4 Your Eyez Only
For those familiar with church history and rap, J. Cole can seem like a monastic.
After the successful release of “2014 Forest Hills Drive” in 2014, the 32-year-old rapper from Fayetteville, North Carolina, disappeared and moved to Raleigh, well away from the urban centers of rap and into the desert, as it were. He pursued simplicity, retreated from public life, got married and had a child before quietly dipping back into the rap game at the end of 2016 with “4 Your Eyez Only” and its accompanying film. Even in its style, “4 Your Eyez Only” is calm and intimate, opting more for lyrical meditation than the fast-paced argumentation of Kendrick Lamar or the often moody bravado of Drake. It’s an album everyone in the United States should listen to; its seismic importance lies in the quality and content of its narrative, a private conversation between a dead father and his daughter.
For whose eyes is this album? In a strict sense, the record is for Nina’s eyes, the daughter of Cole’s childhood friend whose name is changed on the album to James McMillan Jr. In the final song also titled “4 Your Eyez Only,” Cole reveals the underlying narrative of the album: James believes that his death is near and pleads to Cole, “Write my story down, and if I pass, go play it for my daughter when she ready.” Caught between the drug trade and joblessness, 22-year-old James dies in “Changes,” and Cole offers the album as a reflection on his death and the fulfillment of his promise to tell Nina about her absent father.
Though strictly addressed to Nina, Cole also uses the album to address the black community and to discuss the factors that led to James’ death. Cole labels mass incarceration and malformed ideals of masculinity as primary killers. Cole tells Nina at the close of the album:
This perspective is a real one, another lost ‘Ville son.
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.
Cole describes the sobering trap of poverty and prisons. Lack of jobs and education pressure James to embrace drug trade, and then felonies and prison time provide him with less employment opportunities and push him to sell more dope rather than less.
Moving from James’ specific struggles with mass incarceration, Cole provides a personal anecdote of the effects of racism. In the ingenious “Neighbors,” Cole tells the startlingly true story of a SWAT team raiding his suburban North Carolina studio because his neighbors thought he was growing and selling drugs (the real footage from the raid from Cole’s security cameras is in the film). He laments the possible harm his neighbors’ quick conclusions could have caused if he was at the house instead of performing at an event with President Obama during the raid. Even the B-list celebrity is subject to the precarious nature of being black in America.
Though Cole is personally aware of the institutional forces surrounding James’ death, he also challenges skewed ideals of masculinity within the black community. He describes a perverted masculinity, what makes a man a “real n***a,” which deceives and destroys black men. Cole describes the deceptive attitude that boasts, “Real n***as don’t die” on “Immortal.” Instead of recognizing the risk of drug trade, “real n***as” choose reckless survival and the fast life of selling dope over “slow money.” The “real n***as” also portray manhood as the refusal to show emotion. Cole describes the conception of masculinity as one that refuses to show pain (“Ville Mentality”) and avoids smiling or affection for fear of being called soft (“Foldin Clothes”). Cole rejects the perverted masculinity, “I call it poison, you call it real,” and indicates that the misconceptions of true manhood are culpable in the death of black men.
To the factors of mass incarceration and unhealthy masculinities, Cole prescribes internal change as the catalyst for better life. On “Change,” Cole offers the hook, “I know you desperate for a change . . . but the only real change come from inside.” Though Cole recognizes how the external forces stifle flourishing in the black community, he instead focuses on changing the culture of drug trade from the inside. He wants to convert the imagination of young black men by combating the perverse notions of masculinity promoted by other rappers and instead offering a different approach to life, one of sensitive love. For Cole, one gains the title of a “real n***a” not from living recklessly or stifling emotions but instead by loving someone; Cole tells Nina, “Your daddy was a real n***a, not ’cause he was hard . . . [but] ’cause he loved you.”
In Cole’s view, properly felt love for another will give meaning and urgency to life. Cole gives examples of this meaning-making love in the film. The closing scene shows Cole meeting a 52-year-old grandmother working three jobs. Cole is astounded by her sense of purpose, living with love even after having two children murdered. And the reason for that purpose in the face of pain? God. She testifies to Cole, “God has me here for a reason because so many of us are hurting, and we’re confused, and we’re angry … because we don’t know where to turn. But God is the answer. Jesus definitely is the answer.”
Cole, throughout the film and the album, struggles with this religious answer. He, like many others in the black community including the Black Lives Matter movement, have rightly seen the many abuses of religion in the black community to excuse white guilt and brush over black pain. On “Change,” Cole relays the role of religion in James’ last conversations with him, “As we speak I’m at peace, no longer scared to die. / Most n***gas don’t believe in God and so they terrified.” Cole lets James’ belief, that faith in God is substantive in the conversion away from drug trade, stand throughout the album.
Even so, Cole’s frustration with the church mixes with the acknowledgement of the importance of worship in the black community. He even wonders if rap is better than Scripture, “Sometimes I think that these verses can help a person / Way more than the ones they readin’ in churches on days of worship / No disrespect to the Lord and Savior, that ain’t just ego / I just observe that them words no longer relate to people.”
With due respect to Cole from a perspective affectionate toward the institutional church, he prods an important point but misses its potential significance. The power of rap comes from its scriptural quality. Kids memorize Cole’s verses in a kind of catechesis. They analyze and meditate on his words and, rather than replacing Scripture, rap could teach kids how to read Scripture. Cole does well to notice the relevance of his verses to the black community, and he would do even better to recognize how hip-hop heads should offer the same reverence to Scripture as they do to rap.
“4 Your Eyez Only” certainly isn’t for me as an Asian-American, but I’ve learned from listening into the conversation between James, Nina and J. Cole. The difficulty of being a black in America is palpable on Cole’s album, and the complex factors that lead to James’ death are important for our common life in the U.S. This rapper monastic has seen a vision and hopes that when our eyes see what he sees, it will not simply be for our enjoyment but for our conversion.
CHRISTOPHER KARNADI is an M.Div. student at Duke Divinity School. He likes finding beautiful things and sharing them.