By and large, music connects with listeners for various reasons.
The past year saw the deaths of musical icons whose legions of dedicated fans felt as if they had lost a friend and confidant. David Bowie, Prince, Glenn Frye, George Michael, Merle Haggard, and Leonard Cohen had worldwide followings because their music was filled with truth and emotions. They were masters of their craft and storytellers in their own right.
For fans of J.Cole’s music, his style is no different. The Fayetteville, North Carolina lyricist approaches each track as an opportunity to tell a story of life as it really is, or at least as it is through his eyes. After his third studio album “2014 Forrest Hills Drive” was met with overwhelmingly positive reviews, Cole was riding a huge wave of momentum and popularity.
The album was the first in over twenty-five years to gain platinum certification without a single guest appearance or feature. While 2014 Forrest Hills Drive was not to Cole what “Late Registration” was to Kanye West or “The Marshall Mathers LP” was to Eminem, the record catapulted Cole into a category all his own, also earning him his first career Grammy nomination.
This set the stage for a sleepy morning in early December 2016 when the artwork for Cole’s forth studio album, “4 Your Eyez Only,” was listed on iTunes as available for preorder. Dec. 5 saw the release of “False Prophets” and “Everybody Dies” as singles, which both charted in the top 40 of the US Billboard Hot 100.
The first track was largely viewed as a call-out directed towards Kanye West’s recent antics and shifts in behavior. The second is a sobering look at the mortality of men and Cole’s desire to leave an impact on the world around him.
The album itself, which was released in its ten track entirety on Dec. 9, debuted at number one on the Billboard 200, becoming Cole’s forth number one album. “Deja Vu” entered the Hot 100 at number seven without seeing release as a single, and all ten songs from the album debuted in the top 40. This, after Cole had only produced four top 40 hits as a solo artist, was a tremendous step-up.
Perhaps this album resonated white-hot with listeners because Cole, as he always does, had a story to tell and some things to get off his chest. In March 2016, J.Cole’s North Carolina home was raided by a SWAT team with helicopters circling overhead, according to producer Elite. The team, which was presumably acting on a tip from suspicious neighbors, found nothing in the basement but loads of recording equipment, the bones of Cole’s creative skeleton.
This album, for considerable stretches, is a reflection on death. Cole’s friend James McMillan Jr, who was shot and killed at 22, is mentioned frequently. “Immortal,” which is far and away the best song on the album, shows a different side of J. Cole’s style. J. Cole’s lyricism takes on a 2Pac quality, as he paints such vivid mental images the listener can actually see Cole’s studio basement with moon light faintly coming in.
“She’s Mine, Pt. 2” shares some of Cole’s anxieties as a new father and husband and the title track serves as a warning to the young girls of today and serves to showcase some of Cole’s most impressive writing to date.
If the album has a weak link, it would be production value. This album would have been more of a technical masterpiece had it not come after Chance the Rapper’s “Coloring Book,” Bryson Tiller’s debut album “T R A P S O U L,” and Drake’s smash-hit “Views,” which all featured the same soulful, jazz and house-infused beats and production that Cole’s album also displays.
In general, J. Cole’s “4 Your Eyez Only” is a well above-average album. The story-telling quality and depth present in Cole’s lyrics up and down the song list fill this record with replay value. The largest problem I have with Lil Uzi Vert and Young Thug’s music is the utter lack of depth within their content. I can only listen to so many tracks full of high-pitched, auto-tune massacred garbage with little to no artistic value.
Ten songs was more than enough for J. Cole to make his case for why he deserves to remain high atop the hip-hop community.