by Jacob McKay
J.Cole has somehow become one of the most polarizing rappers in the game after a steady, well-documented rise to the top of the hip-hop stratosphere. Since signing to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation imprint, Jermaine Cole has amassed a loyal enough fanbase to go platinum with no features, a feat that none of his contemporaries in rap have attempted successfully. His last album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, earned him a plethora of sales, acclaim, and sold out tour dates. These are the hallmarks of perennial hip-hop all star status. At this point, you should probably be in somebody’s top 5. But as of late, many a debate has popped up on the internet about Cole’s place as a hip-hop star. People have attacked his music for varying reasons, some saying his bars really aren’t that great, others citing lackluster instrumentals, others saying he isn’t good enough to be able to go platinum without any features. The common knock on him has been that his music has always been a little boring for some. But the sales are in and the people have spoken, at least leading up to his newest album, 4 Your Eyez Only, a surprise release that, like its predecessor, only features Cole. In preparation for this review, I polled the blogs Twitter followers asking them the simple question, “Is J.Cole good?” The overwhelming majority of respondents said yes, which prompted me to do my own poll asking a slightly narrower question, “Is J.Cole a top 5 rapper?” 54% of respondents said yes, and 24% said no but he made it into their top 10. That’s a pretty incredible approval rating among the youth, which prompted me to do some intense listening to this new project to see if it was worthy of another platinum run. This album confirmed J. Cole’s place as a “boring rapper” for some people, and he possibly slid more into that category for me after multiple listens. It’s easy listening for a rap album, with a pretty similar instrumental vibe from front to back. At only 10 songs, it’s long enough to listen to about a time and a half without realizing you started over. And that’s the problem. Its sound is cohesive but almost to a fault, even if the storyline falters. The notes he’s hitting in his sing-song attempts on some of the choruses are always very similar, and the actual singing performance is better on some songs than others. I found myself wishing for a feature, here or there, just to match Cole’s bars with an industry standard hook to see what it would sound like. 4 Your Eyez is sound in terms of its storytelling, which has always been Cole’s strongest point as a lyricist. He disses Kanye on “False Prophets”, a promo single that isn’t on the album, for what Cole views as Ye’s fall from grace and inability to make the music he used to make. Dissing Kanye is a thing that basically nobody has successfully done, and immediately on hearing Cole’s shot I wanted nothing more than for Kanye to put him in his place. Rapper Heems of Das Racist described at best as J.Cole dissing a guy who just got out of the hospital over a ripped-off Joey Bada$$ beat to promote his album. That’s exactly what it is. The internet reacted in various ways to the actual diss but I treat it in the same way I treated Drake coming after Cudi after he went to rehab. This is the rap climate we have bred, but we also need to call out people for punching below the belt or above their weight class or else it just turns into WWE. Hip-hop works best when it feels like boxing. Contenders fight at their weight, and the winner is always controversial.
Cole was also called out for ripping off a beat that Bryson Tiller used on his wildly popular debut, TRAPSOUL. These knocks hold weight for me as a music fan. I don’t like when people take each others work without credit, but I really don’t like when people recycle beats and slap other names on half-assed tracks. That’s okay on a mixtape, but that shouldn’t go platinum. But what is authenticity anymore? Do fans even value that in music? When Kanye comes back at Cole, with a piece of music much better than what Cole dropped over an old beat, I hope you recognize that Cole is not one of the greats of all time. 2014 Forest Hills Drive went platinum during a time when the market was starving for new hip-hop, and the hype surrounding the attempt to go platinum with no features definitely aided the actual sales of that album. I thought that album was good, but it wasn’t my favorite from that time period and I never really go back and listen. The issue for me with this new project is it has even fewer songs that I will want to go back and listen to over again. I think if you separate the hype from the actual project, solid storytelling, but not enough meat in a 10 song project for me to say this thing should go platinum. In my eyes, J.Cole is suddenly becoming Swift-ified, a phenomenon that occurs when your fan’s friends will buy the music just to stay culturally relevant. Drake is already well past this point, where the quality of the actual music can be suspect, and actually decrease over time, with the opposite effect in cultural relevance. We’ve become obsessed with speed and quantity over quality, and this is a short album that seems hastily arranged, despite it’s cohesive sound. Cole presents this album as a long story about a friend of his that he’s trying to tell to that friends daughter. That’s supposed to be the theme of this work, but most of the songs are still just about Cole. The songs are too bare and sparse in some places, and the melodies too unrefined. None of them have the sense of urgency that a great rap album needs. I hate to say it but Cole wouldn’t really be hurt that bad by using some help. The hooks on this project are simply too lackluster for me to call it great, regardless of their catchiness. On his other promo single, Everybody Dies, Cole seemingly goes at Lil Yachty and basically this years entire XXL freshman class, calling them “piss-poor rappers”.
The diss itself was another promo attempt but what’s funny to me is, none of the Yachty’s, or 21 Savage’s or Lil Uzi Vert’s are going to care. And also, J.Cole has worse hooks on his album than a lot of them have on mix-tapes. And for somebody who’s trying to keep hip-hop honest, J.Cole needs to sing less. I finally agree with Fantano on this one. It’s not awful but that’s why features are fun sometimes, especially for somebody calling people out as confidently as you all have given Cole the power to do. He’s the platinum-with-no-features guy who in my opinion is always going to be chasing, certainly never eclipsing his peers. His disappearing act would’ve been way more impressive had he come back with more than 10 songs. Yeezus was 10 songs, but in those 10 songs Kanye went everywhere. Cole stays in a pretty familiar, mundane place in these 10. I’m not seeing a ton of growth, which is what keeps you at the top. We’ll see what happens when this one goes platinum without really deserving to. Is he good? Yes, as I’ve said, he’s a great storyteller with a smooth delivery. But greatness is about separating yourself from the rest…and in how many places does Cole really do that musically on this album?