I’ve never connected with J. Cole (surprise, surprise). Born Sinner, his second record released in 2013, was an album with the most love it/hate it moments I’ve ever heard from one project. Containing an insane penchant for production, Born Sinner sounds amazing, but his lyricism is so all over the place that it sounds like he’s throwing darts at a wall of personalities.
Who does J. Cole want to be? Does he want to mock the usage of “faggot” back in the early 2000’s with the Jay-Z/Nas beef, or is he really just the same as them—wanting to “brag like Hov?” Does he want to cite every reference he makes like a walking bibliography? Does he want to write some of the grossest, misogynist lyrics of all time? Does he want to be above it all like a pretentious “I’m keeping hip-hop alive” rapper? Who is J. Cole? What does he stand for and what the hell does he rap about it?
These were the questions I always had for J. Cole, and I feel like they were some of the same questions he had for himself. In his next record, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, famous for being the first album to go platinum with no features in over 25 years, Cole started to try to figure out what he wanted his voice to be. All of the usual rap topics and songs got him this far, becoming the first artist to be signed by Jay-Z’s Roc Nation in 2009, but what would he say now that he had influence?
Despite going platinum with no features, becoming a meme, and birthing the most uncompromising J. Cole stans in the world, I still thought 2014 Forest Hills Drive was as scattered as Born Sinner. While Cole came more into his sound, the album was ultimately… boring and uneventful. “G.O.M.D.” was back-and-forth a great song that I can’t entirely count to Cole, “No Role Modelz” somehow became a huge song despite some of the most boring bars, and “Wet Dreamz” might just be one of the most laughable rap songs ever written (and my favorite Cole meme).
4 Your Eyez Only, Cole’s fourth studio record, named with Tupac’s fourth record All Eyez On Me in mind, is a different project altogether. It’s his best project so far, and it’s because it has nothing to do with him. When most people listened to J. Cole, they loved him because they felt like he was telling their story. I never got it, and I probably never will. I’d get it if they told me that for this record, but they felt like 2014 Forest Hills Drive was their life in rap music, and I’m not some old guy saying that new rap music doesn’t resonate with me—I’m the age that should apparently “get it.” Sure, J. Cole has some songs that are from the “everyman” perspective, but Cole wasn’t a revolutionary everyman on 2014 Forest Hills Drive. His songs were as openly vague as every teenage Taylor Swift fan who thought that “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” perfectly encapsulated their lives.
I digress, but yes, 4 Your Eyez Only is his best record so far because it has nothing to do with him. Realizing he was a “voice for the people,” whether he was or not, he stepped away from himself. The question returned: who is J. Cole? He’s a storyteller. Is he the best at it? No, not really, but he gets his point across just fine. 4 Your Eyez Only is about his friend that was shot, with the majority if not all of the record told from his perspective (think “Sing About Me” from Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City and then stop comparing them altogether).
With thoughts of mortality, fame, society, love, the birth of his daughter, and his eventual death, 4 Your Eyez Only shows Cole as the storyteller, while it just so happens to find parallel is his life as well. “Foldin Clothes” might be this record’s “Wet Dreamz,” but “She’s Mine, Pt. 2” and the title track “4 Your Eyez Only” are the closest to what I think J. Cole should be, and that’s a plus. I may not love the record, but as a student like Cole, I can tell he’s been studying, and I can tell he’s figured out the kind of person he wants to be. To me, this is J. Cole’s first real album.