In what just might be becoming a biennial tradition, J. Cole appeared suddenly this month to release a surprise album to his fans, 4 Your Eyez Only. Despite little to no promotion the album debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s albums chart, selling nearly 500,000 equivalent units and giving Cole the third biggest debut of the year and further cementing his status amongst rap’s elite. Cole is set to go “platinum with no features” yet again, quite the accomplishment despite internet snark, and his album sits behind only Beyonce and Drake in first week sales in 2016.
In an era where very few minds change, Cole offered fuel to the fire for both sides of the coin in the great J. Cole debate. Eyez is both relatable, and boring, humanizing and robotic. It’s J. Cole in a nutshell, and as his rabid fanbase continues to support him, he’s continuing to elevate into the upper echelon of stars in the industry despite a clear reluctance to craft radio-ready singles.
Eyez is admirable in it’s quest to forego radio, something Cole struggled with years ago, and ironically that approach has netted him his biggest single yet in “Deja Vu.” Finally landing in Billboard’s Top 10, even that comes with a bit of frustrating repetition from Cole, even if it’s not his fault.
“Deja Vu” is as curious an entry into Billboard’s Top 10 as there has been this year, as the track is a rehash of Bryson Tiller’s own double-platinum Billboard hit “Exchange.” Sure, there are reasons behind that similarity, but one wonders if Cole would have been better off, artistically at least, leaving the track to the wayside after Tiller beat him to the punch. The chart success of “Deja Vu” probably answers that with a resounding no, but for the uninitiated the track sounds like a lo-fi remix of an already successful track from earlier in the year.
Despite that, the track has soared, and the song and album are just further evidence of Cole’s uncanny connection with his fans. There’s a sense of intimacy and companionship he has forged with his most steadfast supporters. They relate to him, and even though they really don’t know him, they feel like they do and want to support him in his endeavors.
While most rappers bask in the sensational and lavish, Cole relishes in the ordinary and mundane. He’s basically Jerry Seinfeld, observing the most minuscule but ultimately relatable, random portions of life, and laughing to the bank because of it. Eyez’s finest example of this is “Foldin Clothes,” a beautiful love song about “Folding clothes / Watching Netflix, catching up on our shows / Eating breakfast, Raisin Bran in my bowl.” Yes, in this tender moment even J. Cole’s cereal is bland.
It’s the portion of the relationship that you’d never see in a romantic comedy, unless it’s in a hyper speed montage that skips past the mundanity of the everyday relationship to get to the exciting stuff: The fights, the make ups, the sex, the sparkly dates and extravagant gifts. Cole doesn’t give fans dunks and highlight-reel crossovers, he gives them free throws because everybody can make one of those, even on their worst day.
But the beauty in that is that those moments are ultimately the most meaningful. Cole understands that yes, it’s just a free throw, but a free throw can be the difference between a championship and a loss, just as much as a dunk can. While it might not make for an exciting or salacious anecdote, menial tasks like folding clothes for or with your partner are part of the process of growing closer. Folding clothes together, watching Netflix, and being introduced to delicacies like almond milk by women who are much more knowledgable of such things than brutish men are all parts of a relationship that nearly everybody has experienced.
Everybody has watched a show with their significant other, only to have someone drift further into the series than the other, leading to the inevitable argument and make up. Cole doesn’t even delve that far beneath the surface though, instead offering lowest common denominator Instagram-caption-to-be lyrics that will cast a wider net and captivate his fans. It’s why Seinfeld can get roaring laughter for a bit about reserving a car only to find out the car isn’t there. We’ve all been there, we all get it, we all relate. Being relatable is J. Cole’s most powerful tool, and he wields it as skillfully as any rapper alive.
It’s quite the magic trick, as Cole rarely actually divulges his real life to the world, and even as Eyez presents itself as a deeply personal look into his psyche and personal life, it comes with the caveat that it’s actually about a friend’s life. For nine and a half songs you’re supposed to believe the album is about Jermaine, only to find out in an M. Night Shyamalan plot twist on the title track that Eyez was actually from the perspective of a friend. The concept allows him to step out of his comfort zone and delve into a different type of material, including struggles with fatherhood, except Cole never quite leaves the comfort zone and reverts back to his mean throughout.
The problem with the album is that it’s still mostly boring. The instrumentation is subdued, Cole barely raises his voice an octave or alters his monotone delivery or mixes up rhythms and flows throughout. The warmth and intoxicating melodies that were so affable on 2014 Forest Hills Drive give way to an album of one-note musings wrapped into an intriguing concept. That concept is the best artistic statement made by Cole, and while ambitious, the execution falls short. The are highs, but they’re mostly drowned out by the dull lows. Even in the album’s brightest and most exuberant moment he’s only doing laundry, watching Netflix and eating Raisin Bran.
Frustratingly, the most exciting verses and songs from the brief build up to the album’s release aren’t even on the album. It makes sense, given the conceptual build of Eyez, but it also robs the album of Cole’s most energetic moments of the year. With that said, the attention grabbing “False Prophets” suffers from the same flaws as Eyez, including a gentle instrumental that never quite kicks into gear. It’s purposely dull, giving space to Cole’s words, but yet again his monotone, uninspired delivery of relatively scathing accusations against his friends and competitors make for a tedious listening experience.
At its most basic, 4 Your Eyez Only is an exercise in valuing what verses say over how they say it, and how the album hits depends upon which aspect is more important to each listener. In an era where rappers like Young Thug, Future and Travis Scott fine tune their voices with autotune to supplement their songs, nestled within the production as another piece of instrumentation, Cole sits on top of the production, whether that clashes or not. On Eyez, he seems more preoccupied with what he has to say, and safely fitting it into his narrative, rather than how he says it and fitting it onto his songs.
As rap continues to evolve into a stew of vocalization, harmonizing, singing and yes, rapping, Cole almost seems archaic or not as musically inclined as the aforementioned stars. It’s odd, seeing as Cole moonlights as a producer, lending a hand to the production of each song, that Eyez is the most glaring example yet of how stuck in the past he is.
Artists like Future and Thug don’t exist in Cole’s lane though, so their mastery of song doesn’t really concern him. Unfortunately for Jermaine, Kendrick Lamar does exist, right beside him, and his grasp of all those tools along with his ability to simply out rap any competition creates the chasm between the two. In the end, it’s Kendrick Lamar’s ability to both weave his voice into the lush production that comes his way, and still spew the weighty messages he seeks to promote that is probably what separates him and his work from Cole.
To Cole’s fans though, that simply doesn’t matter, and he has forged his own position among the elite with very few peers. Cole resides right in the middle ground between the commercial dominance of Drake and the artistic brilliance of Kendrick. To his supporters, he represents the best of both worlds, and to his haters, all that means is he simply can’t match up to either. 4 Your Eyez Only won’t change either of their minds, and due to its flaws and bouts of brilliance, it shouldn’t.