Doc Zeus went platinum with negative five features.
If you ask me, the most interesting idea surrounding the success of J. Cole’s rap career is the polarization his music seems to effortlessly elicit from divided, angry rap fans. For a rapper who makes aesthetically pleasant if largely inconsequential post-Kanye pop rap, the debate surrounding the relative quality of his music reveals a kind of entrenched schism in rap fans where any opinion—positive, negative or otherwise—feels like an act of contrarian dissent. A rogue tweet discussing the merits of Forest Hills Drive is liable to elicit a flood of people in your mentions spewing talking points that have become so tired they have become literal memes (“J. Cole went platinum with no features,” “J. Cole is boring,” “you have to have certain intelligence to appreciate J. Cole’s music,” etc.). Cole makes partisans of us all as an opinion as largely innocuous as “I [like/dislike] J. Cole” tends to disgust and anger people of the opposing view.
What this debate largely obfuscates is how strange it is that J. Cole is a polarizing figure at all. Not because his music is so obviously good or bad but because the polarization that surrounds J. Cole is without any discernible hook. Most figures in music that can be qualified as “controversial” usually have a quality about them that pisses people off. For example, Young Thug’s gender fluidity and unorthodox vocal style angers dusty rap purists; Kanye’s narcissism and outspokenness tends to both annoy and inspire people in equal measure as does Drake’s unrelentingly cultural ubiquity and cornball fuckery. You can make the case that it is this very divisiveness that separates these rappers from the pack and makes them stars in the first place.
By any estimation, J. Cole is one of the biggest stars in rap music, but what’s the hook? J. Cole isn’t a sex symbol nor is he constantly in trouble with the law. He’s not upsettingly weird—maybe a little crunchy but he certainly doesn’t practice the curated millennial eccentricity that feels increasingly in vogue these days. He doesn’t even seem to be megalomaniacally delusional, so it’s unlikely you’ll catch him bending a knee to gold-plated fascism any time.
In fact, Cole’s most fervent criticism is usually the antithesis of all of those things. He’s “boring”—an assertion that usually translates to a dual critique of his “uncool” earnestness and his conservative, sample-based rap sound. Critics usually frame Cole as an artist whose overly devoted reverence for the past and stone-faced sincerity combine to create an obnoxious, holier-than-thou scold whose disdain for the youthful, rock star irreverence of fellow millennial artist feels tantamount to generational treason. It can be a compelling argument against him. Cole’s penchant for self-seriousness often translates into corny concept songs that often drip with condescension and self-regard—whether it’s reprimanding women for their own sexuality or lamenting his own fallen heroes. If Cole can be considered a figure of controversy, it’s because he’s the ultimate narc at the party—the nerd annoyed that rest of the kids are having fun while he’s not. Nobody likes a narc.
Regardless, there are plenty of people who vehemently disagree with this assessment (and will hop into your mentions to tell you how wrong you are). To his fans, his dogged traditionalism is reflective of his status as an everyman—an aspirational figure for young people of color (or anybody really) who overcame a troubled youth to achieve wild success. Cole’s lack of flair is less boring than relatable—the struggling rap nerd who made good by believing in his abilities and following his dreams. Since the days of his mixtapes, Cole has always attempted to make personal stories about his life that feel relevant and applicable to larger tales of society. A song about losing your virginity might feel corny and awkward if you are jaded but it can just as easily be interpreted as vulnerable and honest in a more generous viewing. There’s real value to a perspective like that—people need more earnest fandom.
Regardless of where you stand on the merit of J. Cole’s music, 4 Your Eyez Only, his new album that dropped last Friday, is unlikely to change many people’s opinion on Cole as an artist one way or the other. 4 Your Eyez Only feels very much like the prototypical extension of his wildly successful last album, 2014’s Forrest Hill Drive, relying on Cole’s restrained, sample-based production style and narrative heavy concept songs to drive the album’s creative engine. Cole makes little effort to break new ground on his latest album and the result is a middling effort that aims for comfort but fails at inspiration.
Sonically, 4 Your Eyez Only relies on J. Cole’s well-worn formula built on familiar instrumentation over recognizable samples that aspire to give the album a lush and full sound. The album is more subdued and melancholy than previous efforts, employing a lot of strings, stuttering jazz trumpets, and quiet melodies that aim to feel dream-like but end up being unmemorable. Cole’s production is unsurprisingly competent—as he remains an accomplished musician—but nothing sticks out here quite like previous hit songs, like 2013’s platinum-selling “Power Trip.” His production work on songs like “For Whom The Bell Tolls” and “Immortal” often feel far too much like musical wallpaper blending easily into the background without elevating the material.
The most divisive aspect of Cole’s catalog has been his songwriting. His fans love to praise his words for their lyrical acuity and conceptual scope, but critics slam them for corny punchlines, trite song ideas, and deceptively retrograde sexual politics. As a critic who falls squarely into the latter camp, 4 Your Eyez Only makes strides towards correcting some of Cole’s weaknesses but the songs never really coalesce into anything substantial enough for me to change my mind on the guy. On a positive note, this is easily Cole’s least overtly corny effort—cutting mostly out Cole’s punchline heavy rap for larger story-based songwriting.
The album’s best song, “Neighbors,” is a true tale of racial-profiling, after Cole’s home in a ritzy North Carolina neighborhood is raided by SWAT police after his neighbors alleged a drug dealer lived there. Cole has made a decided effort to write an album that takes at earnest stab at structural racism but often falls back on lame platitudes like on the disappointingly conservative “Change,” which finds Cole’s All Lives Mattering about class mobility and gang violence. He annoyingly declares that “only real change comes from inside.”
Ultimately, the fiercest critique I can muster for 4 Your Eyez Only is that J. Cole isn’t able to elicit much more than apathy out of me. Interesting art—good or bad—thrives on emotion. The ability to inspire feelings in the listener is what all art should strive to do but 4 Your Eyez Only is yet another album in J. Cole’s that leaves me feeling cold. J. Cole can never be a truly polarizing artist because apathy rarely leads to acrimony. If I hate it, at least you know that I care.