4 Your Eyez Only
Many volumes of history and sociology have been written about the violence, drug abuse and poverty in America's inner cities. And with his fourth studio album, 4 Your Eyez Only, rapper J. Cole paints a poignant, often exceedingly profane fictional portrait of one man's ultimately failed attempt to break those patterns.
Though rappers generally aren't known for concept albums that tell a single overarching story, that's exactly what Cole has given us here. This 10-track narrative follows the arc of a man named James McMillan Jr., a drug dealer and would-be rapper who tries to change his ways because he knows that if he doesn't, he's likely to end up dead, just like his father.
Crude or Profane Language
Drug and Alcohol Content
Other Negative Elements
"For Whom the Bell Tolls" spells out the stakes of James' story: "Tired of feeling low even when I'm high/Ain't no way to live, do I wanna die?/I don't know." The protagonist cries out to God for help: "I'm searching and praying and hoping for something/I know I'm gon' see, I know that it's coming/Lord, Lord." But he knows death lurks nearby if he doesn't change.
Though the album's main character is a drug dealer, "Immortal" also tells us the man knows that path isn't a noble one: "In my mind I been cryin', I know it's wrong but I'm sellin'." The song laments friends who've been killed ("Eyes wellin' up with tears/Thinkin' 'bout my n-ggas dead in the dirt") as well as a culture in which so many end up imprisoned ("Have you ever seen your brother go to prison as you cried?"). The song also recognizes that his culture's only three visions of success are either illegal or unrealistic: "They tellin' n-ggas sell dope, rap or go to the NBA, in that order/It's that sort of thinkin' that been keepin' n-ggas chained."
On "She's Mine, Pt. 1," the narrator sings the glories of falling in love: "You read me like a book, like I'm the Bible, you the reverend/Yeah, I wanna tell the truth to you." He loves her so much, in fact, that he looks forward to folding her clothes and serving her: "I wanna fold clothes for you/I wanna make you feel good/Baby, I wanna do the right thing/Feels so much better than the wrong thing" ("Foldin Clothes"). The mundane stuff of everyday life, he discovers, is better than anything he's ever experienced. There's still more insight when he talks about his culture's pressure for him to conform to a tough-guy image: "Put your frown on before they think you soft/Never smile long or take your defense off."
"She's Mine, Pt. 2" celebrates the birth of the man's daughter. He recalls the meaning it gave his life ("Reminisce when you came out of the womb/Tears of joy I think filled up the room/You are now the reason that I fight"). Finally he exclaims in praise, "There is a God/ … I never felt so alive." Elsewhere, the song also delivers an admittedly profanity-riddled critique of how corporations strive to get people hooked on stuff they can't afford. One line says, "But as long as we got credit, it don't matter the amount."
"Change" links a man's faith with giving him the courage to change: "My fears alleviate, my tears evaporate/My faith don't deviate/ … But see, I'm growing and getting stronger with every breath."
The tragic title track comes at the end of the album. In it, we learn that the songs we've just heard are a father's message to his daughter in case he ends up dead: "My worst fear is that one day you come home from school and see your father's face while hearing 'bout tragedy on the news/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."
The song offers counsel in many areas, including what kind of man his daughter should seek out and commentary on how black culture's ills get passed from generation to generation: "I dedicate these words to you and all the other children/Affected by the mass incarceration in this nation/That sent your pops to prison when he needed an education."
We hear frequent harsh profanities (including many f-words, s-words and uses of "n-gga") throughout the album. There are also multiple references to drug dealing (though usually in a context suggesting that way of life is the only choice a young man thinks he has). Guns are referenced a couple of times, as are tangles with police, whom the album mostly depicts as an enemy of people like the narrator. It's never clear whether this man and the woman he loves get married or are just cohabitating.
On "Deja Vu," a man tries to sweet-talk another man's woman (and perhaps succeeds). There's also vulgar and objectifying stripper-type language directed at women ("Drop that, back that a-- up and b--ches get to freaking"). We also hear crude references to the male and female anatomy once each on two other tracks.
"Neighbors" is a complex song. The narrator tries to move to a wealthy white neighborhood. But he's frustrated that his neighbors seem to be stereotypically judging him as a drug dealer: "I guess the neighbors think I'm sellin' dope, sellin' dope." Though he's righteously indignant about that, it turns out he is exactly what they suspect: "Well, m-----f---er, I am." The song also finds James and some friends lighting up in plain view: "My n-ggas stand outside and pass cigars/Filled with marijuana, laughin' hard."
"Change" includes lyrics about entrusting one's life to God. But the narrator also suggests that black people tend to relate to Him the same way they would an oppressive white police officer, "as if He's spiteful like them white folks that control the jail." J. Cole's protagonist doesn't think God ultimately holds our sins and bad choices against us, because He's sympathetic to the influences that spurred those decisions: "See, I believe if God is real, He'll never judge a man/Because He knows us all, and therefore He would understand/The ignorance that make a n-gga take his brother's life."
When I saw that all 10 tracks on J. Cole's 4 Your Eyez Only had "Explicit" warnings slapped on them, I thought I knew what I was in for. I expected a rap album that glorified excess and violence, hedonism and rebellion, bravado and bling.
I was wrong.
Oh, there are significant content concerns here, to be sure, mostly in the form of the album's frequent vulgarities. That said, Cole doesn't (for the most part) glorify drug dealing or exalt immoral activity. In fact, the album as a whole does just the opposite: It tells a story about a man who tries desperately to change, to break the cycle of crime and poverty in order to forge a new life.
Ultimately, he doesn't succeed. But J. Cole does succeed in showing us just how hard making such a change really is—even though he uses a lot of equally hard language to tell that story.