As we saw in a post-2014 Forest Hills Drive world, it has become difficult to separate the name J. Cole from the words "platinum, no features." While the impressive feat has since been reduced to a hilarious batch of memes, we often forget the bigger picture that the lone wolf emcee's conscious decision to create without guest features is not necessarily for shock value, but rather to present his point of view, solely and unapologetically. It feels rare, because it is.
Cole isn't impressed by accolades of fame or one's talent, as exemplified on the recent one-off “False Prophets,” but by how one handles said fame or talent. Cole is a living example of the cliché "with great power comes responsibility," and his decision to use his platform both wisely and with an authentic realness is exactly why he has created his own lane. The Dreamville emcee creates with something greater in mind, but he doesn't have everything all figured out either. Without room for trial and error, there is no room for progress, and this is an integral part of his curious and undeniable charm. While “False Prophets” and “Everybody Dies” are not featured on his new album, 4 Your Eyez Only, they act as foreshadowing that Cole’s gearing up for something bigger, later delivering 10 tracks that provide plenty of material for us to digest and talk about. Every move he makes is calculated, forcing us to be more thoughtful in our response.
And "thoughtful" we were. Without further ado, here are some musings that crossed our minds while spinning J. Cole's 4 Your Eyez Only.
You ever hear a song and within ten seconds think, "Yup. This is gonna be good?" With "For Whom The Bell Tolls," Cole knows how to reel us in, and does so with a casual, jazz-laden subtlety. He's observing, he's telling it like it is and he's got some questions that don't call for answers. Once that first lick of sax sneaks its way in, this becomes a project you have to digest as a whole. No skips, no questions.
"Immortal" feels like classic Cole, especially with the first verse. The type of track that just pours out of him. He doesn't have to force a damn thing. Time and time again, it's amazing how he's able to emulate stream of consciousness in his songwriting, further living up to his reputation as the lyrical emcee we desire but don't necessarily deserve. The weight he carries on his shoulders is immensely heavy but that burden is also one he's always known. Real.
J. Cole didn’t need to tout around AK-47s and drug tale pastimes of slinging crack in his lyrics for us to understand just how self-destructive the things we’re glorifying as “real n***a s**t” really are. In a time where America’s president-elect has made the nation hate again, hearing Cole remind us how counterproductive “tellin’ n****s to sell dope, rap or go to the NBA” for their golden ticket out of oppression is lyrically biblical. Thank you, Cole, for “Immortal.”
To a funky bass line that begs for a James Brown sample, J. Cole gets refreshingly domestic on “Foldin Clothes.” Serenading his love, the rapper expresses a desire to “make her life easier.” How? By doing the simple things – like folding clothes. He paints a scene of his pregnant lady on the couch and croons about wanting to run to the dryer and grab the laundry. Also, there’s a line about almond milk. Goals. AF.
The title of this one had me excited. Déjà vu is something we all experience but can't always explain, and I'm fascinated by it. I enjoyed that he details how his dreams are bigger than wondering about what could've or should've been, especially romantically speaking. I'd actually love to hear his wife Melissa’s opinion on this song, just because it feels so wildly personal by nature. I wonder often about his wife and why we don't hear more about her or more from her. I'd like to get to know her. Just saying. Anyways, this song is complicated.
Though there is some controversy surrounding who decided to sample K.P. & Envyi’s “Swing My Way” first, the fact that J. Cole and Bryson Tiller both flipped the 1998 jam into dope tracks says something. Namely, that the two should collaborate.
Oh yeah, did you peep the shade to all of the officers, departments and other institutions who permitted the unlawful killing of unarmed Black and brown folks by way of police brutality and paid leave? “Nowadays, crime pays like a part-time job.”
At the very least, by titular means you can compare Cole's self-epiphanic track "Change" to the likes of Tupac's "Changes." And that's only one step aside from both of the songs' overarching messages: be the change we wish to see. But when you measure the tenor and substance of both tracks, there's no denying that the Cole has lyrically incarnated the breath and marrow of Lesane Crooks himself from the very first line:
I see no changes, wake up in the morning and I ask myself,
Is life worth living? Should I blast myself? – Tupac, "Changes"
Yeah, my intuition is telling me they'll be better days
I sit in silence and and find whenever I meditate
My fears alleviate, my tears evaporate – J. Cole, "Change"
Scenes from real life. J. Cole doesn’t even need to explain further. We can see it, we can feel it and so many are living it.
As much as I don’t miss the days of spending all my allowance collecting physical CDs, I miss the days of leafing through the booklets inside with the lyrics artistically written out. I always kept those so close, some remain among my most prized possessions. Jermaine is someone who, for me, requires both reading and listening in order to fully do his music justice. His music isn’t necessarily meant for my commentary. He teaches and I listen. Somehow we both learn.
This whole album makes me want to do my Googles on the mysterious Cole and see what I can piece together. How much is his art imitated by his own life? Is he just telling a story or is this all directly out of his diary? Does it even matter? Either way, damn. Sometimes my favorite artists make me want to say nothing more but a simple thank you. You feel me?
(Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Billboard)