The legendary, polarizing rapper J. Cole, finally released his fourth studio album, 4 Your Eyez Only today. The entire album is somewhat subdued, lacking the heavy bass ridden tracks that ran throughout 2014 Forest Hills Drive. Cole’s voice is somber, reflecting a sort of worry. In fact, he sort of lives up to his moniker as the boring rapper on this album, which plenty of his haters will definitely use as an example to make the case that J. Cole is one of the most boring rappers of our current generation. If you are one of those people, this album is definitely not for you, but that’s not what the album is all about. J. Cole has always been about telling a story and getting an overall message across to his audience. The message for this album is simple — we have to change what it means to be a “real nigga” in the Black community.
The album is a story. It starts off about a young man who is on the streets, drug dealing and hustling. On “Immortal”, the young man that he is rapping about is bragging about his status in the streets with lines like, “Real niggas don’t die” and “If they want a nigga / they gonna have to send the swat team / I’m going out like Scarface in his last scene.” However, the young man falls in love with a woman and it changes his entire life. He starts doing little things like moving to a better neighborhood in order to build a better life and “Foldin’ Clothes” — things that are not necessarily associated with being a “real nigga” in the Black community. He has a daughter and his whole stance on what it means to be a man changes. He now understands that he lives for her, but he cannot leave the drug life behind him. In an almost nine-minute ending track, the young man, now dead, is sending a message to his daughter so that she can understand his story and why he is now gone.
J. Cole’s music has always reached out to a specific audience, though. If you live outside of the world that he is speaking about, then you can definitely feel the music and vibe with it. But, if you exist in that world, then his music hits you like a ton of bricks, especially for young black men who are leaving their homes and venturing out into a space that is not necessarily accepting of them. Trying to balance that existence takes a toll on a young man, and J. Cole understands that. For example, the ending of “Foldin’ Clothes” where Cole raps, “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 would say / Damn, what’s got into you.” His music always felt like it was meant for people who live in the middle — focused on bettering their life to make it out of poverty, but understanding that they may be too hood for the corporate world.
This album is poetry. It comes across as depressing because it is only at the end of the subject’s life that he realizes what it truly means to be a “real nigga.” Kanye West has this famous line on the song, “Through the Wire”, in which he raps, “But he wasn’t talking about coke and birds / It was more like spoken word / Cept’ he’s really putting it down.” J. Cole took this old Kanye West model on music and ran with it. And it’s fair that people will assume that he is boring or that this is some type of “woke” music. But, J. Cole is far from boring and it’s not necessarily “woke.” This is a black man from a poor background talking to other poor black men about changing our lifestyles before it is too late.
Sure, 2014’s Forest Hills Drive was able to tap into a broader audience. But, what J. Cole did on 4 Your Eyez Only was reach to his core fans and made an album that they can appreciate. Whether or not others agree with it is fine for him. J. Cole seems content with being the polarizing figure that he is, and you have to appreciate his artistry. His wrote his entire album by himself which has become a highly debated topic in the rap community as of late. He also produced every song from “Ville Mentality” to “She’s Mine Part 2.” He is a complete musical talent and we need to appreciate what we have while he is still here. We need to absorb his message because it is a deep one. And hopefully, you get past the “boring” nature of his music to understand the deeper message.
Photos via Complex, Getty Images / Duane Prokop