I was having an argument with a friend the other day. It arose about a week ago after Klay Thompson’s monumental performance against the Pacers where he put up 60 points in just three quarters. Logically, it reminded us both of Kobe’s similar performance against the Mavericks in 2005. He said “That still isn’t as good as the time Kobe dropped like 70 in three quarters”. I told him that Kobe dropped 62, not 70 that night. He quipped back, “Nah I remember watching that game. It was 70”. Instead of arguing back, I did what anyone involved in a dispute over a fact should do. I took my phone out and googled it. When I found my answer, I turned the phone around and showed him the bevy of results that reiterated my position that it was in fact 62 that Kobe scored that night. He looked at the phone and in true sore loser fashion, replied “Whatever, Kobe’s was still better”. I agreed with his sentiment, but I had won the argument.
It got me thinking; in the smartphone era, where almost everyone walks around with access to the internet’s plethora of information in their pockets, the open-ended argument has died. If you have a disagreement and that disagreement is centered on a statistic or a historical date or even how something is spelled, you’ll never leave the argument without someone saying “I told you so”. The result of this? People now fight over their opinions and take any opposition to them as more of a personal attack against their character, than ever before. One of Hip Hop’s finest examples of this is J. Cole. The Fayetteville rapper’s success is something no one can debate, but the quality of his music is something people will go to their grave fighting about. He’s either God’s gift to Hip Hop or an overrated, boring artist whose music puts you to sleep. There isn’t much in between and the only consensus on his music is that there isn’t one. Reviewing a J. Cole album is like this year’s presidential election: No matter which side you took, the other one had a bunch of radical supporters screaming how wrong you were. With Jermaine Cole’s 4th album 4 Your Eyez Only, he follows the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” mentality. Similar to 2014’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive, Eyez has no features, was released with little to no warning in December and looks to once again debut at number 1 on the Billboard 200 in its first week. While each album continues to build upon the previous one’s success, will the quality of the music do the same?
The lead up for Cole’s new LP saw him release two non-album singles that created a stir on the web and sufficient buzz for the album. One of which called out an idol who has had some struggles in recent times and the other PSA to the entire new generation of rappers. 4 Your Eyez Only is Cole’s most concise offering yet at just ten songs long. Right on cue, the album begins on the somber ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ with a lush jazzy backdrop which sets the stage for the narrative that ensues. Cole is an artist who is no stranger to storytelling throughout his discography and has succeeded in the past with The Warm Up’s ‘Dreams‘ and The Sideline Story’s ‘Lost Ones‘. As impressive as those songs are, it is one thing to weave an impressive story in as one of the chapters of a larger piece of work, but it is a whole other feat to successfully create an entire concept album that remains both cohesive and sonically interesting. Accomplishing this while also having songs that are strong enough to stand alone outside of their larger body of work, is something very few have achieved. Cole’s friend, peer and competition Kendrick Lamar pulled this off effortlessly on his last two albums and fair or not, comparisons are inevitable.
There are moments where J. Cole’s vision comes to life and he unquestionably succeeds. The vivid ‘Neighbors’ is a tale of success and a racist neighborhood’s continued prejudice against him despite it. The story, apparently inspired by an actual raid on Cole’s North Carolina studio, finds his flow in a pocket that sounds almost experimental in comparison to his other work. The tale is the perfect example of a track being able to stand tall by itself while also fitting into the larger themes of an album. ‘Change’ falls into this same category as well. It’s also the first time we meet James, the main character of the story which is who the album’s perspective is theorized to be told from. Eyez touches on broader life themes such as meeting the woman of your dreams and having your first child on ‘She’s Mine Parts 1’ & ‘2’. They are sincere attempts that find J. Cole the singer taking the forefront over light keys. While the sentiment is there, having two nearly identical songs on an album that runs only 10 songs can start to verge on excessive, no matter how necessary they seem to the overall narrative. Both are examples of moments where the music wouldn’t make much of an impact outside of the album despite some noteworthy sections. He also touches on other aspects of a relationship that everyone can relate to. ‘Foldin Clothes’ is the epitome of why J. Cole fans love him and why J. Cole haters hate him. The title itself reads as something off a parody tracklist made by someone who gets their entertainment out of trolling J. Cole fans on Twitter and message boards. Cole has always been self-aware and some of that is evident here as well, as the title is translated quite literally into the music. He makes his point about the little things making a big difference in a relationship, but one can only think how many others have accomplished this same concept in a much stronger way.
Other notable moments are the K.P. & Envyi sampling ‘Déjà Vu’. Fans of Bryson Tiller may recognize the similar flip on the classic from his last year’s hit ‘Exchange‘. The almost identical instrumentals have caused drama between the producers involved on who flipped it first, but in this case listeners only care what they heard first. It’s a head scratcher to include the song, especially considering the popularity of the Tiller hit as that is the first thing that will come to almost anyone’s mind upon hearing it. Of course, I’d be hard pressed to discuss the album without touching on the song that sort of acts as the big reveal at the end. The 8-minute title track and closer spends its first 3 verses speaking from the perspective of our album’s protagonist. He touches on his young life’s mistakes, premonitions of death and wanting to leave behind a physical memory of himself for his daughter when he’s gone. J. Cole closes out the song and album with one of the strongest verses of his career in which he fulfills his promise of telling his friend’s story to his daughter. It brings the albums narrative to a close and serves as J. Cole’s equivalent to Lamar’s ‘Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst’. It shows what a fully realized and matured Cole sounds like.
If only debates about the quality of J. Cole’s music could be as simple as googling “Is J. Cole’s music good?”. Or if there were some quantifiable metric that measured the quality of an artist’s music that was universally accepted, like first week sales or number of streams. Life would be much easier, but what fun would it be!? As long as J. Cole is making music that connects with a fan base large enough for him to go double platinum with no features, then who is anyone to say that he is an average or boring artist? On the other hand, who are J. Cole fans to say that those people with criticism of the artist are not entitled to that opinion either? Truth is that the North Carolina rapper probably falls somewhere in between the two extremes and those opinion based arguments will be left unresolved between the two parties for the foreseeable future. 4 Your Eyez Only was an artist’s bold attempt at a tighter, more focused project, with no obvious grasps at radio play. Though one must applaud him for attempting to accomplish such a feat, with only ten songs, the room for error is minimal. Where Eyez falters is in its insistence on sticking to its narrative and forgetting that sometimes an album, no matter how noble the concept, can’t forget about its individual parts.
Repeatable: ‘Change’, ‘Neighbors’, ‘4 Your Eyez Only’, ‘She’s Mine Pt. 2’
Skippable: ‘Foldin Clothes’
By Scott Evans