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The student news site of Bellaire High School

Three Penny Press

The student news site of Bellaire High School

Three Penny Press

A review of ‘for your eyez only’ by J. Cole

Graphic by Johanna Wen
Released in December 2016, J. Cole’s ‘4 Your Eyez Only’ narrates the life of a friend, using the alias James to protect his identity. While not reaching the commercial success of his previous album ‘2014 Forest Hill Drive,’ the compelling narrative in ‘4 Your Eyez Only’ makes it J. Cole’s most impactful work.

Raw. Real. Relevant.

J. Cole’s ‘4 Your Eyez Only’ isn’t just an album. It depicts the challenges of growing up in a harsh environment. The album is dedicated to sharing the story of J. Cole’s friend James McMillan Jr., a former drug dealer who tried to turn his life around after becoming a father. Tragically, James lost his life at the age of 22. The album is an exploration of James’ journey, his struggles and the complexities he faced in attempting to change his life.

“For Whom the Bell Tolls: 4/5”
J. Cole’s album kicks off with a smooth, jazzy vibe, laying the groundwork for a captivating story. The opening track introduces us to James, stuck in a world where crime seems like the only way out. It’s one of my favorites, largely due to the simplicity and seamless flow of the track.

The lyrics delve into James’ internal struggle—feeling trapped and questioning life. This part of the song also captures the urgency he feels:

“Bells getting loud, ain’t nowhere to hide
Got nowhere to go, put away my pride.”

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The lines “Tired of feeling low even when I’m high, Ain’t no way to live, do I wanna die?” express the emotional rollercoaster he’s on. Never truly knowing where he is going with life, James is forced to partake in a lifestyle that he doesn’t want but is pushed on him.

This sentiment echoes in the last track, “Eyez,” where Cole revisits a moment when his friend talks about premonitions and the feeling of borrowed time:

“I’ve been having premonitions
Just call it visions from the other side
I got a feeling I won’t see tomorrow
Like the time I’m living on is borrowed.”

These recurring themes turn the album into a deep story. Cole crafts the album into more than just music—it’s a thought-provoking narrative that lingers in your mind.

“Neighbors: ” 4.5/5
The song starts off with trap beats, departing from the jazzy vibe of the album. However, it seamlessly aligns with the chill rapping style consistent across the tracks. Inspired by a real-life police raid on Cole’s home, the song serves as a parallel to James falling into the systemic trap. The initial arrogance disappears after his arrest, leaving him humbled and empty.

Cole’s fear of law enforcement, fueled by rampant cases of police brutality against African Americans, generates paranoia, hindering his ability to find peace in his own home. The song crafts an image of two extremes of black people, stripping away their humanity and normalcy. This duality prompts neighbors to perceive Cole solely through the lens of these extremes—either a criminal or a rapper—neglecting the reality of him being their neighbor. Consequently, they resort to calling the police on an innocent black man.

“Black in a white man territory,
Cops bust in with the army guns,
No evidence of the harm we done,
Just a couple neighbors that assume we slang,
Only time they see us we be on the news, in chains, damn.”

While this track may appear somewhat detached from James’s life story, it significantly contributes to the album’s overarching theme of addressing systemic injustice and persistent police brutality in the black community.

“Deja Vu:” 3/5
This song explores the theme of love at first sight, acting as a bridge to the subsequent “ville mentality.” While not the central narrative, it captures James finding a girl he believes is the love of his dreams, only to discover she’s already taken. As he grapples with her lack of interest, James eventually realizes that he’s better off without her. The lyrics hint at the girl’s preference for guys with a “ville mentality,” suggesting limited perspectives. While it does not stand out compared to others, it serves as a precursor to James’s love story, paving the way for the next “She’s Mine Pt. 1” song.

“She’s Mine Pt. 1:” 4/5
The production of this song is simply beautiful. The violin blends seamlessly with the laid-back rapping and beats, making it my second favorite on the entire album. The theme of falling in love is presented in the lyrics with grace. The focus on affection is a striking contrast to the overall somber tone. It is a refreshing departure from the rest of the album filled with introspective narratives on societal struggles and personal challenges. The infusion of themes around love like “She’s Mine Pt. 1” and “Foldin Clothes” introduces a sense of warmth and humanity. This shift in tone feels like a breath of fresh air, allowing listeners to momentarily step away from the heavy themes and connect with the more intimate aspects of James’ life. It also adds a layer of complexity to the storytelling, making the album more relatable. After the contemplation of suicide in the opener, “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” Cole discovers a renewed purpose in “She’s Mine Pt 1.” The lyrics vividly express the profound impact of love:

“I’ve fallen in love for the first time,
I wanna cry and I ain’t even tryna fight it
Don’t wanna die (I don’t wanna die no more)
Cause now you’re here.”

The narrative takes a positive turn as James, mirroring Cole’s experiences, fulfills what he sees as his destiny—a loving relationship. “She’s Mine Pt. 1” paints a picture of joy and commitment, capturing the profound impact of love on James’s life. Cole’s lyrics and soothing melodies create a stark yet beautiful contrast to the struggles presented earlier in the album.

“Ville Mentality:” 5/5
This song feels like a conversation—James questioning if he can continue a criminal life now that he has someone he deeply loves. He desires a long life with her, understanding it’s incompatible with crime.

The recurring voice of a young girl in the background paints a vivid picture of the consequences of a street lifestyle—a single mother burdened with stress and a child growing up without her dad. This insight reflects Cole’s own mentality, shaped by growing up without his father. The voice belongs to a schoolgirl from Cole’s hometown, mirroring the situation of Nina, James’s daughter mentioned in the album’s last song, “4 Your Eyez Only.”

James attempts to fill a void by succumbing to the system’s trap but finds redemption in love. The interplay of these narratives creates a powerful portrayal of personal struggles and the generational impact of absent fathers, giving depth to the album’s storytelling.

“Foldin’ Clothes:” 3/5
While this song may not stand out as much and doesn’t contribute significantly to the overarching theme of the album—centered around the struggles of self-change in a challenging environment—it serves as a refreshing break from the more serious tracks. “Foldin Clothes” doesn’t carry profound depth; instead, it captures James’s minimalist aspirations—a life filled with spending nights on the couch, watching TV with the girl he loves. It introduces a moment of simplicity, offering a light-hearted contrast to the heavier themes explored throughout the album.

“She’s Mine Pt. 2” 5/5
Another serene and beautiful song from the album, characterized by tranquil and harmonious singing, this track provides a comforting experience. It continues James’ journey after the birth of his child, Nina, delving into the unconditional fatherly love he feels. His heart brims with affection, experiencing a level of love he had never felt before. The initial hopelessness depicted in “For Whom the Bells Toll” and “Ville Mentality” is completely changed. James now has something to live for, a desire to witness his daughter’s growth, to grow old with his partner. He has found something worth holding on to and cherishing, steering away from the world of crime and discovering the purpose of life.

“Change:” 5/5
This is truly the best track of the entire album, and has been on repeat on my playlist since I discovered it. The chill trap beats coupled with the impactful lyrics create a perfect combination. James, having experienced the potency of change, takes on the role of a messenger, spreading the word that change can happen within the black community.

“I know you desperate for a change, let the pen glide
But the only real change come from inside.”

Cole challenges the common perception that change must come from external sources, emphasizing that actual transformation begins within oneself. While external forces contribute to the suppression of the black community, Cole acknowledges the existence of internal issues that need to be addressed first.

The lyrics delve into the challenges faced by those trapped in a cycle of crime, incarceration and addiction. Cole reflects on the harsh realities of his friends ending up in federal facilities, drawing parallels to birds trapped in cages, unable to fly freely.

The narrative takes a tragic turn as James becomes entangled in the crossfire, succumbing to the very violence he sought to change. Cole addresses themes of sacrifice and the desensitization to the deaths of black men in society.

The outro reflects the aftermath of James’s untimely death, juxtaposing the emotional outpouring from those close to him with the recurring cycle of violence within the broader black community. Despite the grief and calls for vengeance, the deeper issues still persist, with the speakers at the vigil offering no concrete solutions. Cole captures the dual nature of the response to James’s death—intensely personal yet emblematic of the larger systemic challenges faced by the black community. The outro reminds us of the perpetual cycle of violence and the need for meaningful change within the black community.

“Immortal:” 4/5
This heartfelt eulogy follows the conclusion of “Change,” with Cole remembering James. The emotional depth of the song comes more apparent after learning about James’s fate.

James’ perspective, expressed in the lyrics, suggests a misguided belief that the nature of hustling and violence grants a form of immortality. This song becomes a crucial tool for Cole, allowing him to later contrast this viewpoint with his own reflections on James’s life. The final track of the album sees Cole rejecting James’s interpretation of a “real man,” proposing, from his evolved perspective, that James’ commitment as a father is what truly defines him as a “real man”—a perspective that transcends the hustle culture and truly grants a form of immortality.

“4 Your Eyez Only:” 5/5
This album’s conclusion starts with the melodic interplay of a saxophone and tranquil beats, serving as the backdrop for James’s life story as narrated to Nina by Cole. Even though James is no longer physically present, there’s a glimmer of hope that his spirit could endure in some form, allowing him to witness his daughter’s growth if a higher power exists.

James empathizes with the experience of being fatherless, as his own father fell victim to bullets and drugs. This understanding of the conflicting emotions surrounding the loss of a father resonates with the challenges Nina might face. At 19, after six years of involvement in the drug trade, James recognizes the systemic barriers set against him, designed to perpetuate the cycle of crime and poverty. The harsh reality of James’ criminal past raises concerns about his daughter growing up without a father figure, mirroring his own upbringing. The consequences of James’ choices have deadly repercussions, but he wants Nina to grasp the inevitability of the life he led. The narrative reflects on the broader issue of mass incarceration and the cycle of fatherless households in predominantly black communities.

The song concludes with a reminder that, as mentioned in the “Immortality” section, James was “a real man” not because he engaged in the street life plagued with crime but because he knew the value of fatherhood and wanted to change for Nina.

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  • S

    Summer Phenix🌻Feb 15, 2024 at 6:09 pm

    This review is amazing and hits what this album is truly about. I love J. Cole because of this album, so I love your opinion on this. The artwork is so beautiful. Y’all are extremely talented. 10/10

  • M

    MadduxFeb 15, 2024 at 10:37 am

    I remember the first time I listened to this album I was immersed in Cole’s storytelling and lyricism. J. Cole is one of the greatest in my opinion, and seeing someone else appreciate his artistry was really refreshing. This was all in all a 10/10 read.