J. Cole, "4 Your Eyez Only" (Dreamville)
J. Cole's latest album, "4 Your Eyez Only," is an intimate one. It unfolds like an old journal that's been unearthed and shared with an audience of one — that is, an audience of you, or, more important, the daughter of a friend whose shooting death ties the rapper's latest set together.
"Bloodshed done turned the city to a battlefield, I call it poison, you call it real," Cole raps on "Change," before narrating the final moments in the life of James McMillan Jr., whose life was cut short at 22. The fragility of life — particularly that of young black men who too often are felled by violence — shapes the frustration and desperation that permeates the album.
Low on frills (production or otherwise), and rich with introspection, the Grammy nominee's fourth studio set may not immediately resonate with listeners anticipating an album to match the buzz surrounding Cole's alleged digs at Kanye West on "False Prophets."
What's clear now is that "False Prophets" was less about throwing rocks at the throne and more about Cole bearing his disappointment over a fallen hero. He's over fakeness, and if sincerity and storytelling matter more than sensationalism, then fans will find "4 Your Eyez Only" to be a solid — albeit, sometimes slow-moving — follow-up to 2014's "Forest Hills Drive."
The album opens ominously, with Cole facing his own mortality on "For Whom the Bell Tolls." ''Tired of feeling low even when I'm high. Ain't no way to live, do I wanna die?" he sings.
Cole is constantly drawing parallels between himself and the guys still grinding. It's a struggle he can't shake — even with fame and fortune — as illustrated on the powerful "Neighbors," where Cole raps that any black man can be "a candidate for a Trayvon (Martin) kinda fate. Even when your crib sit on a lake."
But for all the looming dangers, Cole has hope and he's moving in a beautiful direction. He's unguarded and in love on the delicate "She's Mine, Pt. 1" and "She's Mine, Pt. 2." He even turns the act of doing laundry into a grand romantic gesture on the omg-that's-so-sweet "Foldin Clothes."
The album's title track is the last of the bunch, and over the course of nearly 9 minutes, Cole relays a heartfelt and frank message from McMillan to his daughter. The meandering, jazz-tinged track is tragic, touching, wise — and a little bit sleepy — everything that Cole's album is.