I’m writing this a few hours after Kanye West visited Trump Tower for a 15-minute meeting and quick photo-op with President-Elect Donald Trump. West says that he wanted to “discuss multicultural issues” with Trump and that it would be a good idea to keep an open line with the President if we want to have positive things done in this country in the next four-to-eight years. In most situations, this might be true. In the case of Trump — a man whose only real conviction, as far as I can tell, is that all our institutions that work toward equality need to be destroyed — it seems, at best, perilously out-of-touch and naïve. At worst, it seems like a craven plea for attention from a man who really doesn’t need any more of it right now. Last week, in this space, I attacked J. Cole for going after West on his song “False Prophets,” albeit without actually saying West’s name. West, I reasoned, was going through difficult times, and nothing good was going to come from this fake-humble acolyte trying to start shit, calling West out for crawling up his own ass, losing his voice to his ego and his yes-men. But maybe Cole was right.
In any case, “False Prophets” was a misdirect, a shit-talking conversation-starter that kicked up dust around the release of Cole’s new album, 4 Your Eyez Only, without actually appearing on the album. The album is not some big, grandstanding thesis statement about the state of rap music today. That’s a good thing. Plenty of rappers in Cole’s position would probably be trying to do something like that, and plenty of Cole’s fans would probably love it if he did. Instead, Cole, now as ever, seems consumed with telling smaller stories, with sentiment and transmitting relatability. (In that way, he’s more like a Nashville country star than a rap star. Even when he’s rapping about himself, his songs generally aren’t about him. And when Cole tries to hold himself up as a paragon of virtue, as on “False Prophets,” it comes off awkward and forced.)
In a lot of ways, 4 Your Eyez Only comes off as a standard J. Cole album. There are good things about that. Cole is a nimble rapper and a warm, intuitive producer. He and his collaborators have built 4 Your Eyez Only out of organic live-in-studio sounds, strings and organs and pianos and guitars. He sings a lot, and his music never sounds anything less than pleasant, albeit in some fairly indistinct and unchallenging ways. This time around, he’s reined in his own indulgences, cutting the album short at 10 tracks and 45 minutes. He doesn’t invite any guest-rappers, which clearly has something to do with all the attention generated by the whole “platinum with no features” meme. But this is a conversational and personal work, and there’s really no room for other voices. It’d ruin the effect. So Cole knows what he’s doing.
Except when he doesn’t. Sadly, Cole remains a doofy and inelegant writer. When he’s trying to come up with a love song, he’ll start things off with a clanger like this: “Every time you go to sleep you look like you in heaven / Plus the head game is stronger than a few Excedrin.” And to make things worse, he follows that up with this: “You shine like the patent leather on my new 11s / You read me like a book like I’m the bible, you the reverend,” delivering the lines with indoor-voice sincerity like there’s something swooningly romantic about comparing a woman to sneakers and clergy. He rhymes “pawn it” with “sonnet,” for fuck’s sake. While he never makes it the point of any of the album’s tracks, Cole will throw in morally righteous little lines that suggest that other rappers are at least partly to blame for the downfall of society: “My views misshaped by new mixtapes.” There’s a song here that attempts to convey a feeling of domestic bliss, and it’s all about motherfucking folding laundry. It’s stupid. And even at a relatively compact 45 minutes, Cole’s production style and the monotony of his voice can make even a considered and well-produced album feel like a slog. This thing doesn’t exactly crackle with inventiveness or swagger or life.
Still, 4 Your Eyez Only is an album made with deep sincerity, from a place of empathy. For much of the album, he’s rapping from the point of view of a friend who didn’t escape the poor and dangerous small town where they both grew up. It’s a bit confusing at first; Cole is rapping about selling drugs and feeling trapped even though that stuff just isn’t a part of his narrative. But by the end of the album — when Cole is attempting to embody his friend’s voice and talking to his friend’s now-fatherless daughter, trying to tell the poor kid all the good things about a man she’ll never get to know — it becomes powerfully moving. There’s something manipulative about that, of course, just as there’s something manipulative about country singers singing about watching kids growing older or about friends who died in wars. But a country song like that, when it’s done well and when I hear it in the right mood, can just destroy me. And the album-ending 4 Your Eyez Only title track can just destroy me, too.
So Cole deserves credit for being the rare A-list rapper who’s happy to rap, convincingly, from someone else’s perspective. And when he’s rapping from his own perspective, he can be convincing, too. The most incisive song on the album is “Neighbors,” about cops raiding Cole’s house because his rich white neighbors assume he’s a dope dealer: “Some things you can’t escape: death, taxes, and a racist society / That make every nigga feel like a candidate for a Trayvon kinda fate / Even when your crib sit on a lake / Even when your plaques hang on a wall / Even when the president jam your tape.” And on “She’s Mine, Pt. 2,” Cole is rapping about his friend’s fatherhood, but also about his own — something he hadn’t announced to his fans before releasing the song. On that song, he raps with humor and tenderness about changing diapers, about hoping your kid doesn’t piss on you while the diaper is off, and about saving up all the getting-pissed-on stories to embarrass your kid when she’s older. As a person with kids, I’m an easy mark for this kind of thing. (I wish he hadn’t strung the baby-crying sound effect all through the song, though. It’s like that Max Payne dream-sequence level that I never got past.)
In any case, Cole might be a clumsy writer, but he isn’t the clumsiest writer in rap. He isn’t even the clumsiest rapper who gets touted by puritanical real-rap types and who released an album on Friday. That honor would go to Ab-Soul, who has never sounded any stupider than he does on his new record Do What Thou Wilt. Ab-Soul has a cooler voice than Cole, and edgier production, and connections to some of the best people working in rap. He appears on songs with peers like Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q and Danny Brown. We should like him. And yet he persists in saying some of the dumbest shit I’ve ever heard. Some of the time, he’s just torturing his analogies: “I’m low-key like a locksmith working on both knees,” “Way too wavy for your sandcastle.” Sometimes, he’s just letting loose with absolutely meaningless third-eye gobbledygook: “I used to shop at Lids / But I’m still over niggas’ heads / Like ceilings and bright ideas,” “The chicken came before the egg is my hypothesis, and / This ain’t a album, it’a a algorithm.” And sometimes, he’s just selling us toxic bullshit, stuff that’s actively bad for the world: “With all disrespect, I think the American flag was designed by fags.”
So: We’re living in a world where a dickhead like that is running around and presenting himself as some kind of prophet, and a world where a great rap mind like Kanye West is making nice with the most terrifying American political force of my lifetime. Cole has problems, and they’re problems that he doesn’t exactly fix on his new album. But a guy making well-meaning, empathetic, middle-of-the-road raps and getting way too popular while doing it? Suddenly, that doesn’t seem like such an urgent issue. Cole can keep doing what he’s doing. It’s fine.
1. Dae Dae – “Spend It (Remix)” (Feat. Young Thug & Young M.A)
2017 is a scary thing to contemplate, but it brings the welcome prospect of more songs that feature verses from both Young Thug and Young M.A, rap’s two great destroyers of gender orthodoxy. And on this track, M.A proves that, while she might be a quintessentially New York voice, she can still sound right at home on a dazed Atlanta banger like this one. That is an important skill.
2. YG – “Trill” (Feat. Lil Wayne)
YG is simply incapable of making a song that does not absolutely bang. At this point, it’s practically a superpower. This one bangs extra-hard, and it also has Wayne rapping about getting head from a guard in prison, so that’s a bonus.
3. Gucci Mane – “Stutter”
Hearing Gucci over one of those cheap, dinky, naggingly melodic synth-beats is the sort of thing where you might not realize how much you missed it until you hear him do it again. It’s been great to hear him ascend to respectability, but it’s even better to hear him talking dirty over a beat like this, the sort of track that used to make people hate Gucci before he aged into acclaim.
4. The Lox – “Secure The Bag” (Feat. Gucci Mane)
A song from crusty old New York die-hards, but with a bellowed DJ Khaled intro and a Gucci Mane verse? Must be 2016! But credit the Lox with making sure that it still sounds like a Timberland boot caving in your ribcage.
5. Murda Beatz – “Yacht Master” (Feat. Swae Lee & 2 Chainz)
Swae Lee deserves some kind of award for using the phrase “holy moly” multiple times on a rap song and making it sound halfway cool.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
OMG MY BROTHER IS SUCH AN ASS. HE PHOTOSHOPPED A PIC OF ME WITH CHIEF KEEF & SENT OUT THESE CHRISTMAS CARDS😭😭 pic.twitter.com/Aac4SF8qY8
— morgan✨ (@MorganSvobodny) December 8, 2016