Given how rare a commodity maturity so often proves in the world of hip hop, J. Cole is to be commended for coming so far so quickly.
Back in 2010, on his breakout mixtape Friday Night Lights, he demonstrated immense promise, but did so imbued with no shortage of the archetypal cockiness that's part and parcel of being a young rapper; he swiftly claimed a place in the same bracket as Nas with “Villematic”, and channeled the willy-waving of his hero’s “Hate Me Now” on “Blow Up”. “The Autograph”, meanwhile, saw him spin a hackneyed tale of his rise to stardom, and the more reflective moments were positively treacly - see “Home for the Holidays” and “Best Friend”. He refined the formula on debut LP proper Cole World: The Sideline Story - a slicker, sharper but no more substantive affair - but it remained tricky to shake the suspicion that Cole wasn’t wearing the traditional trappings of the genre particularly comfortably.
Things took a turn on second full-length Born Sinner. Cole began to self-examine, having been put in his place by Nas (“Let Nas Down” was an moving response to his idol’s withering verdict on “Work Out”) and driven to referential introspection by an increasing sense of alienation from his influences. It was a muddled record, but the fact that it only served as a ballast for his popularity - it was around this time that he ascended to arena status - is reflective of a more intelligent hip hop climate in general, one in which emotional literacy increasingly wins out over mindless braggadocio.
Cole remains a long way from the finished product but he has doubled down on his new appetite for reflection over extravagance, especially on this fourth album, 4 Your Eyez Only. His last outing, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, laid further foundations in this respect, but remained bogged down by a bloated runtime and occasional concessions to the Cole of old; now, we’re getting its leaner, smarter cousin. His fans are always quick to remind detractors that 2014 went platinum without any guest features - or singles, for that matter - but given how clearly Cole seemed to be driving for understatement with that decision, for his followers to bleat about it so ostentatiously seems to be to miss the point entirely.
Again, Cole goes it alone on 4 Your Eyez Only and again, any singles here are not especially obvious. The main break with 2014 is that the instrumentals are consistent with that low-key approach; the beats are unshowy, and if there’s a throughline, it’s one that nods lightly to jazz; wandering basslines, flickers of piano and simple saxophone licks are complimented, here and there, by a restrained string section. This should, in theory, leave Cole himself to do the heavy lifting, but he’s happy instead to adapt to his surroundings; the sedate “She’s Mine” - both parts of it - border on soft spoken word, and when things do take a more intense turn - see the brooding “Immortal” - he opts for nuanced menace, a world away from the giddy faux-indignation of, say, 2014’s “Fire Squad”.
That track’s a good yardstick against which to measure Cole’s thematic growth on 4 Your Eyez Only; it was a manic hip hop state of the union address that name-dropped at machine-gun pace, capped with a final verse that unconvincingly poked fun at the genre’s adversarial nature - you couldn't help but feel Cole was protesting too much. He’s largely managed to give such territory a wide berth this time out, instead refocusing the lens to zero in on bigger issues.
“Ville Mentality” weighs the nostalgic, pre-fame appeal of his hometown of Fayetteville, North Carolina against the harsh realities of the town; spoken word snippets from a local schoolgirl weave in a harrowing tale of the loss of her father to street violence. He pines for domesticity on “Foldin Clothes”, too, a ham-fisted but ultimately touching paean to his wife that namechecks Netflix and Raisin Bran as it deconstructs the myth of alpha male masculinity. He intertwines the personal and political on “Change”, too, a lament on the cycle of violence in black communities inspired by the murder of a childhood friend, something he discusses candidly.
The record’s standout is “Neighbors”, the story of which has only emerged since the album dropped; in March of last year, the rented house Cole was using as a studio in an affluent North Carolina suburb was raided by a SWAT team acting on a tip that suggested drugs were being sold out of the house. Cole was at SXSW at the time. It doesn’t take a master of inference to fill in the blanks, and the resulting track- his only public comment on the matter to date - is perhaps his finest moment yet. Between the minimalist, backmasked sampling and distorted vocal on the hook, it sounds like a more contemplative counterpoint to Kendrick Lamar’s “Money Trees”, and provides Cole with a platform to deliver an incisive take on the unyielding nature of racial prejudice that, above all, is profoundly sad; “every nigga feel like a candidate for a Trayvon kinda fate...even when the president jam your tape.” It was at that same SXSW that Obama proclaimed himself a Cole fan.
It’s lines like that one that mark out 4 Your Eyez Only as Cole’s most affecting statement to date. There are momentary lapses in self-awareness, like “Deja Vu”’s reductive sexual politics, which were originally intended for 2014 and that certainly don’t belong here. Then there’s the title track, an epic eight-minute exercise in autobiography that takes its cues as a closer from Kanye West’s “Last Call” (sound familiar?) and that runs over some cliched lyrical ground. For the first time, though, this is a Cole record on which the faults don’t feel like significant hurdles, especially not in the face of the clear progress made. He continues to flirt with the idea of early retirement, and certainly sounds as if he has more of a handle than ever on his politics and his personal life. That might be precisely why we're going to need him.