How '4 Your Eyez Only' Amplified More Than Just J. Cole's Voice

It solidified his storytelling dexterity with cinematic qualities.

J. Cole knows how to see the world through more than one set of eyes. It’s an extraordinary gift that he’s shown throughout his career, but he did it most prominently and expertly on his fifth studio album, 4 Your Eyez Only. Released one year ago today (Dec. 9), the LP is somehow intrinsic and extrinsic, both deeply personal and yet largely about someone else’s life. It shows, once again, that little old Jermaine Lamarr Cole knows how to amplify the stories of the voiceless and see life through various perspectives.

Perhaps this is most evident on the revelatory title track, which doubles as the LP’s thesis and crowning achievement. On the closing cut, he reveals that the album was inspired by his late friend, who left him with a parting mission: “Write my story down, and if I pass, go play it for my daughter.” It was a chilling request that Cole handled with vivid details and impassioned delivery over evocative instrumentation.

Take, for instance, “Change,” a standout song that echoes Tupac Shakur’s influence in cadence and subject matter. Here, he recalled the traumatizing scene of a dead body laying on concrete before making a startling realization: “That was my nigga James that was slain. He was 22.” The storyline [of “Change” and maybe even the entire LP] is about James McMillan Jr., a name reportedly altered for the sake of privacy.

Other voices enhance this narration. During one of the album’s most touching moments, a young girl speaks about her father’s death in an excerpt from a series of interviews Cole conducted at a school in his hometown of Fayetteville. “My dad died,” she explains. “He got shot ‘cause his friend set him up. I didn't go to his funeral...Sometimes when I'm in my room, I get mad at my momma when she mean to me. When she say, ‘Clean up,’...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.” Powerful.

In many ways, 4 Your Eyez Only built upon Cole’s storytelling prowess. In the past, he’s spoken from multiple viewpoints on tracks like 2011’s “Lost Ones,” 2013’s “Rise Above,” and 2014’s “03’ Adolescence,” but his latest album stands out because it takes his storytelling to the next level, with songs working as chapters from a greater narrative. It’s a creative pursuit that many of the genre’s greatest wordsmiths have taken, including Kendrick Lamar (good kid, m.A.A.d. city), JAY-Z (American Gangster), and Masta Ace (Disposable Arts, A Long Hot Summer).

Cole was so dedicated to this approach, in fact, that he left quality joints on the cutting room floor. “The album was initially like 13, 14 songs,” Dreamville President Ibrahim Hamad told Billboard upon its release. “Then, just at the last second, we kind of were like, ‘Look, if we’re trying to tell a story, let’s just make it as clear as possible and cut it down.’” The buzzed-about “Everybody Dies” and “False Prophets” were left off the tracklisting, released only as part of Cole’s Eyez film on TIDAL.

Using the final 10 songs, Cole painted a complete picture by looking inward. The emotional two-part “She’s Mine” series could have easily been about his own often-guarded life, his private marriage, and his thoughts on parenthood. “Neighbors” is clearly about himself and an ill-fated drug raid at his home studio, but it still expands on the LP’s messages of racism, injustice, paranoia, and speaking on behalf of others. “I don't want no picture with the president,” he raps on the track. “I just wanna talk to the man / Speak for the boys in the bando / And my niggas never walkin' again.”

If there was a question about Cole’s perspective shifting project, Dreamville producer Elite put it to rest after it dropped. “There are moments where it parallels him and he speaks from his own perspective,” Elite told Complex at the time. “‘Neighbors’ is a step outside for a second. It’s still a commentary on the overall theme, but the album is largely from a perspective that is not J. Cole.”

The “4 Your Eyez Only Tour” continued Cole’s pursuit to speak on behalf of the disenfranchised. Donning an orange jumpsuit with “Property of…” emblazoned on the back, he was sternly escorted through the crowd by security, like an inmate to open each show. His stage was a prison yard, complete with barbed wire and surveillance cameras. These rhymes blared from arena speakers: “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.” During the tour, Cole even stopped at San Quentin State Prison near San Francisco, to meet with inmates who may never see the outside. Hamad called it a “life changing experience.”

Even the album’s visuals magnified others’ perspectives. 4 Your Eyez Only’s HBO documentary opened with Cole literally pointing a camera at an aspiring rapper who yearned to share his story. He ended the film with a heart wrenching but inspirational conversation with a 52-year-old woman, who was on her way to one of three jobs. She explained that life had been brutal; her 19-year-old son died of a gunshot to the head and her 14-year-old daughter died of trauma to the head after she was sexually assaulted. Shocked, Cole asked how this strong and vibrant woman was able to move forward after those tragedies. “God has me here for a reason,” she said, allowing viewers to connect her story with that of 4 Your Eyez Only. These are stories of resilience, survival, and of hope in the face of death. It could even be your story.

Whether 4 Your Eyez Only is the best album on Cole’s catalog is up for debate, but what’s clear is that the platinum album, which sold 363,000 units in its first week alone, was more than just a commercial success. It solidified his storytelling dexterity with cinematic qualities, provided poignant socio-political commentary, and continued his streak of inspired insight following the critically lauded 2014 Forest Hills Drive. Interestingly enough, by listening, empathizing, empowering, and letting others speak through him, Cole also strengthened his position as one of hip-hop’s most important voices.

You can stream Cole's entire discography here