I really thought we were going to end 2016 without hearing from Jermaine Cole. Pusha T, SZA, Run The Jewels, and Childish Gambino were the last voices I was anticipating to hear, but the Carolina blue-clad Santa emerged again with an unexpected gift. In similar fashion to his last release, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, J. Cole announced the release date for his next project with less than a month for promotion.

This time, we were rewarded two visuals and a making of documentary entitled, Eyez. “False Prophets” and “Everybody Dies” caused a stir online as people speculated who he was talking to on each track. “False Prophets” was believed to be about a former hero of Cole’s that is now being exposed as everything he was against in the beginning of his career, everyone assumed he was talking about Kanye West as he is in the midst of a breakdown. A “lil” rapper, presumably, Lil’ Uzi Vert or Lil’ Yachty, received criticism on “Everybody Dies,” accusing them of gaining acclaim from (white) publications instead of Hip-Hop fans which will make them only be around for two months. Both are great tracks from what I’ve been seeing on my timeline, but I haven’t checked them out because I just want to hear the full album. Oh, Wale got mentioned too and he put out a response track? That’s nice, where’s the album? Listening to 4 Your Eyez Only in its entirety was my only concern. Here we are a week later and the two teasers are nowhere near the tracklisting. We have ten tracks that make up the fourth album of Fayetteville’s favorite. Let’s see if the Dreamville leader will solidify his reign at the top of artistic integrity or if his last album was a fluke.

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1. For Whom The Bell Tolls
Produced by Elijah Scarlett & J. Cole
We start off again with more singing than rapping and another unanswered question like we did for the intro of 2014 Forest Hills Drive (“Ain’t no way to live, do I wanna die?”). As much as I love uptempo/double time flow barrage of bars for intros, I like this subtle approach. There’s an ominous feeling that death has either happened or is going to happen in this narrative: “Bells gettin’ louder, louder, I see the rain pouring down”. Barely over the two-minute mark, there is not enough time to fully grasp what we are about to hear from this album, but I’m interested.

2. Immortal
Produced by Cardiak, Frank Dukes, & J. Cole
As a fan that has been listening since The Warm-Up, this is a different story of his youth that I never knew:

Now I was barely seventeen with a pocket full of hope
Screamin’, dollar and a dream with my closet lookin’ broke
And my nigga’s lookin’ clean, gettin’ caught up with that dope
Have you ever served a fiend with a pocket full of soap?
N!##@ I can tell you things that you probably shouldn’t know
Have you ever heard the screams when the body hit the floor?
Flashbacks to the pain, wakin’ up, cold sweats

This is the first but not the last time I will say that the final verse or line of the song delivers the message of the song, leads into the next song, and furthers the concept of the project to the listener:

To die a young legend or live a long life unfulfilled
Cause you wanna change the world
But while alive you never will
Cause they only feel you after you gone, or I’ve been told
And now I’m caught between bein’ heard and gettin’ old
Damn, death creepin’ in my thoughts lately
My one wish in this bitch make it quick if the Lord take me
I know nobody meant to live forever anyway
And so I hustle like my n!##@$ in Virgini-A
They tellin’ n!##@$ sell dope, rap or go to NBA, in that order
It’s that sort of thinkin’ that been keepin’ n!##@$ chained
At the bottom and hanged
The strangest fruit that you ever seen
Ripe with pain, listen…

3. Deja Vu
Produced by Vinlyz, Boi-1da, Velous, Ron Gilmore, & J. Cole
On the first listen, I was wondering why is there a remix of Bryson Tiller’s “Exchange” on this album. If you do your Googles, you’ll see that there is some backstory to this confusion. There is debate that this song was created before Tiller released the song in 2015 and the producers stole the track from the Eyez sessions. There’s a possibility of bias, because “Exchange” is the first song I actually liked from Young Tiller even though I posted his first song on R&B Sunday, but I just don’t like “Deja Vu”. It’s the typical “I was at the club one night, that’s when I saw her” song, but he’s not the typical small town guy she dates, because he has bigger dreams. I really want everybody that ever tweeted “Cole World” to answer this question for me: Has J. Cole ever met a woman in a song that wasn’t already in a relationship? Don’t worry, I’ll wait, because I really want to know!

4. Ville Mentality
Produced by Ron Gilmore, Elite, & J. Cole
He’s telling the girl from the club more about himself and his ambitions. While expounding the idea of growth, we learn how and what he had to survive through to reach this moment in his life. For some reason, there are interjections from a little girl detailing her life without her father and the small info she knows about him:

…play me, never
Give up my chain, never
Give up my pride, never
Show my pain, never
Dirt on my name, never

Unfortunately, the little girl’s father followed the street mantra above and now she is wishing that he was here.

5. She’s Mine Pt. 1
Produced by Deputy, Ron Gilmore, Elite, Chargaux, & J. Cole
Maybe it was the girl or just getting older, but the bravado and ignorance from the last track is now gone. Rappers, please take note! This is how you make a song for your lady. This song has to be played on Christmas as you’re proposing in front of her family. Her Dad won’t mind the “her head game is stronger than some Excedrin” line. He’ll just appreciate you choosing a song about changing from old ways into a man able to express himself.

Also, I keep waiting for the “At night I think of you” sample to kick in throughout this song. Shoutout to the Ghost Town DJs.

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6. Change
Produced by Ron Gilmore & J. Cole
If the Dreamville crew makes a video for “Change”, it’s definitely getting a Centric Award nomination. It’s the conscious “we have to change ourselves, before we change the world” song of the album. I’m really not impressed until we get to the end of the song:

Pistols be poppin’ and n!##@$ drop in a heartbeat
Scattered like roaches, a body laid on the concrete
Body laid on the concrete
Look, somebody laid on the concrete
No time for that, ain’t no lookin’ back, cause I’m running too
I made it home, I woke up and turned on the morning news
Overcame with a feeling I can’t explain
Cause that was my n!##@ James that was slain, he was 22

From there we get anchorman Jermaine to report on the scene of his friend’s death, before he turns into Pastor Cole and delivers a short sermon about not succumbing to the evils of our surroundings.

7. Neighbors
Produced by J. Cole
Fast forward to Present Day, B-List celebrity Cole has made it out, but is reminded of the life he could’ve chose like his aforementioned friend, James. I think of this as his version of Jay-Z’s “Somewhereinamerica”. No yellow Lambo or rapper car as he mentions, just a black man with his family and friends living in a neighborhood dominated by Ivy League students recruited after graduation by Fortune 500 corporations.

I wouldn’t be mad if I heard this one night while I was out somewhere in a dark room with loud tunes. There are no “radio” records or club jams on 4 Your Eyez Only, but “Neighbors” could be turned up while driving around. Listen to this song immediately and tell me I’m crazy for thinking Lupe Fiasco would sound good on this beat. This song is one of my favorites so far, I’m not going to post his line about meeting The President or every Black man being a candidate for a Trayvon fate, JUST LISTEN TO THIS SONG IMMEDIATELY!

8. Foldin Clothes
Produced by Elite, Ron Gilmore, & J. Cole
There are no bad instrumentals on this project. As much as we love to talk about how J. Cole has found his lane as an artist overshadowed by his friends Drake and Kendrick Lamar, it’s not too often we hear about his artistic growth sonically. “Foldin Clothes” has the feel of a jam session and the lyrics of a freestyle. Unfortunately, the subject matter  makes track #8 one of my least favorites. After the superior “She’s Mine Pt. 1”, this is a dud of a song dedicated to his woman and the changes she has made in his life. After dealing with the neighbors, Mr. Cole walks inside to find his pregnant wife asleep on the couch so he decides to fold the fresh load from the dryer. I swear that there is nothing more to the song than the previous sentence. Here’s the hook:

I wanna fold clothes for you
I wanna make you feel good
Baby I wanna do the right thing
Feels so much better than the wrong thing
I said I wanna fold clothes for you
I wanna make you feel good
Baby I wanna do the right thing
That’s so much better than the wrong thing
I wanna fold clothes for you

There’s a nice shoutout to almond milk, a beat switch and third verse I recommend hearing if you have to hear this song:

N!##@$ from the hood is the best actors
We the ones that got to wear our face backwards
Put your frown on before they think you soft
Never smile long or take your defense off
Acting tough so much we start to feel hard
Live from the city where they pull cards
I got a Glock 40 and a little nine
Ready for the day a n!##@ pull mine
N!##@$ from the hood is the best actors
Gotta learn to speak in ways that’s unnatural
Just to make it through the job interviews
If my n!##@$ heard me, they’d say:
“Damn, what’s gotten into you?”
Just trying to make it dog, somehow
Peaking through the blinds, I see the sun now
I see you’re still sleeping and it feels like maybe
Everything is gon’ be alright.

9. She’s Mine Pt. 2
Produced by Deputy, Ron Gilmore, Elite, Chargaux, & J. Cole
Rappers, please take note! This is how you make a song for your baby girl. This album is a timeline of someone’s life. I was listening to “Change” several times during this review and was wondering why didn’t he go back and change the “bout to have a boy” line now that he has a girl. I think he was nonchalant about having a boy, but now that he is seeing his baby girl, a wave of consciousness rises over him and he realizes how big of an influence he will have on the men she chooses to have in her life. My biggest confusion from this song, with the same instrumental from “Part 1”, had to be the shot at Santa Claus and the materialistic greed of Christmas:

But if I had a magic wand to make the evil disappear
That means that there would be no Santa Claus no more
To bring you Christmas cheer
Cause what he represents is really greed
And the need to purchase shit from corporations
That make a killin’ because they feed
On the wallets of the poor
Who be knockin’ on they door every Black Friday
Just to get some shit they can’t afford
Even with the discount, write a check, that shit bounce
But as long as we got credit, it don’t matter, the amount
We just swipin’ shit here, we don’t love, we just likin’ shit here

This might be the most “woke” moment on the album about lack of opportunities for Black males in impoverished neighborhoods and I will argue for in favor for it. I was in the gym when this song finally hit me. The way the sounds of a baby crying are added to the production at the right moments are incredible, but the emotional knockout happens when the heartbeat from the ultrasound begins after he places the success of making a critical and commercial album second to having a baby on his list of accomplishments.

Ib gon’ ask me how I did this shit
I’m gon’ do a humble stunt act like I meant this shit
That’s the ego taking credit for what God made
Fuck this album shit, hey mama look what God made.

I was lifting weights and got a little teary eyed as this song shares the same chorus from “Part 1”, but has more meaning in this context:

Catch me, don’t you—
Catch me, don’t you—
Catch me, I’ve fallen in love for the first time

I think Hip-Hop just got another Father’s Day anthem.

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10. 4 Your Eyez Only
Produced by Blvk, Elite, Childish Major, & J. Cole
I’m getting a 90’s vibe from the title/closing track. I can see either a Brooklyn rapper or Outkast on this instrumental; it was made for storytelling. I look at my phone every time I play this song and am genuinely shocked that it’s 8 minutes long. I doesn’t feel like it’s been more than 4  minutes as I’m listening to this story of Jermaine and his friend, James McMillan, Jr.  As the last seconds of the song play, we finally realize that Cole told his story and his friend’s story over the course of 10 songs. James is detailing his paranoia of death and karma as the life he has lived will soon be the end of him in the first three verses. The last verse is delivered by the man that was instructed to tell his struggles to his daughter if he couldn’t do it himself:

Girl, your daddy was a real n!##@, not cause he was cold
Not because he was the first
To get some pussy twelve years old
Not because he used to come through
In the Caddy on some vogues
Not because he went from bagging up
Them grams to serving O’s
Nah, your daddy was a real n!##@, not ’cause he was hard
Not because he lived a life of crime and sat behind some bars
Not because he screamed, “Fuck the law”
Although that was true
Your daddy was a real n!##@ cause he loved you
For your eyes only

I know he tells her not to worry about it or idolize the fact, but I still find it weird that he told a little girl about her Father losing his virginity at 12. Like any great storyteller, he has our attention and ends with his audience so invested that they have questions. Did James really record a message to be played for his daughter? Was having no features on this album so important that Cole didn’t put James’s vocals on 4 Your Eyez Only? We’re left to wonder if there was an actual James or just a great character from the mind of J. Cole to represent him and a possible outcome that could’ve made him never leave the Ville.

BOTTOM LINE:
Cole delivered a tale of two perspectives of the same city. If 2014 Forest Hills Drive was the success story, 4 Your Eyez Only is part two of what went wrong in another house in Fayetteville. (I secretly wish that this album was called 2016 Forest Hills Drive, there’s already a song called “Neighbors” on here.) The title and concept is that this cautionary tale was told to James’s daughter for her to see how her Father lived and tried to better himself. This was for her to decide on what type of man he was and for her to not rely on the simple details of his demise that she shared with listeners on “Ville Mentality.”

I want to congratulate J. Cole for delivering on a complex concept for most of the songs. My biggest issue with the album is the redundancy. There are three songs that I think are inferior to the other songs on the album that tackle the same subject matter and what makes it worse they follow immediately after each other. If there’s a song like “Ville Mentality” present, then there is no need for a “Deja Vu”. We have “She’s Mine Pt. 1”, we don’t need “Foldin’ Clothes”. The whole album is about transitioning, “Change” could’ve been a teaser that didn’t make the final tracklist like “Everybody Dies” and “False Prophets”. Three forgettable songs out of a total of 10 would badly hurt any other album, but the other seven strong, vital components allow audiences into the mindset of James (R.I.P) and Jermaine, two fathers learning from their past.

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