One week before the release of his highly anticipated follow up to “2014 Forest Hills Drive,” J Cole released the track “False Profits.” The song was all right but turned heads with multiple shots taken at fellow rappers, including a whole verse dedicated to dissing the one and only Kanye West. Cole accuses Kanye of “falling apart,” surrounding himself with yes-men and becoming a far cry from the genius he used to be. This meant one thing to me as a fan of both rappers: Cole’s new album had to be fantastic. That’s the only way he could justify such blatant disrespect for West, who released the impressive, if divisive, “Life of Pablo” back in February. As far as I was concerned, Kanye had already proven he still has it, and now it was Cole’s turn to do the same.
Unfortunately, he failed.
Not only is “4 Your Eyez Only” a morose and whiney album, it’s awful in comparison to Cole’s prior outing. The album seems to follow the life of one of Cole’s now-deceased friends, with Cole telling his story to the daughter of said friend. However, that doesn’t exactly add up in the context of songs like “Neighbors,” “Deja-Vu” and “Foldin Clothes,” which all seem to be deeply rooted in Cole’s perspective. This is further (over)complicated by the fact that Cole has recently become a father himself, leading to a muddled narrative that obscures both stories. I can get invested in either one of these stories on their own, but when these distinct viewpoints are Frankensteined together on a relatively short album, neither is done justice.
So if this does not work on a thematic or narrative level, how does it do on a track-by-track basis? Well, after a boring and morbid intro, “Immortal” commits to the perspective of Cole’s friend and is actually pretty compelling. It is far from a bad song, and the beat hits hard. But from there we enter “Deja Vu,” which tells the story of Cole meeting his wife for the first time. We’ve heard Cole tell a personal, romantic story before on the track “Wet Dreamz,” which told the story of Cole losing his virginity, back on “2014 Forest Hills Drive.” While “Wet Dreamz” saw Cole at his most vulnerable and had the listener hanging on every word, “Deja Vu” is so cliche and run of the mill that it completely failed to hold my attention (he rhymes “ya” with “ya” five times in the first verse). On its own, “Deja Vu” isn’t the end of the world. The problem is that we know Cole can do better.
And he does indeed do better on the album’s standout track, “Neighbors.” Cole kills it here, explaining his experience of trying to adjust to life in a wealthy white neighborhood. The lyrics are incredible, illustrating the misperceptions that Cole deals with on a daily basis as a black man in a racist country. Furthermore, it’s the only time the somewhat muted and morose aesthetic that Cole is going for on the album really pays off.
But all the momentum and power that “Neighbors” builds is immediately lost on the next track, “Foldin Clothes.” And my god, this song is awful. I mean, really, really bad. On the chorus, between yelps of “hey, hey,” Cole posits the truly profound idea that “I want to do the right thing, [because it] feels so much better than the wrong thing.” Really. Later, he rhymes the words almond milk with … almond milk. I’m pretty sure that when you Google the word lame, a link to “Foldin Clothes” is the top result.
I admire that J. Cole purposefully set the bar high for himself, but it’s tough to dispute that he does not live up to his own standards. Tracks like “Immortal” and “Neighbors” give us a glimpse at what Cole can do on a good day, but the incoherence of the narrative ultimately dooms the project in my eyes. It is easily the most forgettable hip hop album of 2016, and I cannot recommend it. There is a complete lack of fun on this record, which is not an inherently bad thing, but when the album fails to be either fun or resonate, I don’t think it is worth your time. I would say, give the superior “2014 Forest Hills Drive” a listen, or maybe Kendrick Lamar’s “Section 80.” Both of those albums do exactly what “4 Your Eyez Only” is trying to accomplish and leave the listener thinking. “4 Your Eyez Only” just made me sleepy.