“But this February, bet shit get scary when I fuck around and drop…”
It’s been just over a year since J. Cole jumped on Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” beat and said that, igniting excitement for new music from the man who famously went double Platinum with no features. February came and went without so much as a peep, but as revealed earlier today, J. Cole will finally make his return next Friday (December 9) with the release of his long-awaited new album, 4 Your Eyez Only.
No one knows what to expect. There’s no tracklisting, no singles and no word of any potential collaborations. As of press time, Cole has yet to even address the album himself. All we’ve got is an album cover, an iTunes pre-order link and eight more days of suffering through Twitter arguments over whether 2014 Forest Hills Drive really was double Platinum-quality (no comment).
Needless to say, 4 Your Eyez Only is an important album for J. Cole. There are two years of anticipation to be satisfied. There are critics to be silenced. There are competitors to be matched. December 9, 2014, turned J. Cole into a certified rap superstar. December 9, 2016, could cement his legacy.
Here are five questions we have before J. Cole’s 4 Your Eyez Only arrives next Friday.
1. Will 4 Your Eyez Only have a similar rollout to 2014 Forest Hills Drive?
The 2014 Forest Hills Drive rollout was initially spoiled by a premature leak, but it turned out to be one of the most endearing and effective campaigns of recent memory. In keeping with the project’s homecoming theme, Cole invited fans to his childhood home in North Carolina to experience his album in the very environment that inspired it. He even surprised a fan by showing up at her house and letting her hear the album early. J. Cole’s grassroots approach turned him into the people’s champ, and they repaid him in kind.
So far, there are similarities between the rollouts of 2014 Forest Hills Drive and 4 Your Eyez Only. “This time I’m releasing no singles, just the album. See you in three weeks,” he said in the promotional video for Forest Hills Drive. Cole is clearly taking a kindred approach with his new album, except this time, he’s only got one week and we’ve yet to actually hear from him. He may well have been planning to show up next Friday like, “hey, here’s my new album,” but unlike Beyoncé’s stunt a few years ago, the surprise has already been ruined.
Whether a week is enough time to carry out an impactful campaign remains to be seen, but don’t be surprised if Cole’s been plotting something special on the low. We know he likes to move in silence.
2. With everything that's happened this year, will J. Cole speak out on social issues on this new album?
When 2014 Forest Hills Drive dropped, Barack Obama was still comfortably in office and the idea of Donald Trump becoming the 45th president of the United States seemed ludicrous. When 4 Your Eyez Only arrives next Friday, Trump will be just over a month away from officially taking the reigns of the Free World. J. Cole has a lot to chew on if he’s feeling peckish.
There’s a good chance he will be, too. Despite keeping a low profile over the last couple of years, Cole demonstrated how powerful and necessary his voice is on “Be Free,” which remains one of the most stirring songs to emerge from the ashes of police brutality. When I first saw the cover for 4 Your Eyez Only, it reminded me of To Pimp a Butterfly—the striking black-and-white photo, the dark-skinned boy in the background. You can almost see Cole in deep thought—his head down, arms folded, back to the camera.
If there’s anything to be gleaned from the album artwork, it’s that J. Cole has been quietly observing the world, and is finally ready to speak up.
3. Will there be any guest features this time?
As commercially successful as it has been, 2014 Forest Hills Drive isn’t exactly universally adored. The album, which holds a score of 67 on Metacritic, was partly criticized for its lack of variety on both sides of the booth. “The production falls short, too, with dull beats to match his languid flow,” David Turner wrote (rather harshly) in his review for Rolling Stone. J. Cole isn’t a bad rapper or producer by any stretch of the imagination, and given its personal nature, you could argue 2014 Forest Hills Drive didn’t need big-name features. But who doesn’t like a little seasoning on their steak?
Although news of potential collaborations have been few and far between, producer Cardo revealed that he sent beats to J. Cole earlier this year. For those unfamiliar with Cardo’s résumé, this year alone he’s picked up credits for ScHoolboy Q’s “THat Part,” Kendrick Lamar’s “untitled 07” and Travis Scott’s “Goosebumps.” There’s no guarantee Cardo will appear on this new album, but it’s an exciting prospect that suggests Cole is keeping his options open, at least on the production tip.
In theory, J. Cole could get anyone he wanted for 4 Your Eyez Only. Kendrick Lamar? Sure. Drake? Bet. Jay Z? Probably. If Cole didn’t want to take the DJ Khaled route, his home state of North Carolina is brimming with talent that would make for some tasty collaborations, like 9th Wonder, Rapsody, King Mez and Phonte. The question is who fits into Cole’s vision for 4 Your Eyez Only? If nobody else does, then does he have the chops to carry it out by himself?
4. Will it be an album of the year contender?
2016 has been a year of 8/10 rap albums—projects that are really good but not all-the-way amazing. Don’t get me wrong, I love Coloring Book and The Life of Pablo and Blank Face LP, but none of them managed to pull me away from Blonde or Malibu or A Seat at the Table. Drake’s VIEWS is a commercial triumph, but not the classic album his catalog is missing, while Kendrick Lamar’s untitled unmastered. is a collection of (albeit amazing) leftovers that no one should be comparing to a fully fledged album. A Tribe Called Quest currently have the best rap album of the year, but the lane is open for a young king like Jermaine to steal the crown from the old monarchs in the last stretch. This is Cole's moment (mom's spaghetti).
5. Can he go double Platinum — again?
In how many months? With features or without features? Maybe triple Platinum this time? There's no question 4 Your Eyez Only will sell a shit load of copies. I'm more concerned with what's on those copies, and I have a good feeling about it.
By Andy James. Follow him on Twitter.
Photo Credit: Nick Carp