Jermaine Cole occupies a strange, desolate planet in the hip-hop galaxy. It’s a world where rappers ride bikes. Where gym clothes are almost always preferred to Hermès belts and Goyard shoulder bags. Where albums are solo affairs; not a tracklist posing as a who’s who in hip hop. And fans are, like, real people, or something, with real lives and experiences, who can empathize with something bigger than a text gone un-replied.
This is why we love J. Cole. He’s a man of the people, and it’s not a façade. Two years ago, just before the release of 2014 Forest Hills Drive, he visited a fan who had contacted him on Twitter, and played her a large portion of the album at her home. He trusted that she would not divulge its contents — and she didn’t (as far as I know).
I find it hard to be critical. It’s like editing a friend’s essay. So here goes: I don’t like it. Compared to my expectations, compared to his previous accomplishments, 4 Your Eyez Only falls short.
Apparently, this is a “literary” album, in which Cole recounts the story of a deceased friend named James McMillan Jr. A source close to the artist confirmed the theory soon after it arose.
None of this is particularly apparent. For instance, on the second track, “Immortal,” Cole seems to affect the posture of a more typical rapper. Boasting about making the “whole f*ckin’ trap lean.” The perspective does not seem to be his. It is well known that Cole’s past is clean. So, either he’s fronting, or it’s something else. But this is only the second track; no mention has yet been made of James, and who would guess at the introduction of a character? In a rap album?
Rap is an incredibly confined narrative medium. Even amidst complicated conceits the narrator, still, is usually just the artist, delivering his or her verse in the first-person singular. Characters are an exceedingly rare commodity. From what I’ve read, the power of the conceit comes from that ambiguity: The life recounted could very well have been Cole’s, but it wasn’t. A pressing question — ‘Why not?’ — is meant to bubble up out of the confusion.
Ambiguity often results from not knowing what one is trying to say. Cole, I would think, knows what he wants to say. This time, however, he overextends himself. He takes a risk, and it backfires.
If we forget, for a moment, that narrative blunder, the work becomes far more permissible. The stand-out tracks are personal, as usual, especially “She’s Mine.” “Neighbors” is a rare, effective anecdote (a true story), pretty well summed up by its refrain: “I guess the neighbors think I’m sellin’ dope.” The best crafted track is the title track. We hear the realization of Cole’s vision for the album. A simple beat and drum loop allow the final verses to penetrate. Coherence is granted by the structure of his delivery: by way of an easy beat cut, he makes plain his natatorial position. Finally, in a moment of poignant clarity, we glimpse what might have been.