I slept on J. Cole for a long time. I wasn’t bumping 2014 Forest Hills Drive when it came out and it took about six months of critical acclaim for me to realize that his music was undeniable. He’s not a complicated rapper, but his writing style is a demonstration of the value of being clear and direct. You know exactly what Cole is talking about when he raps. You don’t have to print out the lyrics and bust out a red sharpie, a dictionary and an encyclopedia (or more realistically, just check Rap Genius) to figure out what he’s trying to tell you. Cole makes it easy for his audience to understand his flaws and insecurities in the stories he tells.
That is his biggest strength–his storytelling. While he is liable to deliver superficial braggadocious verses, he shines when he’s telling you his life story and that’s why I think he’s been able to blow up the way he has in recent years. Unlike a lot of people and publications, I wouldn’t put him in the top-tier of this generation’s artists, alongside Kendrick, Chance and Anderson .Paak, but he might be one great project away from it. After falling in love with his last project for over a year, I was excited to hear some new music from Cole to see if he’s the real deal. Let’s dig in.
- For Whom the Bell Tolls
Produced by Elijah Scarlett, J. Cole, Nate Fox, Peter Cottontale & Nico Segal
As an intro, this song does a decent job. The minimal jazzy instrumentation is nice and it lets J. Cole take center stage, but I’m not a huge fan of what he’s doing lyrically. For communicating the feeling of helplessness and frustration he’s going for, the lyrics are too over the top and generic. The delivery is solid though, I’m glad it was just over two minutes, because if there was a take-away message here, it didn’t stick with me. Aside from setting the sonic tone of the album, this introduction doesn’t make much of an impact.
Produced by Cardiak, Frank Dukes, J. Cole, Matt McNeal, Chargaux & Nate Jones
This song is great. The beat is hard hitting and J. Cole’s flow and cadence is a good showcase of his skill as a rapper. This song is perfect for the morning commute, or busting out a couple miles on the treadmill. It really gets me going. The first two verses introduce the listener to Cole’s friend who shows up sporadically throughout the album. His story is filled with the consequences of drug dealing, the addiction, violence, paranoia, and past friends “immortalized on this shirt”.
It’s a story catalyzed by the American Dream, fueled by desperation and greed. I love the way he explains the mentality of the community that he grew up in, where there is more value in a life lost than a life lived: “You wanna change the world / but while alive you never will / cause they only feel you after you gone”. At the end of the song Cole challenges this mentality, citing it as one of the things keeping his community “chained at the bottom”.
This song has some of Cole’s strongest songwriting, but it is ultimately held back by the production. There’s nothing wrong with the production per se, but it sounds just like every other J. Cole beat from this album and even 2014 Forest Hills Drive. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the more avant-garde production of artists like Kendrick and Beyonce, but in my mind, in order to be a A-list artist you need to show growth from one project to the next, and J. Cole isn’t showing that here. It’s evident that he’s doing what’s comfortable and what he’s already good at, but with each recycled idea, the effectiveness of his storytelling is softened. Without exercising the ability to grow and adapt, I don’t see J. Cole having a lane after he’s exhausted the creative juices of the one he’s in.
- Deja Vu
Produced by Vinylz, Boi-1da, Velous, J. Cole, Ron Gilmore & Nate Jones
It really bugs me that this is basically the same beat from Bryson Tiller’s “Exchange”. I’m not going to spend too much time on the behind-the-scenes producer drama, because I don’t care who stole what from who. Let the lawyers figure that out. All I care about is how good the music is, full stop, and the honest truth is that Bryson Tiller did a better job with this beat than J. Cole. On top of that, Exchange came out over a year ago. Even if he recorded it after Cole and acquired the beat questionably, it really doesn’t matter. “Exchange” has been in heavy rotation for a long time, and if Cole had the audacity to do his own version, he damn sure needed to be sure his was better, and it isn’t.
- Vile Mentality
Produced by Ron Gilmore, Elite, J. Cole, Chargaux & Theo Croker
This song is passable. It’s got all the right elements: a sleepy, yet driven instrumental, a captivating flow from Cole, a compelling story continued from Immortal, but I don’t see myself returning to it after this review. It might have something to do with the predictable production, but moreso the lackluster verses. There’s just too much repetition and lazy rhymes. I like this song better if I think of it more as an interlude than a full song, and maybe that’s the way to go here.
The most memorable parts of this song are the jazzy instrumentation, violin playing, and the spoken word from J. Cole’s friend’s fatherless daughter. While I like that Cole is showing what happens when fathers are lost to the fast life driven by greed: “Give up my chain, never / Give up my pride, never”, I think the girl’s story would be much more poignant if Cole brought some better bars to the table and really fleshed out his argument. I really do enjoy listening to this song, but I’m a bit let down knowing a song like this could hit so much harder.
- She’s Mine, Pt. 1
Produced by J. Cole, Deputy, Ron Gilmore, Elite & Chargaux
This tender piano ballad is a chance for J. Cole to do what he does best: wear his heart on his sleeve. It’s intended to be an opportunity for Cole to explain his shortcomings through stories about his fatherless childhood and losing friends when he was growing up, but he is ultimately unable to: “While I’m too scared to expose myself / It turns out, you know me better than I know myself”. It’s a bit frustrating as a listener to hear J. Cole talk more about wanting to paint a picture than actually doing so, but maybe that’s the point. Hopefully the second part of this song will show a J. Cole ready to explore those painful parts of his story.
Produced by J. Cole, Ron Gilmore, Elite & Chargaux
J. Cole dives into the coming of age story on “Change” that he teases on the previous track. The song shows the environment where he became a man, where he believed in a God who didn’t judge him for the risks he took and the pain he caused living outside the law. Cole’s picture of God is a forgiving and understanding creator who wouldn’t be “spiteful like them white folks that control the jail”. Instead of looking to God to change his life, he looks within, and uses his storytelling to better himself, but his evolution doesn’t come without cost–it’s here that he reintroduces his childhood friend who grew up surrounded by the same desperation. This song is about the moment when Cole realized that life is “too short to keep following [his] homies.” When they found themselves in the middle of an altercation, they ran. Cole made it out but his friend didn’t, and those events are here presented as what would become the seed for this project.
Produced by J. Cole
This is my favorite song on the album. Not only because it is reportedly based on a true story, but because the song is so well done. The bass is warm and dominant with tasteful hi-hats and snares tucked in the back. On top of that, Cole has one of his strongest verses on the entire project. In a stark contrast to the recent episode between Trump and Kanye, J. Cole spits, “I don’t want no picture with the president / I just wanna talk to the man”. While he’s referring to his participation in a summit held by Obama with prominent members of hip hop culture earlier this year, it’s interesting to see the contrast between the image of Cole walking into the White House wearing joggers and Kanye smiling next to the president-elect in Trump Tower. Cole isn’t looking for a photo op or recognition (cue the Jay-Z reference: “fuck the fame and the fortune–well maybe not the fortune”). Instead, he’s trying to use his platform to speak on injustice and send a positive message to an oppressed community.
What Cole gets across in this song is how getting raided in his home snapped him back to reality. He says, “I know these things happen often / But I’m back on the scene”. His neighbor’s assumption that a bunch of black guys going in and out of a house in a nice neighborhood in North Carolina must be drug related proves that even fame, fortune, and success mean nothing in a society that can’t seem to get over its white tribalism. There is no “you do you and I do me,” even for a rapper with a positive message. This song is about the not-so-subtle prevalence of racism in 2016, and the execution from Cole and his team couldn’t be better.
- Foldin Clothes
Produced by J. Cole, Elite & Ron Gilmore
J. Cole really did it. He made an unironic song about doing laundry. I mean, he’s really talking about “I get the basket and grab your clothes out the dryer.” I mess with this track too. It’s the definition of a mundane love song. It’s an ode to being the dependable, but ultimately boring boyfriend, but in a strange way, being domestic is the risky move in a Hip Hop culture that values stunting and unabashed promiscuity. I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone rap about Raisin Bran and almond milk, and while it may be a little corny, I can dig it.
- She’s Mine, Pt. 2
Produced by J. Cole, Deputy, Ron Gilmore, Elite & Chargaux
The musical backing on part two is almost identical to part one, aside from the cries in the background from his newborn baby, but instead of continuing his train of thought from part one, Cole has switched focus to his daughter. While I was hoping for Cole to finally delve into his past in order to explain his flaws, I can understand why becoming a father can refocus your life to tend to the future, and that refocusing is at the heart of this album’s message. In the song Cole warns his daughter about the dangers of consumerism and contemplates whether he’s capable of being the kind of father he needed growing up. While I can feel what he’s doing on the song and I like how it fits into the narrative of the project, the song doesn’t work for me outside the context of the album.
- 4 Your Eyez Only
Produced by BLVK, J. Cole, Childish Major, Chargaux, Theo Croker & Nate Jones
Clocking in at nearly nine minutes on a 45 minute album, the stakes are set incredibly high for this closing titular track, and unfortunately it falls flat. The bars are mediocre and the length of the song, intended to add weight to the themes explored on the album, only add lyrical bloat and more of the same production that just seems to drag on and on. At the end of the day, the problems with this song are symptomatic of the entire album. The whole thing just blends together into something not bad, but not necessarily memorable.
I wouldn’t consider the project a flop for J. Cole, but it certainly isn’t the confirmation I needed that he’s a great rapper. It’s telling that I ended my last review saying that I was happy to hear an artist take a risk and fall short instead of doing what they already know and coming up with something average. At the end of the day, even though I didn’t get Childish Gambino’s last album, I can see myself returning to it more often than I can with this one. I’m sure I’ll throw the best tracks from this album into a playlist with the best songs from 2014 Forest Hills Drive, put it on shuffle and have a decent time with it, but as a whole, this album plays it safe. That being said, I will be checking for more Cole in the future. I loved the two singles that led up to this album that didn’t make the tracklist, and I still see a lot of potential in Cole’s movement, but I’m not ready to include him in the upper echelon of this generation’s Hip Hop artists.