4 Your Eyez Only: The Return of J. Cole

J Cole, photo by Billboard

J Cole, photo by Billboard

On 9 December 2016, J. Cole released his fourth studio album, 4 Your Eyez Only. The album consists of ten songs—all of which are ripe with the pain, pride, and power of black manhood, the delicacy and complexity of love, the nearly desperate desire for societal change, and the juxtapositions of life and death which historically underprivileged people know all too well. It isn’t necessarily a “new side” of J. Cole—even those who have only ridden with him since 2014 Forest Hills Drive know that he has always been one to call it like it is, to speak power to his pain and to our pain, all while rhyming and flowing in a seemingly effortless manner—but it seems to be a display of some newfound artistic range in the rapper. He can convey fierceness and anger (and arrogance?) in the song “Neighbors,” then rap (and sing!) about love and the little things in “Foldin Clothes.”

And maybe this slight change, this general expansion of his musicianship was to be expected, considering the fact that J. Cole’s life has changed drastically in recent years. In January 2016, fans were shocked with the news that their favorite rapper had gotten married; this information “slipped” in an interview with Ryan Coogler when the Creed director mistakenly asked, “How did getting married change you?” Adding to the surprise, it appears that J. Cole may also be a father; the song “She’s Mine, Pt. 2” details a father’s love for his baby girl, and Cole seems entirely too attached to the topic to be simply telling somebody else’s story.

All of this to say—life changes people. It follows, then, that life would also change a person’s art. Many people with whom I have spoken about J. Cole’s newest project rank it relatively low compared to his earlier works; they never deny Cole’s talent and they never demote him from his position as one of the realest rappers of our time, but they seem to think that something is missing from this album. Some element of the heavy-hitter Cole is absent, and though 4 Your Eyez Only is a powerful album, it’s just not what they were expecting. We saw this with Chance the Rapper’s release of Coloring Book, a drastic change from his previous mixtape, Acid Rap; there is no doubt that having a daughter changed Chance, made him more of an optimist, taught him about love and life and God, and his recent album is a clear reflection of that. Maybe that’s what we’re seeing with J. Cole: the never-ending cycle of art reflecting life.

I have had to remind myself of this cycle since hearing 4 Your Eyez Only. I’ll admit that I was hoping for another Sideline Story type of album, something with many more songs, many more treatises on “going to get it,” many more anthems for those of us who haven’t quite made it, haven’t quite lost that youthful naiveté, haven’t quite merged our dreams with reality. But J. Cole has done all of this and more—he has lived and he has grown, and he has been gracious enough to let us come along for the ride.

Still, though, when it feels as though “A Dollar and a Dream” are all that I have, I return to the younger Cole—at this stage in my life, I am only warming up.

by Nonnie Egbuna

Nonnie Egbuna