James Totton - Album Review
Have you ever wanted to like an artist but you felt that there were elements lacking that just keep him or her from reaching their potential? That's the case that I have with J. Cole, Dreamville figurehead and well praised emcee within the mainstream world. I think part of what makes him more appealing to the mainstream audience is that his lyrics are easier to digest compared to Kendrick Lamar, Oddisee, Elzhi, or Open Mike Eagle and his subject matter is relatable to many listeners. But maybe I'm expecting too much from an emcee given the precedent that has been set from those rappers just mentioned because they give far better nuance and complexity in storytelling than he does. Maybe I'm just fed up with the singing coming from him because whoever keeps telling him that we want to hear him sing needs to stop. Anderson .Paak, Childish Gambino, and D.R.A.M. may not be full time rappers but at least they know how to balance rapping and singing and can deliver some smooth vocal chops. And I can't believe I'm giving this guy credit but even Drake can deliver a better vocal delivery than J. Cole whereas his voice unintentionally breaks and cracks. And as many socio-political and socially conscious ideas that he has brings on ‘4 Your Eyez Only’, he's only delving onto the surface of the matter at times. As much as I believe that '2014 Forest Hills Drive' was his best album, those previous issues mentioned were prevalent on that album along with bad framing and moralistic grandstanding. It was what made me consider it a good album and not a great one. And I can already picture someone telling me "But he went double platinum with no features." Good for him and let me emphasize that I liked it but I didn't love it. Also, popularity doesn't always equal quality. But having a clear mind listening to '4 Your Eyez Only' did I get anything worth memorable? Well, conceptually at the most basic level, yes.
On the production end, the pallet consists of jazz instrumentals, Rhodes keyboards, and reversed melodies (in a few tracks), spacey trap drums and percussion which all give breathing room for J. Cole to rap. The concept for this album is about his friend, whose real government name is kept secret for privacy, facing adversity in a violent environment, having little to no hope in his future, finding happiness through his daughter, Nina. For the sake off privacy, his name is James McMillan. The story could have been told a little clearer but what is clear is where J. Cole is telling a story to his deceased friend’s three-year-old daughter, Nina. The final and title track, arguably the best track on the album, is where he tells her why his friend lived the life that he lived, something that could have been explained a little more in some of the other tracks as well. Unfortunately, the concept he was going for isn’t fully developed, there are tracks that shouldn’t be included that take away from the story, and the awful singing is still there. In fact, that’s how the album starts. Putting aside from his singing voice on ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’ I love the horn and string sections and choir. Speaking from the perspective of James, this song is about him feeling helpless and broke with no way out of his reality. On 'Immortal', he (as James) pontificates on the thought of death, decisions, and dope dealing. ‘Déjà vu’ is about him, speaking from the perspective of James (deceased friend of his), catching his attention on a girl that has a boyfriend who is one of his friends. In the first and second verse, it seems like he wants her to be his girl – but by the bridge, he says that he doesn’t know if he can make any promises because he can see bigger dreams. It’s an alright track for the most part. The beat on that track drew some controversy because it’s a beat that sounds a lot like Bryson Tiller’s ‘Exchange’ but the President of Dreamville, Ibrahim Hamad, confirmed that it was originally recorded for ‘2014 Forest Hills Drive’ meaning that it came out before ‘Exchange’. ‘Ville Mentality’ is a grating track because of the singing that sounds more like a seal barking than pleasant vocals to the ears. Putting the singing aside, the message on this song connects to the concept of the album as it is about how he can survive with the type of mentality (broken, beat, and busted). He wants to go to some sort of paradise but doesn’t know how. Given how short the track is and how little there is in lyrics, it sounds more like an interlude.
On ‘Change’, J. Cole comes to grips with the cycle of violence that takes place in black communities. The chorus tells the listener that if you want change then you must start from inside your mind and not rely on the rapper to save you. As much as I can appreciate this sentiment, the last few bars from the first verse are questionable (See I believe if God is real, He'd never judge a man/Because He knows us all and therefore He would understand/The ignorance that make a n***a take his brother life/The bitterness and pain that got him beating on his wife) because there is no justifying a man beating up his wife or a man murdering his brother, unless and only unless it’s done in the name of defense. Later in the song he reveals that James McMillan was murdered which further connects to the concept of the album.
As much as I like ‘Neighbors’, it doesn’t relate to the concept of the album since the song is about a real-life situation of the neighbors in his upper-class neighborhood calling the police on him because they believed that he was selling drugs. He rented a house that he was using for him and his Dreamville music mates to record music at. The neighbors spotted them smoking some weed outside on their porch and felt the need to call the police for them to find that there were no drugs found in the house when they raided it. Thankfully no one was inside the house the whole time the house was being searched and raided.
I loved the gorgeous string section on 'She's Mine Pt. 1' and 'She's Mine Pt 2'. Surprisingly, I can let go of the singing on both tracks because of the touching message that he shares about his wife on ‘Part 1’ and his daughter on ‘Part 2’ but I can’t let go of the beginning his first verse on ‘Part 1’ (Every time you go to sleep you look like you in Heaven/Plus the h**d game is stronger than a few Excedrin). Why would he say that last part about his wife? It’s one thing to say that about a girl he is only having relations, but it’s another thing to say that about his wife and the mother of his own daughter. On ‘Part 2’ (with the same instrumentation as ‘Part 1’) he changes the tone of the song by delivering a touching moment about his newborn daughter but then raps about conspicuous consumption on the holiday season then goes back to the topic of his daughter (Needin' me, wantin' me, givin' me a chance to feel special/To somebody in a world where they not lovin' me/Handcuffs keep huggin' the, wrists of my ni**as/And I wish stuff was different here/But if I had a magic wand to make the evil disappear/That means that there would be no Santa Claus no more/To bring you Christmas cheer/'Cause what he represents is really greed/And the need to purchase shit from corporations/That make a' because they feed/On the wallets of the poor who be knockin' on they door/Every Black Friday just to get some shit they can't afford/Even with the discount, write a check, that s**t bounce/But as long as we got credit, it don't matter, the amount/We just swipin' shit here, we don't love, we just likin' s**t here). Couldn’t he have saved his frustrations with corporate greed for a different track and not the track dedicated to his daughter?
‘Foldin’ Clothes’ talks about him finding ease and stillness at home with his wife watching Netflix and folding clean clothes and away from harsh realities outside. I’m virtually indifferent about the track overall. I love the instrumentation and the back-up vocals but the lyrics can come off underwhelming (not on the third verse though) especially when he rhymes “almond milk” with “almond milk”. It’s one thing to hear Young Thug rhyme a word with the same word but it’s another thing to hear J. Cole do it because I expect better from him. I don’t expect to hear bars from Young Thug, I expect entertainment from him. Meanwhile, I expect bars from J. Cole. On the title and final track, J. Cole speaks from the perspective of James for the first three verses and as himself on the last verse speaking to Nina. As James, he exposed the human condition that he faced living a fast lifestyle selling drugs to feed his family. He also speaks to Nina as if she is grown and listening to him in a video (You're probably grown now so this song'll hit you/If you're hearing this unfortunately means that I'm no longer with you/In the physical, not even sure if I believe in God/But because you still alive/He got me praying that the spiritual is real/So I can be a part of you still, my pops was killed too/So I know how part of you feels/Maybe you hate me, maybe you miss me, maybe you spite me/Life goes in cycles, maybe you'll date a n***a just like me) Him showing his family background tells the listener why he lived a fast lifestyle selling crack. His father was killed early in his childhood and his mother was addicted to drugs so his grandmother raised him but it was in an environment where it was normal to see bloodstains that most likely stemmed from a shooting or stabbing on the concrete. He started selling drugs by the time he was thirteen. Six years later, he picked up two felonies. Around that same time, Nina was born. She hears from both her father and J. Cole, who delivered what I consider his best and most revealing verse on this album that summarizes this concept that I wish would have reflected on some of the other tracks:
One day your daddy called me, told me he had a funny feeling/What he'd been dealing with lately, he wasn't telling/I tried to pick his brains, still he wasn't revealing/But I could feel the sense of panic in his voice and it was chilling/He said "Jermaine, I knew you since we was children I never asked for nothing/When times was hard I never had discussions with you begging you to help me/I dealt with the repercussions of my actions/I know you tried to steer me 'way from that s**t/But that s**t was in my blood, you know my life/I know your Momma n***a, send my love/In case I never get a chance to speak again/I won't forget the weekends spent sleeping at your crib/That's the way I wished my family lived/But my granny crib was in the 'jects/I had to interject like, "N***a what you talking 'bout? F**k is you getting at?"/He said "Listen, I got no time to dive into descriptions/But 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/With that said the only thing I'm proud to say I was a father/Write my story down and if I pass go play it for my daughter when she ready/And so I'm leaving you this record for your eyes only, don't you ever scratch or disrespect it/This perspective is a real one, another lost Ville son/I dedicate these words to you and all the other children/Affected by the mass incarceration in this nation/That sent your pops to prison when he needed education/Sometimes I think this segregation would've done us better/Although I know that means I would never be brought into this world/'cuz my daddy was so thrilled when he found him a white girl to take back to Jonesborough with/'lil Zach and Cole World barely one years old, now it's thirty years later making sure the story's told/Girl your daddy was a real n***a, not 'cuz he was cold/Not because he was the first to get some p***y twelve years old/Not because he used to come through in the Caddy on some vogues/Not because he went from bagging up them grams to serving O's/Nah your daddy was a real n***a, not 'cos he was hard/Not because he lived a life of crime and sat behind some bars/Not because he screamed f**k the law, although that was true/Your daddy was a real n***a 'cuz he loved you"/For your eyes only
Despite my gripes with this album, it is an alright project. But I can’t help but think that he has fallen short on delivering and fleshing out a conceptual album. And this isn’t the first time that this has happened because it also was a problem on ‘Born Sinner’. I can only hope that he has a clear-cut focus if he decides to make another one.
Rating: Flat to a Light 6 out of 10