"4 Your Eyez Only" overcomes an ambitious concept and a couple of awkward moments to stand as J. Cole's best album.
Of all the buzz surrounding J. Cole's new album-- the alleged shots fired at Kanye West, Lil Yachty, and Wale on pre-album loosies, another chance to go "platinum with no features," the fact that Cole may be a father, fan theories about "Neighbors" and the overarching album concept-- reactions to the track "Foldin Clothes" have been the most entertaining. Most were taken aback that yes, this track is literally. about. folding. clothes. Some tried to find hidden meanings, others lamented the lameness; personally, I couldn't hear it without thinking of the last awkward overshare of a track that Cole released, 2014 Forest Hills Drive's "Wet Dreamz." Both songs exemplify one of Cole's obvious strengths-- being relatable-- that's held dear by many of his fans. When he talks about "Watching Netflix, catching up on our shows" or "Praying, 'God don't let me bust quick,'" he's tapping into universal experiences, ones that people from every walk of life can envision, if not recount from their own lives. I've never really bought the whole "J. Cole's great because he's relatable" thing (because anyone can write songs about Netflix and chill or "American Pie"-style sexual blunders), but what I like about Cole is brought out in the outro to "Foldin Clothes":
"N*ggas 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
N*ggas 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 n*ggas heard me, they'd say:
'Damn, what’s gotten into you?'
Just trying to make it dog, somehow"
Now, I can't personally relate to this, but it's vulnerable and smart, touching on the plight of others more than most of Cole's personality-driven songs. Some may find his reluctant acceptance of almond milk earlier in the track to be a more on-the-nose insight, but in the outro, he gets to the core of racial stereotyping and code-switching in a unique, poetic way. Cole's gift is drawing people in by being unpretentious and unabashed in his observations and philosophy, and while that still leads to plenty of clunky or even flat-out dumb lyrics on 4 Your Eyez Only, it's his project that uses that gift to the greatest ends.
The album attempts to be many things-- a eulogy for a dead friend, a message to his daughter, a message to Cole's own newborn, a celebration of his wife, an explanation of his aversion to fame. It doesn't devote enough time to any single one of those to create a full cohesive narrative arc, but somehow, he finds enough of a common thread between them to make his most thematically focused project to date. Cole blurs the lines, making it difficult to tell when he's speaking as himself or from the perspective of his fallen comrade, but the general sense of finding peace in your own little world and shielding it from whatever terrors or stress-creating factors lie outside pervades every track. There's moments of hopelessness, such as the intro track's plea for love and peace, or the best lyric on the whole album in "Neighbors":
“Some things you can’t escape: death, taxes, and a racist society
That make every n*gga feel like a candidate for a Trayvon kinda fate
Even when your crib sit on a lake
Even when your plaques hang on a wall
Even when the president jam your tape”
But these are combatted by the joy Cole finds in his home life, and although "Foldin Clothes" may not be the best way to express it, a life away from rap stardom is what he desires. On "Ville Mentality," he raps, "Won't be long 'fore I disappear/You call it runnin', I call it escapin'"; on "Neighbors" it's ""Fuck the fame and the fortune," before he amends the statement, "Well... maybe not the fortune." As long as he can provide for his wife and child, giving them the life that his dead friend's family never got, he's achieving his goals. For the most part, this represents a massive maturation from the Cole of bygone years, who was more worried about letting Nas down than he was about keeping his personal life private, but he's still got some childish tendencies.
"Deja Vu" is the most glaringly obvious "old J. Cole" song, where he lets his own convictions blind him to his own pettiness. He plays his classic role as the "nice guy" who views himself as above other dudes chasing skirts, and while he doesn't go as far as he once did on "Dreams" (where he fantasizes about the vehicular manslaughter of his romantic competitor), he's still insufferable in his cloying possessiveness. "Who in their right mind letting you out the house alone?", he asks the object of his affections as if she's a child in need of supervision, before jumping into try-hard mode and calling her an 100/10-- a desperate, buzzer-beating attempt at "shooting your shot." The song almost lessens the blow of "Foldin Clothes'" lameness-- like, at least this guy chilled out into a domestic dude from his earlier days of being a righteous creep-- but both are ultimately useless in the scope of the album, other than the outro of "Foldin' Clothes."
The are other lyrics that remind me why it's been hard to get 100% on Cole's side this whole time: “Every time you go to sleep you look like you in heaven/Plus the head game is stronger than a few Excedrin,” "The drought got me prayin' for a Carl Thom vibe," "Real n*ggas don't speak when they beef with you/They just pull up on your street, let the heat 'achoo.'" But generally, Cole devotes his focus much more to mood and storyline than to being clever, which despite his intentions has never been his strength. You've never needed, as one Twitter user infamously put it, "a certain level of intelligence" to appreciate J. Cole's music. He validates peoples' opinions about hip hop, gender, and morals, but he rarely (if ever) unlocks a deeper understanding of them. What you do need to appreciate 4 Your Eyez Only is a heart, because Cole does manage to tap into his psyche, as well as the psyches of others, in ways that are alternately disarming and heartwarming. J. Cole is not a rap revolutionary, and never will be, but at his most empathetic and purposeful, he deserves a place in every rap listener's music collection.