4 Your Soul Conceptually: J.Cole’s Thesis On Millennial Black Consciousness

“And I looked into your eyes and knew that you were a queen. Black skin, black hair, the blackest of beauty I had ever seen. Your cries were as melody and the music pierced to the very core of my soul. Simply the thought of parting with this warm bundle of preciousness left the fringes of my heart cold. Not only was your birth the proof of continued lineage, but also a renaissance of faith anew. For now the hope of a brighter future rests in the love that I have for you”


HHip Hop is very important to me. It is the musical genre that has most influenced, inspired, angered, saddened, and astounded me in all of its glory. I am extremely passionate about concepts or notions that make me think. Hip Hop is packed to the brim with poets and soothsayers whose lyrics make me think by introducing me to worlds within worlds. Nas spellbinds me with his portrait of the grimy and relentlessly bleak Queensbridge Housing Project, Common weaves a narrative about early life in the Windy City, Jay-Z gives you a peek into the mindset that molds a millionaire. Craftsmanship goes hand in hand with emotion when it comes to Hip Hop. The talent of taking one’s own personal story and formatting it to relate to various cultures and continents is the most impressive skill of an MC. Black men and women have spun pain, racial injustice, cultural PTSD, and rage into golden nuggets of comedy, wisdom, and salvation. It is in this spirit that I review the recent efforts of Jermaine Cole. I can’t help but smile at my own surprise of how Hip Hop continues to enchant me with its ability to relate directly to my personal thoughts and feelings.

J. Cole might be the most perplexing MC of Hip Hop’s new generation. While Drake has soared to Pop superstardom and TDE’s wunderkind Kendrick Lamar has laid claim to being our generation’s Poet Laureate, J. Cole has appeared outside of the circle in recent years. In 2011, after a series of well crafted mixtapes (including the classic “Friday Night Lights”), Jay-Z’s almost-but-not-really protege dropped his debut studio album, Cole World: Sideline Story. An album that suffered from the terribly shortsighted and old-fashioned notion that new MC’s simply HAVE to have the required “radio friendly” singles on their projects to keep a buzz. Although the project reached the top of the charts, mostly off of the goodwill of the fanbase Cole had painstakingly built off of touring and the aforementioned mixtapes, it was a mixed bag. After that, Cole would pop up every two years with a newer, ever-improving project, and then disappear from the limelight, comfortable to tour and help build the roster of his Dreamville imprint. In this period of time the stigma of “boring” seemed to follow him. He seemed to fall into a sort of “working man’s lyricist” category, serviceable but unspectacular. However, what people seem to forget is that the ordinary “working man” makes up the majority of our populace, and J. Cole’s secret sauce is tapping into that market of the ordinary (i.e., the relatable), and drenching it in sincerity. Peep the opening intro:

I’m searching and praying and hoping for something
I know I’m gon’ see it, I know that it’s coming
Lord, Lord—
But what do you do when there’s no place to turn?
I have no one, I’m lonely, my bridges have burnt down
Lord, Lord—
The bells getting loud, ain’t nowhere to hide
Got nowhere to go, put away my pride
Tired of feeling low even when I’m high
Ain’t no way to live, do I wanna die?
I don’t know, I don’t know
Bells getting loud, ain’t nowhere to hide
Got nowhere to go, put away my pride
Tired of feeling low even when I’m high
Ain’t no way to live, do I wanna die?
I don’t know, I don’t know

On paper, these aren’t outstanding lyrics, they are merely a means to convey uncertainty. However, hearing Cole’s voice screech hopelessly against the production really brings home the utter depression that is the reality of black male consciousness. In a time where it has come to the forefront that black men are subject to a year round hunting season, there honestly isn’t much to be happy about. Black men exist in a vacuum of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’, and everything about our sense of self has been taken and made evil, ugly, and worthless. Cole taps into these emotions with raw and uncomfortable honesty. Not only that, Cole has structured the narrative in the manner of a concept album, chronicling the evolution of a young black man’s life, times, and death through a letter to his newborn daughter. Concept albums are nothing new in Hip Hop, but most rap concept albums see the MC taking on an almost superhuman persona, which allows them to either escape or master the ills of their environment. Here J. Cole allows the listener to deep dive into every joy and disaster of his character’s maturation. From his predatory lust for an already-claimed woman at the club, to falling so completely and utterly in love with her that perhaps for the first time, his heart truly knows bliss. One of the standout tracks, “Foldin Clothes”, is a perfect example of the burgeoning awakening of black love.

If I can make life easier, the way you do mine
Save you some time, alleviate a bit of stress from your mind
Help you relax, let you recline babe
Then I should do it, cause Heaven only knows
How much you have done that for me
Now I see it’s the simple things
It’s the simple things, it’s the simple things
Now say, “I love you”, it’s the simple things
It’s the simple things, it’s the simple things

Niggas from the hood is the best actors
We the ones that got to wear our face backwards
Put your frown on before they think you soft
Never smile long or take your defense off
Acting tough so much we start to feel hard
Live from the city where they pull cards
I got a Glock 40 and a little nine
Ready for the day a nigga pull mine
Niggas from the hood is the best actors
Gotta learn to speak in ways that’s unnatural
Just to make it through the job interviews
If my niggas heard me, they’d say “Damn what’s gotten into you?”
Just trying to make it dog, somehow
Peaking through the blinds, I see the sun now
I see you’re still sleeping and it feels like
Maybe everything is gon’ be alright

Coming from anybody else’s pen, “Foldin Clothes” might be the corniest song of all time, but Cole’s infectious delivery makes it one of the more enjoyable love songs of the year. There is so much soul and candor in it that every husband can instantly relate to the desire to simply make a good black woman feel appreciated.

The album culminates strongly with what is unarguably the shining gem of J. Cole’s discography. The title track, 4 Your Eyez Only, is a channeling of the very best of Nas, 2pac, Common, and Ghostface. J. Cole clocks in an almost nine minute performance that is as devastating as it is enrapturing. It is a blistering portrait of what it means to be black and forlorn in America, where the reality of bringing children into the world is the only creation with which pride can be taken. I have personally seen black men state that they want to make babies so that when they die a piece of them will be left behind. To them, death at a young age is a factuality, and who’s to suggest any differently? Trayvon Martin, Philando Castille, Akai Gurley, John Crawford and countless unnamed black men and women were committing no crimes when they were murdered like rabid dogs for nothing other than having the wrong skin color on any given day of the week, leaving only their family and children to mourn and remember them, the justice system uncaring and the world at large remaining willfully ignorant. We die leaving this burden on our children to make a better tomorrow within the hell we have placed them in, without guidance or direction, and our only hope is that somehow and in some manner, they become the roses that grow from concrete.

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 shit
But that shit was in my blood, you know my life
I know your Momma nigga, 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, “Nigga what you talking ’bout? Fuck 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 is 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 nigga, not ‘cuz he was cold
Not because he was the first to get some pussy 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 nigga, not ‘cos he was hard
Not because he lived a life of crime and sat behind some bars
Not because he screamed fuck the law, although that was true
Your daddy was a real nigga ‘cuz he loved you”
For your eyes only

This album, along with To Pimp A Butterfly from last year, will serve as a time capsule for a people at a crossroads. There is an undeniable anguish in what it means to be black in America, and J. Cole has tapped into the very heart of what that feels like. Along with pride and awe, I often find myself feeling guilty that I allowed myself to bring a child into a society which severely undermines the value of Black lives. The very fact that we have to make such grandiose statements as, “Black Lives Matter” and defend it so vigorously, is proof enough that having children could be considered downright irresponsible. This is a very real and raw dialogue taking place among the black millennial generation, we must constantly reaffirm the worth of our own existence. J. Cole breaks this down and presents it to us in a way that shines a sliver of light amidst the darkness.

It is through our children that the best of us will be recognized. We live, love, suffer, and sacrifice so that the next generation can honor us with their excellence. And answers will not be found in mere self reflection, but in the realization that we matter to our brothers, sisters, friends, and the young ones who carry on our names.

By Alonge Hawes

Alonge Hawes is a writer from Stone Mountain, GA and the creator of the Blue Collar Hustle web series. in his spare time he enjoys studying African American history and obsessively deciphering the lyrics of Nas, Kendrick Lamar, and Common.