Musicians don’t get to choose their legacies, only how to live in them after they’ve already been built. I don’t think anyone has ever been able to choose a legacy, but especially not young artists, and certainly not now. The internet has changed not only the impact an artist makes, but how quickly that artist has to become one thing before they get branded another unshakable thing. There are a multitude of popular memes about what J. Cole is or isn’t, memes that posit the legion of true believers against his dissenters. Like many of his peers in the upper echelon of hip-hop, perhaps the real issue for J. Cole is that his ceiling feels predetermined, and his fan base doesn’t seem too interested in pushing him beyond it.
This is not a particularly new concern, as J. Cole has long been burdened by high, early-career expectations. His greatest flaw — one that has echoed down December’s early days as videos and tracks from his fourth studio album, 4 Your Eyez Only, have circulated — is that he’s average. I am of the belief that a lot of rappers are average. Some are below average, but still entertaining. And a small handful are truly great — as technicians, writers, MCs. The goalposts have shifted, especially in recent years, and the result is that to the passionate fan, “average” is now somehow the direct opposite of “good” or “great.” Cole’s brand of average presents itself in the traditional way: a great song nestled next to one that is not. There’s a perceived need to crown young MCs as the next in a long line of great artists, without a clear vision of whether they are actually worthy of this imagined throne. When we create endless space in our minds for great men, it’s nothing to strip the gold from the one we’ve placed it on, and just pull another artist from the masses who might live up to our expectations sooner, less painfully.
It is perhaps funny that I’ve gone this long without discussing the 10-track 4 Your Eyez Only in any depth. It’s a J. Cole album, and, as such, it is entirely polarizing, without any clear middle ground. The work has already been done — before it arrived, the positions had been staked. The internet flooded with jokes and memes on one end; on another, hyperbole about Cole’s depth and forward-thinking approach. A victim in all of this is actual criticism of Cole that is both critical and balanced with praise. He’s a strong MC with some quality technical skill. He has a good ear and finds himself comfortable on almost any beat. He has a way of connecting emotionally that is not as grating as some of his peers. He can’t sing, but it’s in a way that can make you feel good. He can’t sing in the same way I can’t sing, but that doesn’t stop us from trying while people watch. Yet the thing that Cole can’t seem to shake is that so many of us believe that he should somehow be better.
Cole has largely been the same rapper since 2013’s Born Sinner, his sophomore album. More specifically, he hasn’t shown significant growth as a thinker, or in the ways that he executes his thoughts — thoughts which, truly, are often more complex than some of his peers’. He is a stubborn creator, one who doesn’t bow to the times. In a year when Donald Glover ditched rap almost altogether to create a risky, funk-driven album, and Chance the Rapper found a way to make the church work for the secular, Cole chose to make ... another J. Cole album. The lack of urgency on 4 Your Eyez Only can be disappointing. There are high moments — Cole maintains a single thread throughout all of the tracks about growth, loss, and love. “For Whom the Bell Tolls” is a brilliant intro, horns and strings dancing around his angst-driven shouting which, toward the end, bleeds into singing.
The second verse of “Immortal” is Cole at his best, both questioning and boastful. He wrestles with his fame, his confidence, his humility, and his fear in ways that feel touchable and honest. “Fuck the fame and the fortune — well, maybe not the fortune / But one thing is for sure, though, the fame is exhausting,” from the song “Neighbors,” feels like the best example of this — he's lamenting not the riches, but what he has to do to maintain them. For all of the talk, though, about Cole finding his voice as a rap activist, he still sounds like he’s tripping over his own feet when laying out positions of risk. He has the vision of a preacher, but the confidence of someone in the back row of the choir. I am, more than anything, very much in support of J. Cole bringing masculinity, police brutality, and mass incarceration to the table. I just want him to figure out how to do it in a way that creates enough room for discourse, not a rebuke that occasionally looks down on the people he’s aiming to uplift.
Somewhere along the way, it was decided that J. Cole was going to be his generation’s most important rapper, and he decided instead to be sometimes good. The punch line is that we want our artists to evolve faster than we can evolve our own approach to the art they create. The punch line is that J. Cole is somehow more marketable if half of the people paying attention are figuring out jokes to attach to him, and the other half are figuring out ways to put their bodies between his career and the jokes. 4 Your Eyez Only is going to sell a lot of copies, but it is not The Great J. Cole Album. Still, at 31, Cole certainly has the tools and the time to make The Great J. Cole Album. And the punch line is that when it finally comes, the people who have been laughing will still be laughing, so loud that they might miss it.