Fighter: J. Cole

Trainer (Gym): Mark Pitts (Dreamville, Roc Nation, Columbia)

Cut Men: J. Cole, !llmind, Phonix Beats, Vinylz, Willie B, Pop Wansel, Ron Gilmore, Jproof, Nick Paradise, Dre Charles, Cardiak, CritaCal

Weight Class: Rap Superstar/Lyrical Heavyweight/Easy Listening Hip-Hop

Notable Fire: Neighbors, Change, 4 Your Eyez Only, For Whom The Bell Tolls

Notable Trash: Immortal, She’s Mine Pt. 1

Tale Of The Tape: It seems pretty safe to say J. Cole doesn’t belong in 2017.

First thing’s first: that’s not throwing shade. Take a second to look at the total package though: the bland attire, the lack of features, the slow but thoughtful self-produced tunes, the general disassociation with Jay Z, the general disassociation with contemporaries like Drake, the disassociation of pretty much all other artists, the diss records that aren’t exactly diss records, the social consciousness, the inability to play an increasing amount of his music in the club, the car or during a workout…all of it reeks of some time that’s not now. But that doesn’t necessarily make his music less pleasing. Still, when you talk to people it would appear Cole’s likability is teetering amongst fans, even if this notion is only fueled by a vocal minority.

How exactly does a popular social media position pick up steam? Like the old adage about stereotypes, it probably starts with at least a kernel of truth. For all of the individuality social media ostensibly presents — a fact frequently trumpeted by its users — in matters of narrative, social media is a highly insulated environment, so long as you’re on the “right” side.

The truth of the matter is, we don’t like things we can’t compartmentalize. These days, the “Guide” button on the remote color-coordinates our TV shows. We have different social media platforms specifically designed for those who wish to be social in different ways (pictures, video, text, news, work, dating etc.). In hip-hop, old heads have adjusted enough to the new wave of rapping to begrudgingly give it a seat at the table, while slapping it with pejorative labels like “mumble rap” and “trap rap”, even if the shoe doesn’t always fit.

Sidebar: Seriously, google “trap rappers” and watch names like Drake, Nicki & Future populate.

But at least the younger generation has part of the court on which they can run. J. Cole is supposed to be carrying the torch for the slightly older crowd. We all thought we had a beat on Cole when he was under Jay’s wing. He was lyrical enough, charismatic enough, appealing to women enough and intelligent enough to serve as an antiquate apprentice for Shawn Carter. This too felt like a void Jay yearned to fill. For all his accomplishments, he failed to ever clone the younger version of himself he rapped to on “Coming Of Age”. Bleek is still one hit away. Beans never fully made the transition from the street to the fame. His baby brother appears to be a prisoner of his own genius (or something). And Hov failed to ever fully cultivate a relationship with an emcee he didn’t already have direct business ties (e.g., Drake).

What we didn’t count on was Cole’s individuality blossoming the way it has. We don’t like things we can’t compartmentalize; J. Cole is now label-less, and his latest work 4 Your Eyez Only is the greatest reflection of this. Woke, but not a backpacker. Popular, but not Top 40. Some gun talk, but not a gangsta rapper. And just when you think he’d come with a more traditional project coming off of the fairly subdued 2014 Forest Hills Drive, Cole hits us with a 44 minute album, large portions of which may best serve as a nice audio backdrop for a yoga session.

This is the part of Cole that doesn’t sit well with people. The need for him to have such a hands-on approach to production seems to leave some fans yearning for a greater variety of sound. How are you supposed to “stay woke” when you’re steady putting people to sleep? The flip side though lies in the purpose behind 4 Your Eyez Only, as we learn “Your” is in reference to Cole’s friend “James‘”daughter. With James being a casualty of the dope game at age 22, Cole play this “tape” for his homie’s child, setting the stage for what turns into a largely biographical project.

Would it be appropriate to have five uptempo club bangers on an album like this? Probably not, which is a fact some listeners either haven’t fully absorbed, or refuse to acknowledge.

4 Your Eyez Only starts with yet another notable melodic Jermaine intro entitled, “For Whom The Bell Tolls“. The record, which underscores pain, loss, confusion and even suicide, could be interpreted as Cole struggling to come to grips with his boy’s murder; although it could’ve been written from his boy’s perspective, as he struggled with the harsh realities of life in the “trap”.

As Cole continues to regale his fans with Fayetteville stories, we see him miss the mark on a few records, particularly “She’s Mine, Pt. 1”, which sounds like the poster child for rappers going overboard with singing on their own records, and “Immortal” which is good enough lyrically, but is sorely lacking production-wise. The second half of 4 Your Eyez Only is undoubtedly better than the first, as the LP progresses into its most uptempo portion, which isn’t saying much.

While Cole appears to struggle to locate depth at certain times, “Changes” is riddled with jewels such as, “I know you desperate for a change, let the pen glide/But the only real change comes from inside” and, “Life is all about the evolution….You can dream but don’t neglect the execution”. Cole followed that up with “Neighbors”, the only whip-friendly record to be found.

The bread and butter of 4 Your Eyez Only is its title track, which closes out the LP over the course of 8:50. On the first three verses, Cole raps about choosing the street life and the subsequent difficulties faced from James’ perspective to his daughter, while rhyming from his own perspective to the same little girl on the final stanza. In essence, this is Cole playing the Christopher Walken role in Pulp Fiction, passing down tales of their fallen soldier parent.

This album is the gold watch.

Fight Night: Winner by split decision

While J. Cole’s fourth solo album went gold and is again well on its way to going platinum with no features — an accomplishment of 2014 Forest Hills Drive frequently touted by his supporters — 4YEO still leaves a bitter taste of disappointment. Not because it isn’t good, but more should be expected from an artist of Cole’s caliber.

4YEO took on the feel of a side project— almost like a personal favor, rather than something that should be classified along with Cole’s past works. In order for it to fall in line with Forest Hills Drive, Born Sinner and his debut Cole World: The Sideline Story, Cole would’ve needed to include records like “High For Hours“, or “Everybody Dies” and “False Prophets”, songs that didn’t make the album, but did all the heavy lifting as far as generating buzz for the project. For this reason, 4 Your Eyez Only gives off a bait and switch vibe.

As the merits of J. Cole’s ability continues to be debated, the rap community at large remains supportive of him (each of his solo albums have hit #1), even if he may slowly be drifting away from what many of us, including Shawn Carter, envisioned. Nothing on this record was particularity special; nothing was particularly terrible. You could argue this is the worst lane to be in, but Cole is finding his voice as a creator. He refuses to succumb to any punditry suggesting he ought to conform to what others believe he should be.