If you read the credits of J. Cole's new album, 4 Your Eyez Only, you'll notice the rapper/producer handled most of the production and all of the rapping (back to back platinum albums with no features seems inevitable). But there is another name billed as co-executive producer: Elite. The Dreamville member played his biggest role yet in helping to shape the sound of this latest Cole project, one that fans and critics are still unpacking.
Complex spoke with Elite by phone to get a behind-the-scenes look at his work on 4 Your Eyez Only, as well as the real story behind the standout song "Neighbors," which is described in the album credits as being "inspired by true events." Elite also responded to a fan theory about what Cole's new album is supposed to represent that's been circulating on the web.
When did you begin work on the album?
Cole never stops working. The other day, after the album was turned in, he came in to record two new verses. As far as really homing in on the album, maybe beginning of summer we started going to Electric Lady [in New York] to home in on stuff.
Cole is low-key. He doesn’t like to tweet or put out pictures of himself in the studio. I think people assume maybe something happened [to inspire this album], but really he’s just doing song after song. There’s not really pressure from outside sources, as much as internal pressure. At this point he can afford to release music whenever it’s right. He was always making music—I think it just took this much time to reach the level of clarity that he wanted.
In the Eyez documentary you pop up in a number of scenes at the studio, working without Cole being present. It’s clear he put a trust in you with this project to see his vision through.
We started to do a little bit of that on Born Sinner, where he gave me some trust with that stuff. We’re pretty tuned in with each other as far as what we like and what we don’t like in terms of production. But this album it was a new level of, “OK, I’m gonna go into this room and do this. Elite, you go in there with the string players.” There was a degree of trust and freedom he gave me that I really appreciated and took seriously.
The content of the album pivots from what he’s done before. Themes of marriage and fatherhood play a big role. How do you feel these themes shifted the sound of 4 Your Eyez Only compared to past projects?
On 2014 Forest Hills Drive there was a personal narrative. There was a point to it because there was something he learned at the end with “Love Yourz”—that was the thesis.
With this album, it's a story with a specific message. Part of the time-consuming process was taking songs like the title track, which is a nine-minute song and asking, how can we keep this interesting on a production level without overdoing it? We have so much music on all these songs, the hard part was taking stuff out. We didn’t want to confuse people with too much instrumentation.
How many more songs were recorded during the period of 4 Your Eyez Only?
Countless. We had to make some really tough cuts. We had to take out honestly some of my favorite songs on the album because of clarity and making sure the story and the message reached people. All of the songs will have homes eventually, it’s just a matter of giving them the proper platform.
In the credits, it says that “Neighbors” was "inspired by true events."
The “Neighbors” story is crazy. Basically Cole rented out a house in North Carolina. It’s not for him; it’s like a safe haven/creative workspace for all the Dreamville artists and producers. We call it the Sheltuh, and a lot of the album was recorded there.. It’s basically a studio in a basement, in the woods.
It’s also in the suburbs of a pretty wealthy neighborhood in North Carolina. So you have, predominately, African-Americans coming in and out of this house. Ubers coming, and every once in awhile you’ll see a group of us outside on the porch smoking weed. So the neighbors started getting real paranoid.
Apparently what happened was, we were all in Austin, Texas, for SXSW; thankfully no one was in the house when this went down. One of the neighbors told the police we were growing weed or selling drugs out of this house. And there was a huge investigation, like a million-dollar investigation. They flew helicopters over, sent an entire SWAT team armed with weapons, broke down the door and searched the whole house. Thankfully nobody was in the house. Our engineer Juro “Mez” Davis had just stepped out for lunch and he came back and saw the SWAT team busting down the door.
They go downstairs and all they see is a studio, and obviously they felt stupid. It’s just crazy ironic because out of anybody, they picked the wrong person. J. Cole is the last person to do anything like that. He’s out here doing extremely positive things for the community and for young artists. Because of obvious racism from the neighbors, the police were called and a raid took place.
You’ve probably seen the memes about the last album going platinum with no features. Did that notion, “platinum with no features,” ever come up in the making of 4 Your Eyez Only?
We see the memes and we all laugh about it. I don’t think the no-features thing is a goal for Cole. He’s isolated most of the time, so he’s not going to reach out to people for a feature. If [a feature] happened organically, it would make sense. It just so happens to go that way because he works on his own and he’s not going to seek out people just because they’re a name. He feels like if the song is good, the song is good.
Do you have a favorite moment from this project? A verse from Cole, something you guys did from a production standpoint, or maybe just a moment in the studio that you remember?
That last verse is pretty powerful. It’s kind of the thesis of the whole thing and everything else was trying to get to that moment.
I really love the little girl on “Ville Mentality.” She brings tears to my eyes when I hear her talk. That was a little girl in a school. Cole went to Fayetteville one day and just sat down with some kids and spoke to them and recorded it. And he got them to open up and say these really powerful things.
What she said, it hit me pretty hard, and I think other people are going to connect with what she was saying because it was just…talk about a window into what’s wrong with America. It’s right there. And it’s a little girl. If you can’t feel that, you’re not human.
There’s a theory spreading around the internet about that last verse on “4 Your Eyez Only.” The theory is that the whole album connects to Cole's life, but is about a friend or someone close to him who died. And in the end he’s telling the story to his friend’s daughter.
We saw that and it was pretty well-analyzed by whoever did that. It's pretty close to what Cole intended. There is another perspective that he is speaking from on this album, and that’s what he wanted to make clear. There are moments where it parallels him and he speaks from his own perspective. “Neighbors” is a step outside for a second, but it’s still a commentary on the overall theme. But the album is largely from a perspective that is not J. Cole.