For J. Cole, black excellence is black normalcy.

Throughout his career, even as he has willed himself to reach higher artistic heights, he’s doggedly tried to remain tethered to the ground, relatability always being his main goal. You can see this tension in the self-deprecating titles of his first two albums, Cole World: The Sideline Story and Born Sinner.

They paint Cole as the everyman who just so happened to be in the spotlight, spitting bars through his crooked smile. On his third album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, he resolved the conflict between these two ambitions by fully embracing both. In the final verse of “Fire Squad” he immolates a crown and declares there will be no more kings in rap, every man an everyman. As he puts it during the outro: “Ain't gonna be no more kings. Be wary of any man that claims, because deep down he clings onto the need for power. The reality, he's a coward.”

That moment feels like a statement of purpose, but it arrives at the album’s midpoint, rather than at the end. As the album progresses, instead of focusing on ending idolship, it shifts into an uneasy space where Cole wonders aloud about how he can be a more active participant in social movements. “Lately, it’s been hard for me to smile,” Cole confesses on “St. Tropez,” alluding to the tragedy and unrest in Ferguson, Missouri after the killing of Michael Brown. You can feel his priorities change, his mission pivoting from being an everyman to being a mouthpiece for political protest.

Cole recorded the quavering “Be Free” within a week of Brown’s death, but wanting to be more involved, days after its release, he flew to Ferguson. While there, actively dodging the press, he moved among the masses, trying to be the everyman his success is founded upon. “When I look at you, I know you go through the same shit I do,” he told a man in a crowd. “Be Free,” which Cole first performed live on the Late Show With David Letterman, didn’t make it onto 2014 Forest Hills Drive, but the doubts and anxieties described in the lyrics informed Cole’s state of mind that year. “I can feel my grip loosening, quick, do something before you lose it for good,” he scolds himself on “Love Yourz,” suddenly less concerned with his own struggles.

Scoffing at nice rides and referring to retaliatory violence as ignorance and poison may seem like well-earned wisdom, but it’s really a failure of empathy.

4 Your Eyez Only is a firm commitment to a larger cause. On this album, he’s mostly rapping “from a perspective that is not J. Cole,” as Dreamville producer Elite puts it. Cole privileges the stories of family, friends, and strangers, lingering on the ubiquity of death in black lives, the new normal. But the viewpoints are rarely stable, the narrator always shifting. On “Immortal” Cole serves fiends, witnesses murders, and mans the corner. On “Ville Mentality” he receives thirsty texts, while on “She’s Mine Pt. 1” he dotes over a much-loved partner. Cole doesn’t attempt to duplicate the quasi-telepathic, leap-frogging storytelling technique of Kendrick Lamar, but this blurred meta-consciousness has a similar effect. Individual pain and grief quickly become collective, the “I” always suggesting a “we.”

The compositions are just as inclusive, featuring lush strings, sputtering trumpet, and dreamy chords sourced from a legion of session musicians. As indicated by the promotional documentary Eyez, Cole is never alone, always backed by some shape-shifting coo, meandering synth, or crying baby. 2014 Forest Hills Drive featured some of the same core instruments, but here they’re less distinct, dispersing into a melancholic fog.  

The title track is a full-on habitation: Cole raps from the viewpoint of a slain friend for 5 solid minutes, addressing the friend’s daughter, who is possibly first introduced on “She’s Mine Pt. 2.” The verse is spookily intimate, equal parts eulogy and final confession. Cole’s empathy has never been more expansive.

The album only falters when Cole’s empathy reveals its limits. Despite leaving off “False Prophets” and “Everybody Dies,” buzz-building tracks that embody the “king-of-rap” ethos that Cole disavowed on “Fire Squad,” a pestering condescension lurks. “Neighbors” is ostensibly about Cole’s inability to escape racism no matter where he lives, but between the restless nights and unsolicited cop visits, Cole squeezes in an odd humblebrag: “In the driveway there’s no rapper cars/Just some shit to get from back and forth.” Elsewhere, on “Change,” a song that’s allegedly about evolving, he conservatively raps, “Bloodshed done turned to the city to a battlefield/I call it poison, you call it real.” Likewise, “Change” also features this chin-grabber: “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 nigga take his brother life.” Cole’s good intentions aside, this a way of talking about crime among blacks that's more interested in blaming than understanding.

Lines like these don’t sink the ship, but they do mark the margins of Cole’s everyman trappings. Cole’s world is a land of humility, domestic work, family, and good, educated decisions. These values shine on songs like “Foldin Clothes” and “She’s Mine Pt. 2,” which radiate love and are some of Cole’s most endearing odes to romantic love, partnership, and parenthood. But ultimately this world is idyllic. And it can be that way because Cole’s got four albums and multiple world tours under his belt. Scoffing at nice rides and referring to retaliatory violence as ignorance and poison may seem like well-earned wisdom, but it’s really a failure of empathy. When Cole reduces violent conflict and upward mobility to matters of vague principles, he’s shrinking into himself rather than connecting to others. This is the same guy who made distinctions between “sisters” and “hoes” (“No Role Modelz”) and began his sophomore album with a declaration of his right to say faggot (“Villuminati”). He’s evolved since then, and that’s great, but why does his path to enlightenment have to be the only one? It’s jarring for an album spawned by structural racism to fall back on lines like, “The only real change come from inside” (“Change”).

This vein of conservatism tends to be part and parcel with Cole’s traditionalist vision of rap, but here it’s a disappointment. At its best, 4 Your Eyez Only is an unraveling of pain and misery, a dissolution into a grand project of liberation and reckoning. No longer obsessed with sampling, interpolating, and referencing the rap canon, or impressing Nas, J. Cole finally sounds free. On his next album (if he’s not retiring), maybe he can actually be it.