by: Liam Bohannon
4 Your Eyez Only is a rap album that was created by the artist J.Cole. Cole is a young black man from Fayetteville, North Carolina who became a very popular artist just a few years ago with the success of his albums Cole World and 2014 Forest Hills Drive. 4 Your Eyez
Only was released on December 9th, 2016, exactly two years after the release of his last album. The album features a variety of musical styles as it holds slow, melodic, jazz-style beats while also containing a few up-tempo, old style beats that reflect the rap of the early nineties. The story of the album follows the narrative of James McMillan Jr, a young black man living in Fayetteville, presumably alongside Cole. In between a few personal intermission songs from Cole, the album retells McMillan’s journey starting from the point where he became a drug dealer. The tale goes on, recounting how McMillan tried to turn his life around upon becoming a father, but reaches a sorrowful end with McMillan being slain in the streets. This narrative serves a microcosm for the life of a black man in today’s society, and speaks to many political issues that occur today.
Historical and Cultural Context
In terms of the context of the piece, the album follows the narrative of James McMillan Jr., as mentioned before. However, it is also important to note the incidents occurring during the time this work was being created. To begin, in the two years leading up to the release of the album there were numerous fatal interactions between unarmed African Americans and police officers. The incidents continuously sparked riots and intense protests, jarring new political conversations across the nation. These unfortunate altercations influenced the album by being the source of some of Cole’s political commentary that can be found within the music. For example, these events forced Cole to express the fear, that many African Americans share, of being gunned down mercilessly by police in his song 4 Your Eyez Only. Cole also notes this feeling in the song Neighbors, when he explains that these shootings make all black people feel as if they are candidates for the same type of fate as Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black male who was killed by a white police officer. As a whole, this aspect of the album really offers an explanation of the theme of the struggle of being a black man in today’s society.
Another important event to note during the making of the album was the SWAT raid of Cole’s mansion. This raid was per request of his white neighbors, and resulted in the invasion of Cole’s home that included a whole SWAT team and accompanying helicopter. Because of Cole’s wealth and the color of his skin, his neighbors had assumed he was a wealthy drug dealer and called law enforcement officials. As a result, Cole exposed the obvious discrimination seen in this
situation in the song Neighbors, while also calling for a change to this pattern of racial bigotry. This helped drive home the theme of the disconnect between white and black people by showing how it affected Cole and how it could affect other African Americans.
The last recent event that is important to note is Cole’s visit with Barack Obama during his presidency in 2016. This meeting was composed of about ten rappers, Cole included, who gathered together to meet with then President Barack Obama to discuss some of the issues that are facing African Americans today. During this event, Cole spent private time with Obama and worked towards creating an organization that would help black youth towards brighter futures. The event as a whole influenced the album by providing evidence to the theme of hope for the future.
In terms of the less recent past, there are a few important things to note in order to attain an adequate grasp of the meaning of the album. Primarily, it is essential to remember the history of African Americans in the United States, focusing most on slavery and discrimination. These parts of history obviously brought about great suffering for African Americans, but it is important to understand that it also created a familial style bond in which black people have a set of shared experiences. The idea of shared experiences means that, in an instance such as the shooting of African Americans mentioned before, they can see themselves as the victim of that same situation. This aspect of history influenced Cole’s work by letting him speak to the familial struggle of black people in today’s world and furthering the discussion of how society must free itself from the ghoulish mindsets left over from the antebellum era.
Themes and Style
Throughout the work, Cole utilizes numerous rhetorical devices in order to give meaning to his music. Because the album consists of only rap, there is a strong presence of poetic rhetorical devices such as alliteration (the occurrence of the same letter or sound at the beginning of adjacent or closely connected words), acatalectic (a type of syllable alignment in poetry), and epanalepsis (a figure of speech in which the beginning of a clause or sentence is repeated at the end of that same clause or sentence, with words intervening). However, it also includes more abstract rhetorical devices like metaphor (a figure of speech that expresses the comparison of two unlike objects), hypophora (a figure of speech in which the speaker poses a question and then answers the question), and erotesis (a rhetorical question implying strong affirmation or denial). In terms of themes, Cole hits on three main themes: the continued disconnect between whites and blacks, the ugly scars that still remain from the antebellum era, and the struggle of being an African American in today’s society. The first he discusses in his song Neighbors by utilizing the experience of the raid on his mansion to reveal a lack of understanding from white people that is shrouding their vision of acceptance. In the song, Cole say that had no evidence of their accusations and they were “just a couple neighbors that assumed we slang”, thereby implying that it was purely a discriminatory action. The second theme Cole talks about is seen in some of his songs such as Immortal in which Cole speaks about the metaphorical chains that are still placed on black Americans. He raps that they are “chained to the bottom, strangest fruit that you ever seen, ripe with pain listen”. This line shows the history of slavery is still weighing down their futures because the chain is symbol of the antebellum era that is still cuffed to African Americans everywhere. The last theme is brought up in songs like 4 Your Eyez Only as Cole describes the life of a black man who’s fate was already doomed by society. He raps that because of societal expectations McMillan can’t “picture [him]self as nothing but a criminal”. This excerpt shows that as an African American, he is subject to the pressure of being what society expects him to be and this weight, along with other fears, is creating a hole no man can dig out of Using these themes, Cole is trying to say that the past of America has created a ghoulish afterlife of racism and discrimination within the country. Looking forward, Cole is hoping for change within the social interactions and mentality of the country with regards to race. He also wants to see change within the political system of the country, looking for new laws and policies to protect the lives of African Americans.
Currently, the interpretations of this work are shaping the way its message is being heard. To begin, Chris Mench in his piece Here’s The Deeper Meaning Behind J. Cole’s New Album 4 Your Eyez Only analyzes the work and digs up this deeper narrative of McMillan. Moreover, he explains that Cole is voicing the difficulties of being a black man in today’s society, from being seen as a criminal by police to being thought of as a futureless drug dealer. This voicing has called out the discriminatory America for its outdated views and mindsets. Also, Ortiz Edwin from Complex Magazine interviews producer Elite to gain more insight on the album. He found that Cole really wanted to create conversation around discrimination towards African Americans. Edwin believes that this is accomplished through the stories in the songs Immortal and Neighbors. In terms of a more general discussion, Yogita Goyal, in her work African Atrocity, American Humanity: Slavery and Its Transnational Afterlives offers interpretation on some of the themes from the album. She goes on to demonstrate that the mindsets of Americans need to become more globally competent to accept all people of this nation. To finish, Victor Kappeler, in his article A Brief History of Slavery and the Origins of American Policing, says that the reactions and discrimination towards African Americans are deeply rooted in the past of Americans and is something Americans must grow from in the future.
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J.Cole, Rap Music, 4 Your Eyez Only, Discrimination, African Americans, Afterlives of Slavery