We weren’t there, but we know what it was like. In the studio, they were all there — Jermaine Cole, his boys, but also Cole, mostly Cole, yes, subtly Cole, perpetuating the vibe, facilitating synergetic creative genius. You know, the “process.”
Thanks to “Eyez,” the documentary released this past week in anticipation of 4 Your Eyez Only’s Dec. 9 release, fans were able to see the workings behind his latest project. Most of its 40 minutes of footage is spent on studio going-ons, portraying events that, while clearly foundational, primarily show off a whole lot of nothing. Appropriately.
Ingrained in any subjective review of any kind is the urgent necessity to judge the art and not the artist. The thing is, with Cole, it’s impossible to categorize the two as separate entities. His sensitive brand manifests itself in his music; his being is one of vulnerability. He’s just a kid from Fayetteville, North Carolina, one with a “dollar and a dream,” and it got him to this point.
It is at this point that we realize, also, that J. Cole knows who Ernest Hemingway is. This is now clear, because Hemingway’s 1940 novel “For Whom the Bell Tolls” serves as the namesake for the leadoff track from 4 Your Eyez Only. Such an allusion is initially captivating, but soon feels recycled, revealing itself as a trend that’s becoming quintessentially Cole — stretching to provide depth, only to be undermined by a unique lack of originality, reverting to something, uh, merely digestible on the surface.
Thus springs life’s frustrations with Cole — caveats about his increasingly purgatorial presence. In other words, Cole lives a perennial existence of almosts. In this case, he’s almost Pusha T on his defiant, authority-chastising “Immortal”; he’s almost Drake (or, for that matter, Bryson Tiller, whose identical beat on “Exchange” has become a source of contention among respective producers) on ambient “Deja Vu”; he’s almost Lupe Fiasco on deceptively soulful “Change.”
Emulation and adaptation can be great, except when it’s executed poorly. Instead, Cole continues to carve his own stake — a niche, albeit a niche that’s increasingly, inherently vanilla. 4 Your Eyez further solidifies Cole’s occupation of an unnecessary and arguably uninteresting space in the genre. This shouldn’t be a black hole.
Ambiguity as a thematic foundation is something that has proven equally effective and rare. Most reasonably defined in this arena by androgynous dress and culturally unfamiliar inflection, Andre 3000 ostensibly paved the way for this breed of wild, and artists like Young Thug have helped maintain it.
J. Cole wouldn’t immediately seem to fit in this trajectory and certainly not even close to such an extreme. Yet he seems at his best when he blurs the lines, in this case playing with the perspective of the album. A chilling interlude interrupts “Ville Mentality” in which a young girl mentions her dead father and how she didn’t attend his funeral. Echoes of “Catch me, don’t you” float over “She’s Mine Pt. 1” and “She’s Mine Pt. 2,” the former about a love interest and the latter presumably about a new baby.
Considering this thread, the question becomes, whose love interest is it? And what about the baby? Is it Cole’s or his deceased friend’s? Could he be talking about himself and his buddy? Untangling his unadulterated emotional web is what provides the album with its most genuine moments.
“Neighbors” helps segue between the two aforementioned tracks with its own reality check: “Some things you can’t escape; death, taxes, and a ra- / -cist society that make every n—a feel like a candidate / For a Trayvon kinda fate, even when your crib sit on a lake / Even when your plaques hang on a wall / Even when the president jam your tape.” It gives 4 Your Eyez its most convincing moment, yet in peak Cole fashion; seesawing his vocals and harkening back to more earnest, anxious days à la Cole World’s “Lost Ones.” Once again we’re left to wonder whose mouth we’re really hearing this from. It’s a stronger look, one that leaves us wanting more of this dynamic.
Much of this frustration stems not from a lack of development but from an underwhelming progression. Quite simply, Cole has plateaued. Cole World was fun; at face value, it was a mostly careless ode to chasing women and soaking in an unfamiliar, better life while also building on his three previous mixtapes. Born Sinner was a new look, a decidedly brooding (“It’s way darker this time”) power proclamation featuring arguably his best bars to date.
And then came 2014 Forest Hills Drive. Beyond the endless aggrandizing of the “J. Cole went double platinum with no features” narrative/“memery”/buffoonery were some of Cole’s best experimentations yet; “St. Tropez” and “G.O.M.D.” gifted us with fresh (fresh! J. Cole!) sounds we hadn’t yet heard. But now?
There’s an uneasy curiosity: where to next? Rumors persist of a collab with Kendrick Lamar, which at this point feels closer on the life-things spectrum to a close friend undergoing a godsent out-of-body enlightenment than a mere What a Time to be Alive-esque fuck-around project.
Such sentiment, then, explains how we ended up here, in December 2016, with concert-long-pensive-stool-percher J. Cole forcing a development forward but ultimately taking a step back. 4 Your Eyez Only finds Cole working at potentially effective themes — criminality, injustice, lost ones, loved ones and newfound responsibility — and employing a stale, years-old formula to convey them.
What results is a project in which a track titled “Foldin Clothes” cannot fully channel its metaphorically flimsy essentials (i.e. “It’s the simple things”), instead rendering said simple things too simple. For now, it really does seem like J. Cole is content to (metaphorically) fold clothes for us.