“Double Platinum, no features,” the phrase can be heard ringing out the mouth of a J. Cole fanboy at almost any moment. 2014 Forest Hills Drive is three years old yet the LP is still (failingly) used to cement Cole as king of the rap game.
It didn’t have to be like this. Cole’s die hard fans could have stepped back and tried to see the perspective of the rest of the hip-hop community. 4 Your Eyez Only was a disappointment. “Immortal” low-key slaps and “4 Your Eyez Only” is a well-told story, but, as a whole, the album was underwhelming. That’s okay, and even Cole admits in his HBO documentary “4 Your Eyez Only” that the album is more about what he personally wants to say to his listeners than anything else. I still enjoyed the album for what it is. What made me grow to resent it was said fanboys insisting that this album was one of the best albums ever made, or insinuating that the rest of audiences just didn’t understand the intellectual themes of Cole’s work. The album isn’t that hard to decipher, through interviews, the HBO documentary and multiple listens, it’s easy to see that Cole is spitting social commentary through his dead friend’s story as well as his own. Saying that others have an inability to understand his lyrics is an easy cop out of the conversation and makes the person saying it sound stupid and insecure.
“Intellectual rap” used to be harder to come by, but rappers can make a career off of social commentary in today’s age. Artists like Mick Jenkins, 6LACK, Kendrick, Joey Bada$$ and Logic have dedicated parts of their careers to creating “woke” music. Claiming that J. Cole has exclusivity to meaningful lyrics is just ignorant.
Cole’s superfans have accidentally painted him as a pseudo-intellectual since the release of 4 Your Eyes Only. If you direct attention to the album claiming there’s more to be found, you shouldn’t be mad when people come back empty-handed, especially if you can’t even explain what they missed. Ultimately, this reflects poorly on Cole himself. People won’t want to listen to his music if they’re constantly reminded of their irritating J. Cole obsessed friend.
What’s personally tragic is that I loved J. Cole after 2014 Forest Hills. The final bass drop of “G.O.M.D” and the lyrics on the outro of “Fire Squad” were some of my favorite moments in 2014’s music. I agreed with the public sentiment and saw Kendrick and J Cole as the kings of the rap game, so when “Everybody Dies” dropped I ate it up. In “4 Your Eyez Only” there’s a point where Cole talks about deciding which tracks to release as singles, and how said choices communicate the statement he tries to make through the album. Right after he makes the statement, the music video for “Everybody Dies” plays. It looked like we had another album full of meticulously produced shit-talking on the way from J. Cole; boy, were we wrong. Soon after “Everybody Dies” came “False Prophets” — which includes disses at Kanye and Wale. The most significant line of the song comes when Cole is dissing Wale “Always worried bout the critics who ain’t never fuckin’ did it // I write what’s in my heart, don’t give a fuck who fuckin’ with it.” So — we were led to wonder — what is in J. Cole’s heart?
Some dark thoughts apparently. Although a majority of the songs on 4 Your Eyez Only contain lyrics written by Cole’s dead friend, it’s still Cole rapping them and adding his own thematically similar lyrics on top of them. The story of his friend and themes of racial injustice take a backseat randomly throughout the album, whether in the not-so-subtle song “Foldin Clothes” or the regrettably corny “She’s Mine” parts 1 and 2. The production on this album is as clean as ever but it doesn’t pop out of the speakers like in Cole’s previous albums. If I bring any of this up to a fanboy they will say that “I don’t understand his evolution” or “he’s putting honesty before cohesion.” It doesn’t need to be so black and white. Rappers can be honest, cohesive and still make their tracks pop off. That’s what Cole did on Forest Hills for god’s sake. The J. Cole fanboy logic follows a dangerous emerging pattern of fans blindlessly worshipping whatever their favorite artist drops without even attempting to objectively listen to the music. In their minds the artist matters more than the art. [Editor’s Note: This is why Taylor Swift has the best selling album of the year.]
Moreover, I simply miss old Cole. I miss when he’d “brag like HOV,” hype up his own beats like in “G.O.M.D,” and power trip through the rap game. Sure, his old lyrics can be problematic (see his lines on gay men in “Villuminati”) but Cole was more fun when he could be socially conscious while simultaneously talking game. Cause while for better or for worse the rap community throughout its history has involved rappers taking shots at one another through their music — and the higher up the totem pole the rappers fighting are — the more entertaining it can be. Yet Cole has reached a point of his career that millions of people will listen to his music regardless of its hype and eventual appraisal — he would most likely argue that’s the point — and I can admire his efforts to produce the closest thing we have to mainstream wholesome rap.
Perhaps I’m just sentimental over a rapper whose music I once adored and I wish that 4 Your Eyez Only would have continued the trend that the singles established. My view of him wouldn’t have followed such a downward trajectory if it weren’t for his fanboys demanding that he and anything he creates be worshipped. I look forward to the day when J. Cole releases another banger, if that day ever comes.