Jermaine Lamarr Cole aka ‘ (the now not so) Young Simba’ released his fourth studio album at the end of 2016; a year that marked the rise of the #blacklivesmatter movement and the election of Donald Trump as President of the USA. Thus, 2016 marked a tumultuous and divisive year for the self proclaimed ‘Land of the Free’.
Cole’s album is a product of this social context. The line, “Sometimes I think that segregation would’ve done us better” on the album’s title track, leaves most listeners with a feeling similar to that experienced when the US presidential election results were announced last year.
4 Your Eyez Only marks Cole’s first concept album with a full length storyline. The album also marks an important milestone for Cole’s ‘sound’. The musical composition of the album with live instruments and complex sound structures almost places it in a separate Hip Hop sub genre. This album is Cole’s most consolidated effort so far.
In Cole’s Eyez documentary (If you haven’t already, watch it below to learn more about the creative process and themes behind the album) we saw him discussing whether to release singles prior to the official album release.
Cole’s decision not to release any singles prior to the album launch suits the narrative based nature of the album with the parallel storylines of its two protagonists; James McMillian Jr. and J. Cole. It should be noted that James McMillian Jr. may be the same character from Cole’s track; 03′ Adolescence from the 2014 Forest Hills Drive album.
Track by Track Review
1. For Whom The Bell Tolls
The storyline of 4 Your Eyez Only starts off with the intro track; ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’; the title instantly drawing a connection to Ernest Hemingway’s critically acclaimed novel. The album opens at the lowest point in James McMillian Jr. / J. Cole’s life. He asks “Ain’t no way to live, do I wanna die? I don’t know, I don’t know”. This could also be a reference to the emptiness Cole confesses (see interview excerpt below) to have experienced while he was chasing material wealth and career progress.
The first two verses of the second track of the album, Immortal, are narrated from the point of view of a ‘real ni***’, who seems to conform to the stereotypes associated with a brother living the street life. He says:
“Nope, all I see is that C.R.E.A.M nigga, that green
I’m a black king, black jeans on my black queen
And her ass fat, too fat for a flat screen
I’m the type of nigga make the whole fuckin’ trap lean”
It appears that James McMillian Jr. has become a victim of the stereotype.
The track’s message is conveyed in the last verse where Cole switches his voice and style to express his personal opinion:
“They tellin’ niggas, sell dope, rap or go to NBA,” (in that order)
It’s that sort of thinkin’ that been keepin’ niggas chained”
This track is a testament to Cole’s activism as he urges young African Americans to break free from the chains of social stereotypes and expectations. Peep Cole’s wisdom below:
3. Deja Vu
It’s hard not to think that he may be alluding to the ‘rap game’ in these tracks; personified as a girl he wants to make his but never seems to be able to. This may be highlighted by the repetition of the line:
“She fuck with small town niggas, I got bigger dreams (listen)”
He is not the typical artist that the rap game glorifies – Cole’s got bigger dreams.
Cole’s lyrical peak of the track is reached in the second verse and the sample from K.P. & Envyi’s 1998 track; Swing My Way adds a soulful touch. It should be noted that this sample has been used previously by Charles Hamilton in Brooklyn Girls Bryson Tiller in Exchange. Cole’s use of the sample is done tastefully.
4. Ville Mentality
The musical arrangement and Cole’s singing on Ville Mentality creates a sombre atmosphere. In this track Cole explores how a person’s life circumstances and hometown affect their temperament; especially with regards to people that have grown up in tough neighbourhoods. The ‘Ville’ mentality is highlighted in the lines:
“Nigga play me, never
Give up my chain, never
Give up my pride, never
Show ’em my pain, never”
The track is reminiscent of Anthony Hamilton’s iconic 2003 song Comin’ from Where I’m From.
5. She’s Mine Pt. 1
In G.O.M.D Cole complained:
“It’s called love, niggas don’t sing about it no more
Don’t nobody sing about it no more”
Love is exactly what She’s Mine Pt. 1 is about and Rap has never been very good at dealing with this emotion. Cole is attempting to change this.
The musical arrangement and the tone and inflexion of Cole’s voice on She’s Mine Pt. 1 conveys a sense of contentment that could be a result of finding his soulmate:
“While I’m too scared to expose myself
It turns out, you know me better than I know myself
..She gets him, you get me”
Change marks a pivotal point in the storyline of the album. The intro to the song with the repetition of “Better days” appears to be a nod to Tupac’s Better Dayz. In fact, the album title itself appears to be an acknowledgement of Tupac.
The first verse foreshadows what is about to happen:
“As we speak I’m at peace, no longer scared to die”
The second verse is narrated from the point of view of James where he attempts justify his actions and confesses that he is fully aware of the consequences of the lifestyle he is leading.
In the hook Cole attempts to ‘preach’ to young males living a similar lifestyle, saying:
“I know you desperate for a change let the pen glide
But the only real change come from inside”
The song continuously switches between the points of view of James and Jermaine, thereby continuing the parallel narrative structure of the album.
The fourth verse marks the emotional climax of the track and the album:
“I made it home, I woke up and turned on the morning news
Overcame with a feeling I can’t explain
Cause that was my nigga James that was slain, he was 22”
The outro reinforces the notion that such murders of young black males is too commonplace for comfort.
Cole calls for change in the community through exposing the shocking triviality behind reasons for the death of young black males:
“Niggas die over bitches, disrespect, and dollar bills”
Cole continues his musical activism in Neighbours. This track exposes a society where minorities are stereotyped.
“Some things you can’t escape; death, taxes, and a ra-
-cist society that make every nigga feel like a candidate
For a Trayvon kinda fate, even when your crib sit on a lake”
Like Biggie said:
8. Foldin Clothes
The song highlights Cole’s life philosophy:
“It’s the simple things”
(What other rapper would make a song about folding clothes?)
The final verse presents a deep moment in the album through the comparison of James’ and Jermaine’s need to put on masks to survive in their respective environments.
The verse opens with Cole saying:
“Niggas 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”
“Live from the city where they pull cards
I got a Glock 40 and a little nine
Ready for the day a nigga pull mine”
This is juxtaposed with Jermaine’s words:
“Niggas from the hood is the best actors
Gotta learn to speak in ways that’s unnatural
Just to make it through the job interviews
If my niggas heard me, they’d say
“Damn, what’s gotten into you?”
Just trying to make it, dog, somehow”
The track closes with Cole saying:
“Peaking through the blinds, I see the sun now
I see you’re still sleeping and it feels like
Maybe everything is gon’ be alright”
This is in contrast to the opening track where Cole raps:
“I see the rain pouring down”
Cole’s appreciation for the ‘simple things’ has brought light and contentment to his life.
9. She’s Mine Pt. 2
She’s Mine Pt. 2, the penultimate track of the album is dedicated to Jermaine’s / James’ daughters.
Cole is worried about the world their daughters are brought into and uses the second verse to take a stab at unbridled commercialism:
“And I wish stuff was different here
But if I had a magic wand to make the evil disappear
That means that there would be no Santa Claus no more
To bring you Christmas cheer
‘Cause what he represents is really greed
And the need to purchase shit from corporations
That make a killin’ because they feed
On the wallets of the poor”
The track closes with the birth of the main characters’ daughters, leading them to believe that; “There is a God”
It appears that Foldin Clothes and She’s Mine Pt 2. are placed immediately prior to Change in the timeline of the album narrative.
10. 4 Your Eyez Only
The 8 minutes and 50 seconds long title track; 4 Your Eyez Only, is my favourite track on the album and the jewel in the crown of Cole’s fourth studio album. It presents J. Cole at his Nas-like storytelling best.
The opening verse is narrated from James’ point of view. James’ thoughts on this verse have matured compared to his views on the second track; Immortal. The verse closes with James saying: “Play this tape for my daughter and let her know my life is on it”
In the following verse James narrates his background story and the circumstances that led to him being “a failure”.
The third verse sees James speculating on how he would be murdered. It also presents James’ views on the idea of a ‘real ni***’, a continuing theme throughout the album.
The final verse delivers the knockout blow where Cole, while continuing the narrative, takes the opportunity to highlight two significant social issues in modern America. The first being the mass incarceration of black males:
“I dedicate these words to you and all the other children
Affected by the mass incarceration in this nation
That sent your pops to prison when he needed education”
The second issue being racial segregation, which still appears to continue in the USA under different forms. Cole says:
“Sometimes I think that segregation would’ve done us better
Although I know that means that I would never
Be brought into this world..”
..immediately acknowledging that the continuation of racial segregation would have put an end to the creation of many good things – personified by himself in this instance.
With this Cole reaffirms that:
The final half of the last verse is the emotionally heaviest section of the album where Cole is speaking to James’ daughter and presents his idea of what the definition of a ‘real ni***’ should be:
“Girl, your daddy was a real nigga, not ’cause he was cold
Not because he was the first
To get some pussy twelve 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 nigga, not ’cause he was hard
Not because he lived a life of crime and sat behind some bars
Not because he screamed, “Fuck the law”
Although that was true
Your daddy was a real nigga cause he loved you”
The ending leaves you in the feelings like:
Although, 4 Your Eyez Only may not be the best example of classic Rap lyrical technique, it is successful, through the eyes of its two protagonists; J. Cole and James McMillian Jr., in taking the listener on a journey where we experience the trials and tribulations of being a young black male in modern America.
Mixed at J Cole’s own Sheltuh, Dreamville, NC and the legendary Electric Lady Studios, New York, NY; 4 Your Eyez Only is also J. Cole’s most musically mature work to date and establishes a unique sound for his narrative.
All in all, J Cole’s most recent effort is comparable to a classic novel or film that could be re-consumed, re-analysed and enjoyed for a long time to come.