The rapper and activist takes aim at mass incarceration, police brutality and toxic masculinity on his much anticipated follow up to Forest Hill Drives
J Cole doesnt really want to be famous any more. This is, after all, the same rapper who once wrote: Im knee-deep in the game and it aint what I thought. More recently, though, hes flirted with the idea of withdrawing from the public eye completely. On Jermaines Interlude from DJ Khaleds pop-rap compilation Major Key, which wondered about raps place in a world of state-sanctioned violence against unarmed blacks, he said: How the fuck do I look when I brag to you bout some diamonds?/ Said all that I could say, now I play with thoughts of retirement.
Throughout his career, J Cole has had trouble reconciling his celebrity with his humility, and as hes gotten more famous, his music has gotten more trite and uneventful. He seemed to be going through the motions until police shootings around the country (and the following protests) snapped him awake. Then, he began to re-evaluate what his music could do.
Cole was among the first responders to the cause, heeding the call from fans looking to anoint a new generation of visible advocates; he was early on the scene in Ferguson after the death of Michael Brown and has written a handful of protest songs since. When Brown was killed, Cole performed an ode called Be Free on the David Letterman show. It was a moving tribute to black lives mattering that unfolded like a vigil on live TV: Can you tell me why/ Every time I step outside I see my niggas die/ Im lettin you know that there aint no gun they make that can kill my soul. To this day, it remains the most gripping and endearing moment in his canon.
With his new album, 4 Your Eyez Only, Cole channels Be Free, finding a new niche and renewed purpose as a mouthpiece for black frustrations, throwing himself headfirst into rap activism. He does this all while dissecting how stardom has changed his life just enough to make him influential, yet somehow not enough to spare him from racial profiling. Fuck the fame and the fortune well, maybe not the fortune / But one thing is for sure though, the fame is exhausting, he admits on the bass-heavy Neighbors, a fast-paced jam that refuses to confuse upward social mobility with inclusion, as Cole recognizes that his rich neighbors think he made his money selling dope. Its a microcosm of Eyez, which is equal parts personal and political, and absolutely his best album yet.
Outside of Deja Vu, which is basically a rehash of a Bryson Tiller song, Exchange, with the same sample (KP and Envyis Swing My Way), this is a collection of songs with a clear and unified vision, scrutinizing mass incarceration, police brutality, toxic masculinity (which he brands as tough guy culture) and other tensions plaguing black communities. He does it best on Change, a song that transports the listener into the shootout that took the life of James McMillan Jr, Coles friend, and on Immortal, which memorializes those lost to gun violence.
But despite being beset by traumas past and present, Cole finds hope in love. A three-song suite about the power of affection brings balance to an otherwise bleak project. After contemplating suicide on the opener, For Whom the Bell Tolls, he finds a reason to live on Shes Mine Pt 1: Ive fallen in love for the first time/ I wanna cry and I aint even tryna fight it / Dont wanna die (I dont wanna die no more) / Cause now youre here. Shes Mine Pt 2 is a reprise, this time dedicated to his newborn daughter, but with the same touching sentiments. Both have gorgeous, string-laced arrangements, complementing the mood. The best of the three songs is Foldin Clothes, which turns menial labor into a romantic gesture, further implying Coles desire for a simpler life.
Another outing without featured performers, 4 Your Eyez Only is packed with detailed compositions lined with lush live instruments from session musicians and additional production and programming from heavy hitters, including Boi-1da, Vinylz, Frank Dukes, members of the Social Experiment, and, of course, Cole himself. It is his most unassuming record to date, but also his richest sonically. There is still significant room for growth, but he has finally found his voice. Its only when he questioned his motivations that he discovered what was truly valuable: peace of mind.