Thursday, December 15, 2016

album review: '4 your eyez only' by j cole

I think it's time that some of the illusions should be broken surrounding J. Cole.

And let me make this clear, this was a long time coming, but the release of 'False Prophets' and the pretty blatant diss directed at Kanye West - well, as blatant as not having the courage to put names on wax is these days - pretty much cemented it in my mind. In that song, J. Cole expressed his disappointment that Kanye, one of his idols, was falling from grace and his art was suffering for it, and that his "friend" Wale was stewing in his own bitterness and depression given the mixed critical response to his work. So let's put aside that he just put one of his own 'friends' on blast about his depression, he also chose to release this song right as Kanye has been going through what appears to be a full-on mental breakdown, and not just attack his character, but his art. And look, if J. Cole is disappointed with Kanye, he can join the goddamn club - I've been frustrated with his work since I think 2009 - but to me this stank of some opportunistic sucker shit, taking cheap shots at artists who aren't a position to directly fire back as a way to get hype for an upcoming album that doesn't even feature that song! But after all, it's not like J. Cole is lying, right? He plainly cares, this is his way of showing his concern - after all, he's such a nice guy.

And make no mistake, I'm definitely using the 'nice guy' qualifier as a pejorative here, because for a while now it has seemed to ring true for J. Cole - a guy who on the surface might seem to have sincere intentions but when you rip away the veneer he's just like so many of the A-listers that he derides. And while to some 'False Prophets' was the first clue, this has been something I've noticed since at least 2014 Forest Hills Drive, especially in his songs about women. Hell, you could probably trace it back further, but what I've always found galling is the framing: he doesn't frame his disses as such, but just 'disappointment' - the actual content rarely matches how it is presented, and that's where things can get ugly. And if that disingenuous presentation was the only problem that'd be one thing, but when you combine it with content and bars that are nowhere near as deep or complex as J. Cole plainly thinks they are, it tends to make for records that I don't like nearly as much as so many. But whatever, now that I've probably alienated a fair chunk of you, how is that new album for which he was building this hype, 4 Your Eyez Only?

Well, this was a frustrating listen, that's for sure - I definitely get why 'False Prophets' wasn't on this, because it wouldn't have fit whatsoever. But that's also because 4 Your Eyez Only is aiming for a self-contained concept that I don't think works all the way through and overall leaves me with a lot more questions than answers. Oh, I get what this is trying to do - J. Cole is a plainspoken MC - but the parallels that he is trying to sketch feel inconsistent at best and a little self-serving at worst. And that's going to take a bit to explain here, mostly because despite similar questionable framing choices that sparked my rant opening this review still being here, it's slightly muted... mostly because for the majority of this project, J. Cole is not the main character.

Okay, we're going to get nowhere if we don't start with the content and that central 'concept': this record is trying to tell two stories in parallel, that of J. Cole's first experiences with fatherhood, and that a friend who was killed in the drug trade when J. Cole went to college, leaving behind his own daughter. Some of hypothesizing that said friend is the same that showed up on '03' Adolescence' two years ago, but beyond that fragment of continuity, more of 4 Your Eyez Only is focusing on that friend's story and encroaching feelings of depression and mortality. There's an undefined feeling of death coming because of something that he might have done from the church bells referenced in the first track, and 'Immortal' is all the more stark in that friend trying to define his legacy in his own mind. Of course, where things get more interesting is when we get songs like 'She's Mine', parts one and two, the first where that friend tries to show more open vulnerability when confronted with the person that he loves and the second showing a glimmer of hope break through his hard exterior at the sight of his daughter - he was ready to die, but not anymore. And thus he leaves his final message in a few verses to his daughter, with J. Cole passing on that message to speak to any child who has lost their father in this way, for their eyes only. Okay, that's a powerful theme, and the universality of the message could explain the lack of greater detail with the friend's story, which is told more in snippets and snapshots...

But the second you start thinking about things more, it starts to break apart, and it's driven by that parallel that J. Cole wants to draw between his friend and himself - to be blunt, it's not one that really works. For one, as much as J. Cole wants to slip social commentary about the message to black men that to get out you need to 'sell dope, rap, or go to the NBA', J. Cole did the second and he did get out. Sure, he does have a point with a song like 'Neighbors', one of the better cuts on the album where he rents a house in North Carolina and racist neighbors call for a police raid because they assume they're selling drugs out of it where all J. Cole is selling is dope rhymes - allegedly, we'll come back to this - in that there is still systemic racism and prejudice. But when you follow that song with 'Folding Clothes', a song where he's head over heels in love with his girl so they're folding clothes and watching Netflix and drinking almond milk together and it's supposed to feel euphoric, a moment of respite... but probably not one that his friend shares in the same way, or would have the luxury to feel. And that's an important distinction, especially when you consider the bigger picture, where on songs like 'Ville Mentality' and 'Change' J. Cole muses about his own fame and success and how people like his friend think about death as he tries to construct a moral justification for it all, whereas, to quote Donald Glover's character from Atlanta, 'poor people don't have time for investments', be they money or existential quandaries. They think about death because it's a necessity in his line of work, especially when gets a family, and if this record had been entirely from that friend's perspective or gave more insight into his own thought patterns, this could have worked. But instead we get J. Cole complaining about fame and contemplating the retirement that'll never happen on 'Ville Mentality', or on 'Neighbors' where he'd give up the fame but not the fortune - which places that little rant against capitalism, Christmas, and Black Friday on 'She's Mine Pt. 2' in even muddier context - or 'Deja Vu', which somehow ends up as yet another 'steal someone else's girl but it's okay because J. Cole's such a nice guy' anthem, complete with the concern trolling that was insufferable when Drake did it on a lot of the same flows! But the point that really bothered me was on the first verse of 'Change', where J. Cole posits that God understands and would never truly judge a man who shot someone because he was ignorant of the consequences, or who beat his wife because he was bitter or in pain

Now there's two possibilities with this line: either this perspective is from the friend seeking to justify his peace of mind preparing for death - still a pretty gross moral justification, but it's understandable - or it's from J. Cole trying to lend hope as he works to purge out his inner demons through his writing, which is still all sorts of messed up and less excusable to boot. And the problem is that we really can't tell all that well, and this loops into J. Cole's delivery. There are a couple of songs on this record - 'Change' being one of them - where he alternates from his friend's perspective to his and vice-versa, but given that he uses a near identical vocal tone, it doesn't clearly delineate which is which. And sure, I get that it could be part of the point that there's overlap, highlighting how some audiences can't tell the difference - but you can only push that excuse so far before your stabs at 'ambiguity' just end up as cheap justifications to get away with an unnecessarily fragmented narrative. And that doesn't obscure the fact that J. Cole really doesn't aim to cut an interesting or impressive performance on this album. For one, whoever keeps telling him we want to hear him sing needs to stop - forget Anderson .Paak or Childish Gambino or D.R.A.M. who can balance both, even Drake is capable of better vocals that J. Cole delivers on this record, where his voice is audibly breaking. And as for the rapping... look, for as many socially conscious ideas as J. Cole references, he's not really delving deep into them, and it's not like his punchlines or wordplay are all that impressive or layered - in terms of MCs who are more open and honest, he's not even in the same ballpark as Open Mike Eagle or Aesop Rock or Sage Francis or Elzhi, mostly because he's got a really bad habit of relying on rhyming words with themselves or repeating bars to fill up space, like on the verses of 'Ville Mentality' or on 'Folding Clothes', where he rhymes almond milk... with almond milk.

And that's not even counting on the fact that J. Cole's not bringing the same intensity to his delivery, but there's a part of me that's willing to give that a pass as it kind of fits the smaller scope and self-contained nature of the content and instrumentation... but it's not like that instrumentation is giving him anything significant to flow against. I've always said that one of J. Cole's unappreciated strengths is his knack for pulling out a solid melody... so why does the first half of this record, after the jazzy squeals of the horns of 'For Whom The Bell Tolls', drops into these muted, desaturated tones with limited melody and a selection of dry beats rejected from If You're Reading This It's Too Late? And that's not even touching on that beat on 'Deja Vu' that shares a striking resemblance to Bryson Tiller's 'Exchange' - apparently there's some controversy that it got stolen and was intended for J. Cole originally, but the truth is that I didn't really like it on 'Exchange' and I'm not wild about it here. Yes, the album brightens a bit with the smoother jazz piano and wiry low synths and rougher samples of strings and horns that play against J. Cole's crooning on 'Ville Mentality', but it's not like it gives this album momentum, especially when 'She's Mine Pt. 1' drops back into even more muted keys and fragmented strings - sure, it's pretty and something of a beat does materialize on the bridge, but J. Cole's slow speak-rapping and falsetto crooning just doesn't do much for me here. At least 'Change' brings some of those fragmented effects into a jittery melody and sharper beat with the welcome backing vocals of Ari Lennox, and J. Cole is spitting a little harder - a trend that continues somewhat on 'Neighbors' with the inverted samples forming the melody - but I can't be the only one who thinks it's a tad ridiculous that the most hyped that J. Cole sounds is on 'Folding Clothes' against that blocky buzz of the bass that doesn't fit well with the bouncier guitar and thicker backing vocals! And yes, I can appreciate that the title track picks up some sweet horns, a rougher bass-driven beat, and a more slick jazz vibe to end the record out, but again, this is not jazz rap with color or momentum, and even though this is easily J. Cole's shortest record, it still feels long, and even though I appreciate how it tries to tie everything together, the callbacks on 'Ville Mentality' and 'Change' telegraphed what was coming so much that it also feels muted to me.

But in the end... look, I can't really get mad at this because it's hard not to see good intentions here, at least on the surface. The problem is that those intentions are seriously muddied by the execution, both lyrical and thematic, in delivery and production, and overall the payoff is not really all that satisfying or anything we haven't heard before in hip-hop. By playing to sentiment and generalities I get the impression that J. Cole blew the opportunity to tell a story that cut more deeply, and by playing everything with muted, midtempo understatement, it even further enforces the feeling that there's just not much here that's distinct, deep, or interesting. I appreciate the ambition, and yeah, J. Cole is a good enough rapper to push this to a 5/10, but I can't really recommend this to anyone outside J. Cole's fanbase, and even they could go to most of his previous records and find more interesting content and melodies. As it is, while even the title emphasizes that it's not for me - and if you get more out of it, good for you - but with consistent framing issues and more muted tendencies, I'm not sure I want it either.

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