Some rappers shoot for the charts, but J. Cole has always shot for the pantheon; he wants to make records that will last forever, to be remembered as a visionary genius way ahead of the curve. “Immortal,” the second song on 4 Your Eyez Only, encapsulates his ambitions as he sees them: “To die a young legend or live a life unfulfilled.” Granted, the song’s narrative is more about slinging drugs than laying bars, but it’s hard not to hear it as a statement of purpose, a formal encapsulation of Cole’s focused self-mythologizing.
Cole deserves credit for seeking immortality the old-fashioned way. While Kanye West or Kendrick Lamar seek greatness through purity of vision and depth of self-expression (whatever else you think about My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and To Pimp a Butterfly, both are rather strange and idiosyncratic slabs of pop music), Cole doubles down on classicism. And it begins on 4 Your Eyez Only’s cover, with its grim black-and-white photograph of Cole, his back to us, and the Tupac-stylized spelling of the album’s title.
At 10 tracks and 44 minutes, this largely featureless album is compact, disciplined, and low on flash. It’s a throwback to classics like Nas’s Illmatic, where everything is in service of the rhymes and the storytelling. This is an album about J. Cole, an album where he’s the center, the star, the whole point. One’s interest in 4 Your Eyez Only hinges on how interesting one finds him, and on how much one appreciates his pure technique.
Of course, it’s entirely possible to admire the album without being fully persuaded by it, which is probably where a lot of listeners will land. Cole is stubbornly purist throughout, favoring storytelling and literalism over anything more verbally dexterous; references to other hip-hop songs—mostly from the early 1990s—provide the color here, while thematically the album keeps circling around big dreams and lofty ambitions. Cole’s characters all want to be great, to build something that’s going to last, and they don’t mind dying to make their dreams of immortality come true.
In a song like “Déjà Vu,” the most lethal way for Cole to put down his lady is to say that she’s fucking with small-timers. “I got bigger dreams,” he assures us. Meanwhile, “Change” balances fatalism with belief in the capacity for self-improvement. “The only real change come from inside,” goes the hook. This is more self-mythologizing on Cole’s part: To him, you can stir shit up, but only if you’re willing to buckle down and do the work.
Cole is able to do that work. 4 Your Eyez Only’s low-key production, favoring muted live-band grooves, occasionally reaches a boil, but mostly it provides scaffolding for Cole to rap. He does the heavy lifting without ever doing anything flashy—or, some might say, anything especially interesting. That he’s somewhat indistinct as an MC—that his entire creative vision seems bound up in memories of hip-hop’s golden age—makes for an album that never quite asserts itself. That may be the cruelest thing anybody could say about Cole, but what the album does is make the case for his skill and his drive, both of which could yet serve him well in the creation of a true classic.