By Jasmeet Kaur
Jermaine Lamarr Cole (J. Cole) has now gone platinum with his fourth consecutive studio album. This black artist has had a great amount of success, going from rapping alone in his small room in Fayetteville, North Carolina, to producing 4 “Billboard 200” topping studio albums.
4 Your Eyez Only” is Cole’s fourth consecutive album to reach the number 1 spot on the Billboard 200, along with his other 3 studio albums sharing the same spot previously. Selling just under 500,000 copies (492,000) in the first week of its release, Cole reached the third largest “first-week” sales of 2016 with “4 Your Eyez Only.” This album released on December 9, 2016, sharing the same release date as his third album, “2014 Forest Hills Drive,” two years earlier.
Being a J. Cole fan was tough, waiting 2 years for new music, constantly contemplating what he was working on, as Cole loves his privacy and loves to keep to himself. You will never find him on social media, arguing or promoting his music, but you can quote me on this: Although the album is only 45 minutes long and consists of solely 10 tracks, each and every track speaks to you in its own way, and Cole has definitely spilled his heart out with each and every word he speaks on this album. The 2 year wait was definitely worth it for this all-time classic.
Cole shares the story of his late friend James McMillan, who passed at the age of 22, through the 10 tracks on this album. He is known for being a great storyteller and shares his life through his music. Some songs are written from his point of view, while others are written from James’s perspective. The album is a letter to McMillan’s daughter as an explanation of her father’s death. On the last track, Cole raps directly to McMillan’s daughter about her father’s death, telling her about his life and how much he loved her, hoping she will one day forgive him for not being able to raise her, titling it “4 Your Eyez Only.”
The album goes back and forth, sharing J. Cole’s views on the struggles of a black man from the perspective of James McMillan and then switches to talk about Cole’s views on falling in love and becoming a father, and then back to speaking about McMillan’s death, ultimately ending with an 9-minute heart-spilling letter to McMillan’s daughter.
Cole is not an artist to care about album sales or the money, although he is on par in those categories too. Cole’s music always is about helping others through sharing his experiences. In “4 Your Eyez Only,” Cole achieves his purpose of sharing his views on black struggles, through his friend’s story, who died at a very young age due to his friends setting him up in the streets. He then compares it to his own life about how he tried to get his friends out of the hood with him, but they weren’t as lucky as Cole. He speaks on falling in love on tracks like “Deja Vu” and “She’s Mine pt. 1.” “She’s Mine pt. 2,” then talks about Cole welcoming a daughter into the world, and also the corruption in our world.
Cole’s work always connects with whoever listens to his music in one way or another. J. Cole has a special way of connecting with his listeners on a personal level, where they feel like they get to know him as a person, about his life, and the struggles he’s gone through. Cole’s music is like therapy for all types of listeners. I know for me, as a female who is not black, Cole’s music has reached out to me in a way no friend or family member ever could. Listening to his music during tough times has really helped me cope with my emotions and problems. Anytime I’m feeling down, I plug in my headphones and blast J. Cole’s music to forget about it all.
All his albums tell stories about his life and struggles coming up as an artist and as a black man. They all share a common theme – struggle. Cole’s success came from nothing but struggle. His perseverance and confidence in his music led him to the life he lives now.
As an infant, his father abandoned his mother, leaving her to raise Cole and his brother by herself in Fayetteville, North Carolina. They were forced to live in a Spring Lake trailer park, due to lack of money where Cole grew up in a multi-racial environment. When his mother remarried a soldier, they moved to 1,600 square feet house, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, thus the name and idea behind Cole’s third album. Cole described this house as a “mansion,” compared to the trailer park, because he had his own room now. Cole was in high school at this time, and this is where his love for music grew. Years later, his parents’ relationship fell off once again, and his mom lost the house due to foreclosure, so they moved back to the trailer park.
In light of these struggles, Cole decided to move to New York, in hopes of becoming a professional artist. Cole idolized Jay-Z, and when he got to New York, he made two beats for Jay, hoping he’d take them for his American Gangster album. However, Jay Z gave him the cold shoulder, refusing to listen to Cole’s work.
About a year later, Jay heard a song of Cole’s through a man named Mark Pitts, and called back for a meeting. About 5 months and a few meetings later, Jay Z signed Cole to his label, Roc-Nation, and Cole has never let him down since, with every one of his studio albums going platinum, and “2014 Forest Hills Drive” going double platinum with no features.
Despite all his achievements in the music industry, Cole’s biggest win came when he able to buy back his childhood 2014 Forest Hills Drive house, which was taken from them due to foreclosure in his childhood. He has now turned it into a haven for single-mothers where they can live for 2 years rent-free. Cole says, “My goal is to have that be a haven for a family,” Cole told the host. “So every two years, a new family will come in and live rent-free. The idea is that it’s a single mother with multiple kids. I want her kids to feel how I felt when we got the house.” I think we can definitely come to the conclusion that both of Cole’s fathers messed up by exiting young Cole’s life.
“4 Your Eyez Only” was definitely a classic. It is the realest album out there of our generation. As young kids, we don’t have any role models in the music industry who actually appeal to our morals and lives. Most artists these days only talk sex, money, and drugs, but J. Cole is one of the only artists who focuses on the issues in the world and things we can relate to now and when we grow older. He also emphasizes how big a role love plays in our lives. He has stuck to his roots since he became an artist. From his first studio album “Cole World: The Sideline Story” to now with “4 Your Eyez Only,” Cole continues to talk about the struggles in the world and corruption in society, and doesn’t hesitate to use strong language because he speaks his mind.
Cole bases the album with the story line of James McMillan’s life, a friend who passed away in the streets. In the first track, “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” Cole starts with mournful slow jazz instrumentation, with church bells playing in the background to represent the funeral of his friend. His hook says, “I see the rain pouring down before my very eyes, should come as no surprise.” He sets the scene of the funeral in the rain, and it gives the song an overall sad feeling, where Cole fights with thoughts of suicide. This tone then switches to talk about the struggles of a black man in this society in the next track, “Immortal.”
In “Immortal,” Cole talks about the struggles of the black man, relating it possibly to the struggles of James, on a contrasting aggressive beat with drums and a keyboard bass. He says, “They tell a n**** sell dope, rap, or go to NBA, in that order. It’s that sort of thinking that been keeping n***** chained at the bottom and hanged.” This really is talking about the black man’s struggle in this world, and the part where he says “in that order,” really just gets you thinking about the lack of opportunity for black people.
On the third track, “Deja Vu,” Cole pulls away from the story line of McMillan’s death and talks about falling in love, setting up his story for the rest of the album. He does so on a beat, very similar to Bryson Tiller’s beat of “Exchange,” which caused extreme controversy and accusation of stolen beats, but Cole’s producer, Vinylz, explained that the beat was originally created for Cole’s “2014 Forest Hills Drive,” album, so it was already created before Tiller’s “Exchange.” Cole respects Bryson Tiller and what he did with the beat, and really doesn’t mind that he used the beat. Cole’s reason for saving the beat for this album was simply because it fit perfectly with the story he was telling on here, so he said he was going to use it regardless of who else used it.
In “Ville Mentality,” the fourth track in this album, Cole uses a slow, but determined instrumental, consisting of trumpets with more direct lyrics referring to his friend. He has an excerpt of a young girl speaking about her father’s death, presumably a girl meant to play the role of McMillan’s daughter talking about her father’s death.
The girl says,“My dad, he died, he got shot, cause his friend set him up, and I didn’t go to his funeral, and sometimes when I’m in my room, I get mad at my momma when she mean to me, and she say; And she say, clean up. I say..” Her voice is then interrupted by Cole spitting a verse about self- respect and he ends the track with the daughter finishing her sentence. “I get mad and I slam my door and go in my room, and then, I get mad and I say, “I wish my dad was here.”
After this extremely emotional track, Cole switches his focus back to his own life on “She’s Mine pt. 1,” with a piano ballad and some subtle guitar, where he talks about this female he’s really in love with, but he’s too scared to show her all of himself, only to find out she understands and knows him better than him himself.
After leaving us in tears with these two gut-wrenching tracks, Cole lightens the mood a little bit with 3 upbeat tracks: “Change,” “Neighbors,” and, “Foldin’ Clothes.” Of course, even Cole’s upbeat tracks tell stories and have messages portrayed through his joyous beats. “Change,” is Cole hoping for better days and his belief in God that things will get better on a very. He focuses on conveying the message that change starts with each individual with his hook, “I know you desperate for a change at the pen glide, but the only real change from inside.” He ends the track by leading into a slower, mourning beat with a line that gives us a hint about him losing a friend: “No time for that ain’t no looking back cuz I’m runnin’ too. I made it home, I woke up and turn on the mornin’ news. Overcame with a feelin’ I can’t explain cuz there was my n**** James that was slain, he was 22.” This definitely shifted the mood of the album, giving us something to think about moving into the next track, “Neighbors.”
The track “Neighbors,” has a very interesting story tied to it. Cole’s house in Fayetteville, where he kept studio equipment, was reported by his white neighbor under a suspicion of drugs. He had no proof whatsoever, but still, a SWAT team raided the house, no questions asked. Of course, they didn’t find anything but studio equipment, but it was crazy that they raided the house under one assumption, without proof, just because the house belonged to a black person. There is video footage and Cole talking about the story for the song here. Cole uses a very aggressive beat consisting of bass drums, snare drums, and delightful hi-hat strikes to tell this story.
This theme of racism is then followed by the theme of love in “Foldin’ Clothes,” with a beat of guitar and bass. On this track, Cole speaks about how it’s the little things in life that matter and give you happiness, and he could not have been more right. “I wanna fold clothes for you, I wanna make you feel good,” is the hook of this song. Cole speaks directly to his wife, telling her he wants to do whatever he can to make her happy and hold her down like she has been doing ever since they got together in college.
After a few upbeat songs, Cole returns to a more slow-paced piano and violin beat similar to “She’s Mine pt.1,” with “She’s Mine pt. 2,” now introducing a baby daughter into his life. He also talks about corruption in our society with an example of Christmas and the lack of love in our society.
“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 sh*t 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 sh*t they can’t afford even with the discount, write a check, that sh*t bounce, but as long as we got credit, it don’t matter, the amount. We just swipin’ sh*t here, we don’t love, we just likin’ sh*t here.”
This example hits you with a reality check on how true Cole’s words are. His thoughts are deeper than some can fathom, and it’s really crazy to think about this tradition of Christmas we follow, not thinking about the reality of it. He ends the track with sharing his view on becoming a father as one of the best things to ever happen to him, contemplating if he even deserves such a gift, but thanks God for it.
Every track on this album eventually leads up to the final 8 minute, 50 second track, “4 Your Eyez Only.” All the hints about Cole’s friend and daughter and every theme presented in this track is let loose on these last 9 minutes on a slow background beat consisting of guitar, trumpet, bass, and drums.This track is just Cole speaking straight to his listener on a cool slow-paced beat where he spills every last thought he has.
He starts by talking about his friends passing too early and how young black men need to be more careful in this world because they don’t know what effect their death can have on people around them. They need to value their lives and not let the government determine the worth of their lives.
He describes his life as “hell,” and talks about how he’s trying to make a living, but the felonies he has make it hard for him to find employment. Cole is using his life and McMillan’s life as examples of a black man’s life who grows up in poverty. He uses the track’s first few minutes as McMillan talking him about his life, saying “If the pressure get too much for me to take and I break, play this tape for my daughter and let her know my life is on it.”
He goes on to talk from McMillan’s perspective, as McMillan leaving his daughter with this album to her about himself if he passed. McMillan tells his daughter that although he’s not with her physically, he’ll always be with her, and he understands she may be angry towards him or miss him, but his guilt tell her that he hopes she won’t find a guy like him in her life. He speaks to her about having dreams once, but he wasn’t able to fulfill them. He wants her to do more with her life than he was able to.
He continues to tell her about the struggles he went through, watching his dad get shot due to drugs, and then his mom developing an addiction, so he had to live with his grandma in the hood around thugs. Being raised in this environment, he “picked up the family business by the age of thirteen, six years later was handed sentence.” James tells his daughter this was the time she was born. He tells her about how joyous he was when he had her at the age of 19, naming her Nina, “the prettiest name,” that he could think of for the “prettiest thing” his eyes had ever seen.
In the next few verses McMillan says, “Took me two felonies to see the trap this crooked ass system set for me, and now I fear it’s too late for me to ever be the one that set examples that was never set for me. I’m living fast, but not fast enough ‘cause karma keeps on catching up to me, and if my past becomes the death of me, I hope you understand.” He’s explaining to his daughter how he tried to change when she came into his life because he loved her deeply, but because of his past, it was too late, and he hopes she can forgive him.
He tells her about how he felt his life was going to end soon, so he wrote her this to explain himself and tell her how much he loved her. He says, “I got the strangest feeling your Daddy gonna lose his life soon, and sadly if you’re listening now it must mean it’s true, but maybe there’s a chance that it’s not, and this album remains locked in a hard drive like valuable jewels, and I can teach you this in person like I’m teaching you to tie your own shoes. I love you and I hope to God I don’t lose you.” This track’s last verse hits the heart the hardest, ending in a phone call between Cole and McMillan the day before McMillan’s death. Cole tells McMillan’s daughter what McMillan told him in that call.
“One day your daddy called me, told me he had a funny feeling what he’d been dealing with lately, he wasn’t telling. I tried to pick his brains, still he wasn’t revealing, but I could feel the sense of panic in his voice and it was chilling. He said “Jermaine, I knew you since we was children I never asked for nothing. When times was hard I never had discussions with you begging you to help me. I dealt with the repercussions of my actions. I know you tried to steer me ‘way from that sh*t, but that shit was in my blood, you know my life, I know your momma n****, send my love. In case I never get a chance to speak again, I won’t forget the weekends spent, sleeping at your crib, that’s the way I wished my family lived, but my granny crib was in the ‘jects. I had to interject like, “N**** what you talkin ’bout? Fu*k is you getting at?” He said “Listen, I got no time to dive into descriptions, but I’ve been having premonitions, just call it visions from the other side. I got a feeling I won’t see tomorrow, like the time I’m living on is borrowed. With that said the only thing I’m proud to say I was a father. Write my story down and if I pass go play it for my daughter when she ready.”
Cole’s purpose for this album is laid out on “4 Your Eyez Only,” and he broadens his view from McMillan and his daughter to look at all the children “affected by the mass incarceration in this nation.” He believes that the government just sends young black males from the hood to prison when in reality, what they need, is education. He also plays with the idea of segregation, thinking it would’ve done us better, but that means he wouldn’t ever have been born because his mother is white, while his father was black.
Cole ends this track with a cold verse emphasizing the importance of love by telling McMillan’s daughter that her father was “a real n****, not for his credit in the streets or how strong he was rebelling against the crooked law, although he did that too, but, “Yo’ daddy was a real n**** ‘cause he loved you, 4 your eyez only.”
This album constantly pulls at the heart strings. It makes you really think about life and the way the world is set up. It reminds you how, after so many years, racism and lack of opportunity for colored folks are still prominent in our society. This album made me reconsider my relationships with the people in my life and helped me to honor those relationships and not take them for granted. Cole always has a way of getting his message across to people, and helping those in need. Thanks J. Cole, for yet another classic.