Between musings on police brutality, inner city crime and his child’s coming birth, Cole breaks the blueprint of the rapper he wants to avoid becoming. “While I’m here, let me take this opportunity to say the realest shit I’ve ever said” he says, legs resting on a table in front of him. And he does just that. In recent memory, it hasn’t been rare for rappers to release one or two tracks dedicated to calculated reflection and packed with honesty and vulnerability, in which they seemingly tell all. Think Drake’s 30 for 30 freestyle or Too Much, or Frank Ocean’s Self Control. However, the whole of J Cole’s album revolves around this axis of introspection. My worst fear is one day that you come home from school/ and see your father face while hearing ‘bout tragedy on news/I got the strangest feeling your Daddy gonna lose his life soon/And sadly if you’re listening now it must mean it’s true, he raps on the albums ending track.
2016 saw the release of several albums that could easily go on to win a Grammy. Views, ANTI, Lemonade, you name it. Realistically, J Cole’s album might go down without any note. Though it’s a gift to the true Cole devotee, it’s a piece of art that’s different from what mainstream music fans expect. However, 4 your eyes only will become the capstone of Cole’s oeuvre. Though it might not be his best in the eyes of many, it’s the one we’ll need to compare his other albums to, if honesty in the narrative is the factor we’re looking to evaluate. When fans have a chance to look back at Cole’s other projects, this will be the scale on which they weigh other works with his unfiltered, raw, and authentic honesty.