“Double platinum, no features,” the adage goes. It is the latter’s absence of association, however, as opposed to the commercial success presented in the former, which has kept J. Cole from falling the way of his mixtape heyday peers Wale and Meek Mill.
As divided as most hip-hop fans are about J. Cole’s music, it is difficult not to wish him success. His humble and sincere persona, substantiated by chance encounters with him on local bus routes and his bike commute home, have rendered him the most “likable” person in hip-hop. With J. Cole we have a different hip-hop figure. Where an artist like Kendrick Lamar is likely to glean over the heads of a community which elevates the likes of Lil’ Yachty and Lil’ Uzi Vert into the upper tier, J. Cole is able to engage the masses in a discourse on politics, social issues, and virtue.
J. Cole’s prowess as a producer revealed itself well before he attained his double-platinum status. Hits like “Power Trip” and “No Role Modelz” demonstrated the work of a creative mind with an innate ability to contort the popular instrumental palate and appeal to bread-earning demands of airplay. In this sense, J. Cole has been something of an oxymoron – a hit-maker with a live performance interspersed with sermons speaking against materialism. As endearing as these qualities are in J. Cole, it is a wonder that his lyrical substance has failed to match the quality of his instrumental production or his maturely grounded worldview.
4 Your Eyez Only acknowledges the fact that J. Cole connects best with fans on a personal level. From the album’s beginning and onward, he sings with an earnestness which doesn’t indicate a strain to achieve scintillating R&B vocals, but establishes vulnerability. His raps refer onto his signature range of swaggering self-assurance and endearing portrayals of insecurity. As a whole, the album’s instrumentals are more consistent than 2014’s 2014 Forrest Hills Drive. J. Cole laces boom-bap percussions with glitch-synth accents and motifs to create a body of work that is approachable and easy. The album shows his aesthetic not as improved, but refined. Nowhere on it do we hear J. Cole relate the world to frigid temperatures with his overused trademark ad lib. Instead, we are given a more patient and well-portioned album which looks to sustain listeners from beginning to end.
Returning J. Cole fans will find themselves satisfied with anthemic hits like “Immortal” and “Déjà Vu.” The latter’s production reveals the live performance sensibility that J. Cole has picked up in his past year on the music festival circuit. The song begins and ends with a call-and-response fanplay which has the makings for great performative moments, but does little to stimulate any provocative considerations. Superficialities aside, “Déjà Vu’s” trap percussion and Rich Boi-esque post-chorus make it a mainstay for the late night car ride or commute home.
An undeniable highlight, “Neighbors” contemplates racism through an anecdote inspired by true events. Its woozy, molasses-thick instrumental evokes early A$AP Rocky while raising interesting dilemmas of black success and stereotypes. The album’s intellectual high, “Neighbors” finds itself alone as a moment of progression for J. Cole. The rest of 4 Your Eyez Only fails to match, lyrically or instrumentally, the substance of J. Cole’s close reading of race relations on the song and can at best be considered superficial, tried, and tired.
Were J. Cole to give into the fixations of luxury and excess of his lesser popular peers, he may not be as prominent a figure within the genre as he currently is. His character yields no indication of him doing so, but the risk he currently runs with 4 Your Eyez Only is stagnation. 4 Your Eyez Only provides nothing more and nothing less than what fans have come to love about his music. It shows a successful J. Cole inhabiting the profitable and comfortable place in hip-hop he has carved out for himself and does little to reinforce that position to endure the long-term.