4 Your Eyez Only - J. Cole Analysis
When this album dropped in 2016, I listened to it a lot. I was in high school and a big fan of J. Cole.
I recognized this album had heavy contexts at the time, but I never really listened enough to interpret its true meaning.
In fact, whenever I’d go back to that album I’d play the more “upbeat” tracks and didn't think too much into it. I didn’t feel like being depressed.
But you know what? I wish I had listened to his words and took them to heart 4 years ago, even if it would have made me sad.
Now I am not just sad - I am heartbroken for the black community. I am heartbroken as I come to terms with the actions, both intentional and subconscious, of leaders, neighbors, friends, family, and even my own actions.
It has taken some seriously heinous actions displayed in the media to motivate me to open my eyes and ears to the powerful words of black artists and make me want to do something about it.
If you are reading this, I hope you feel equally as inclined.
Here are some of the strongest moments on this album:
In March of 2016, a SWAT team raided a home in a well-to-do North Carolina suburb. Helicopters circled overhead as armed officers broke down the front door, acting on a tip from a neighbor who thought that the residents were selling drugs.
Rather than an illegal marijuana operation, officers found a basement filled with recording equipment. This was J.Cole’s home, which he was using as a creative safe haven.
On his previous album titled after his childhood home, 2014 Forest Hills, he fantasizes about white picket fences and a quiet life. The SWAT experience is a harsh realization of those dreams, and it is depicted on “Neighbors,” one of the strongest tracks on 4 Your Eyez Only.
Cole’s lyrics explain that he bought this home with his hard earned fortune and sought out privacy.
“Surrounded by the trees and Ivy League
Students that's recruited highly
Thinkin' you do you and I do me”
He goes on to say that his friends would stand outside and pass cigars filled with weed, enjoying themselves, and the next thing he knows the police are at his door.
“Some things you can't escape
Death, taxes, NRA
It's this society that make
Every nigga feel like a candidate
For a Trayvon kinda fate.”
Cole is referring to Treyvon Martin, the 17-year-old who was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, the watch captain of his neighborhood in Florida, for looking “suspicious.” Zimmerman was found not guilty and no federal civil rights charges were brought upon him.
Even though he lives in a large, expensive house and has prestigious music awards, J. Cole is still subject to distrimination and lays awake at night, paranoid living in a white community.
“So much for integration
Don't know what I was thinkin'
I'm movin' back to Southside.”
This track is followed by “Foldin’ Clothes,” where he offers to fold the laundry for his wife as they avoid the outside world and enjoy Netflix and cereal.
“I never thought I'd see the day I'm drinking almond milk.”
He’s holding on to the present, a state of domestic stillness, because life is extremely fragile. And he’s holding on tight because that feeling can be ruined at any moment by a SWAT team or an unsettling news report.
It shouldn't have to be that fragile.
On the track “Immortal,” he goes on to beg a series of rhetorical questions.
“Have you ever seen a nigga that was Black on the moon?
Have you ever seen your brother go to prison as you cry?
Have you ever seen a motherfucking ribbon in the sky?”
Cole also highlights that “Nowadays crime pays like a part time job.”
He goes on to say:
“Numb the pain 'cause it's hard for a felon
In my mind I been cryin', know it's wrong but I'm sellin'
Eyes wellin' up with tears
Thinkin' 'bout my niggas dead in the dirt
Immortalized on this shirt”
Cole frequently uses other perspectives in this album, including that of his late friend James McMillan, Jr., who was killed at 22.
At the end of “Change,” a song that preaches how the only real change comes from inside, Cole describes a scene where he hears a gunshot and everyone scatters.
He saw a body on the ground but there was no turning back. He had to run and get home, too. He turns on the morning news and sees that it was McMillan, Jr.
Cole includes an excerpt from his funeral ceremony.
“We're gathered here today. To mourn the life of James McMillan Jr. A tragedy, another tragedy in the black community. We got to do better, people. 22 years old, this boy was too young. Our condolences go to his family, our prayers. We know he's in a better place, But this has got to end, ladies and gentlemen. We've got to come together, this is, this is, beyond words.”
The title track is almost nine minutes long and it’s mainly told from the perspective of McMillan, Jr., certain he’s facing death. The young man is addressing his daughter, trying to impart whatever wisdom he can should he pass away.
He has been selling crack as a means to escape poverty, despite the risks. He knows what he is doing is wrong and doesn't want to end up in jail, but it's the only way the young man knows to make ends meet, much like the themes invoked in “Immortal.”
“This is hell and I don’t mean that hyperbolic
I try to find employment even if it’s wiping toilets
But these felonies be making life the hardest
Resisting the temptation to run up and swipe a wallet
Or run up on your yard, snatch your daughter bike, and pawn it
That’s why I write this sonnet
If the pressure get too much for me to take and I break
Play this tape for my daughter and let her know my life is on it.”
There is also a testimony from a young girl in Fayetteville, which appears at two points on “Ville Mentality,” and echoes the reality faced by McMillan’s own daughter - the ripple effect his death causes at home, a pain that is so difficult to deal with.
“My dad, he died, he got shot, 'cause his friend set him up
And I didn't go to his funeral.”
I get mad and I slam my door and go in my room,
And then, I get mad and I say, "I wish my dad was here."
At the time of the album, Cole was a new father himself (“She’s Mine, Pt. 2” is about his wife and newborn child). The title track is a message for both of those young girls and everyone else who shares these sinking feelings.
“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 education.”
The album is a message to all of us, whether we have had similar experiences or not. This album is 4 your eyez. Cole is asking us all to open ours.