It's taken a long time for me to connect with J. Cole.
For years, I think it was primarily a matter of timing. The younger folks on the DJBooth staff felt like Cole was telling their whole life with his words, but while I could hear that he made good songs, I heard he had a style, he just hadn't killed me yet. I blame the age gap.
While he was making The Warm Up, I was first warming up my wife's oven. My life was diapers and learning how to shoulder the adult world, his world was nice watches and morning sex. It was no one's fault, we were just two ships passing in the musical night a few years apart.
But then came 2014 Forest Hills Drive.
It's no coincidence that on the album where he finally and truly let go of his commercial appeal, he also made his most timeless music; it could have easily been Socrates who said, "There's no such thing as a life that's better than yours." And along with this musical wisdom came a Cole who fully embraced the leadership role some of his other peers were too scared to touch. Sure, there was the occasional "just playin," sure he ruined the "Planes (Remix)" with that one line, but who amongst us is human and perfect? J. Cole became a man, and I became something more than a fan. I became a student.
And now we have 4 Your Eyez Only.
First, I applaud Cole for bringing back the "spelling words with a z" thing that had completely died in hip-hop. Those of us who grew up listening to All Eyez on Me and slow-dancing to Boyz II Men have missed it dearly. Second, writing this feels particularly fitting because Forest Hills Drive was the genesis of the 1 Listen Review. He accidentally coined the term:
When I read that I had an epiphany. He was almost right, but it wasn't one listen reviews that were so bad, exactly. It was one listen reviews that didn't admit they were one listen reviews and pretended to be more. And in some ways, it was even worse to assign an album some exacting score or claim to understand its place in the hip-hop pantheon because they had listened to it for all of three days. Those reviews had the distinction of being both inaccurate and dishonest while smugly believing they were neither.
No, it struck me that the closest thing to assessing an album in the internet age was to do a one-listen-review that was naked, honestly itself. It would be a gut reaction, stream of consciousness, no-editing and no-rewinding reaction that would reflect everyone's first time hearing it. And then six months later, once we'd had some real time to figure out the album's impact on the world and ourselves, we'd do a follow-up review. That's what happened with Forest Hills Drive, and that's what's going to happen to 4 Your Eyez Only.
Turns out "False Prophets" and "Everybody Dies" aren't on the album, it's a compact ten tracks and the big surprise is that Lil Yachty has not one, but two, features. Sorry, that's a lie, I couldn't resist. Obviously, there are no features. And with that, let's do this thing. * presses play *
1. "For Whom the Bell Tolls"
Nothing like a Hemingway reference to start off a rap album (and they said an English degree wouldn't pay off). Some shaking percussion, skittering trumpet, singing Cole, it sounds like he's recording from inside a clock factory. He really is perfecting that raspy, lowkey soulful singing style. Really heavy lyrics, if the first song is setting the album's tone this album's going to be darker than an eclipse. Forget retiring, Cole's apparently not even sure if he wants to live. Basically think about "Work Out," then think about the exact opposite—that's this song.
Smooth transition but a different song, this beat sounds like a banger that was drowned underwater and then recorded through a submarine door. It has this semblance of aggression but that aggression's so tamped down it's more like an odd calm. Cole on his real rap shit, the proverbial real is back, although I'd argue the real never really left. This is going to be that song fans put on repeat until you can recite every word exactly in his flow—he's also doing that thing where his voice cracks at the end of the hook. My head's involuntarily nodding, I also can't help but wish this had been on that Cole x Kendrick collab album that's never going to actually happen. (Bonus points for the Bowflex shout out, if he works in a Tae Bo reference later in the album I'll bow down.)
3. "Deja Vu"
A lot of putting fingers in the sky, this one's going to be a crowd-mover live. Sonically it's a change of pace, a lot of 808s and hi-hats and heartbreak, none of the frenetic energy or live instruments of the last song. Slight change of pace, now it's that quasi-rap parody thing he did with the pre-hook to "G.M.O.D." This can't be contemporary Cole, I'm assuming that he's rapping from the perspective of his past self, or another character entirely. Is this the set-up to a storyline like on FHD? This doesn't sound like a song that will stand out, more like the kind of song that builds the backbone of a cohesive album. That'll depend on the rest of these songs...
4. "Ville Mentality"
Ooooh....this is smooth, I feel like I'm idly playing some jazz piano in a penthouse suite dressed only in a robe and drinking fresh-squeezed orange juice. Oh, but now Cole's back with some of those dark lyrics, bemoaning the effects of the internet and the pressures of fame. Wait, who's that singing? Beautiful, and now there's a girl talking about her dead father, painful to hear. Fair warning, never put dirt on Cole's name. I mean, never.
I've grown to trust Cole enough to trust that I'll understand this better with more listens. That's a big step in our relationship.
5. "She's Mine Pt. 1"
This has been a very quiet album, very few big drums, now we've got a piano, strings, and some layered crooning. This is just straight up beautiful—and they say rappers don't make love songs no more. Cole's a very personal man, we only know he's married accidentally, but I have to assume this is a song for his wife (although I'm doubting that part about her giving great head made it into their wedding vows). This is more spoken word than rap—many will call it soft, but love that hardens the heart is no love at all. See, he's got me feeling all poetical and whatnot.
Slightly more uptempo but still very subdued, heavy R&B vibes. Man, how many times has he mentioned death on this album so far? Mortality is often heavy on his mind. I'm predicting that this "the only real change comes inside" line will launch one thousand think pieces once it gets out there. Did he really get shot at and keep a pistol? Once again, I'm assuming he's rapping from another perspective. The closing is almost a capella—Jermaine's never been shy about lyricism, but here he's really putting those bars on display like Fort Knox. Pastor Cole delivering a short sermon as the song fades out on more jazz vibes. So far this is his least "hip-hop" album ever.
And...right on cue, there's some real hip-hop drums and a looped sample, crazy how he integrated those bird sounds into the beat. Flow is also crazy here, Cole's back on his anti-fame tip. Hell, maybe he will pull a Chappelle and move to a small town, walk out of the spotlight for a minute. Who's this on the hook? This hook could have easily been on a Migos banger if the beat was harder, it's an interesting juxtaposition. He couldn't resist the "Obama listens to my music" humblebrag (RIP to Harris Wittels). Shit, if Obama ever read one of my articles, it'd be all I'd write about ever again. Some heavier social and political themes here, this is an album of our times.
8. "Foldin Clothes"
That bass line sounds like Satan's playing bass in hell's jam band, and I mean that as a compliment. I suddenly remember someone tweeting, "It'd be so J. Cole for that Foldin Clothes song to literally be about folding clothes" when the tracklist dropped—guess what? It's literally about folding clothes, and metaphorically about doing laundry as a form of domestic love.
I'm also suddenly realizing that I'm making this song sound much more boring that it is, that guitar line is dope, but...well...now he's literally rapping about pouring almond milk over his Raisin Bran. I'm going to go ahead and call that the most prominent almond milk shout out in rap history. I write this with every 1 Listen caveat available to me, but I'm not sure this song needed to be on the album.
9. "She's Mine Pt. 2"
Piano, strings, the sound of a baby crying—is that Cole's real baby? [Cut to the faces of a thousand listeners who simultaneously realize that Pt. 1 is about his wife and Pt. 2 is about his daughter.] This room is getting awful dusty all of a sudden, I'd like to officially welcome Cole to the Rap Dad Gang. Between him, Chance and Gambino, it's been a huge year for our gang. I think this is the second time I've used the word beautiful in this review. It's not a word I use often, but when I do I mean it.
10. "4 Your Eyez Only"
I have to say, I'm already a fan of the shorter length. Usually, I'm exhausted by the last track of a 1 Listen review, but this is short enough to make me want to dive right back in. In terms of this song—well, I'll be damned, he really is going to make it through an entire album without any big sounds. This entire project is very muted, it sounds like the audio version of the sweatpants uniform Cole's been rocking lately. Lyrically, he's on his storytelling vibe here, four minutes in with four minutes to go. Either this song's going to switch up, or it's going to be an epic story. [Update: no switch, it's an epic story.]
Even more so than 2014 Forest Hills Drive, even more so than To Pimp a Butterfly, this sounds like an album with zero ambitions of mainstream commercial success. I don't know what song the radio even begins to select here, "Immortal" is the closest and that's not particularly close. There are no real memorable punchlines, no crazy beats people are going to lose their minds over.
True to its title, listening to this album feels like reading a personal letter from Cole, one not intended to ever be seen by the larger world. In a word, it's intimate, not exactly a word you read often in hip-hop album reviews.
I suspect that will make it a particularly difficult album to rank. Is it his best ever? I don't know, but it feels like the album he needs to make right now, and I don't know what else fans, and critics, could ask for.
Now for the second listen...