On Thursday night, J. Cole ended his hiatus and returned in a big way with the release of his new documentary, Eyez. The 40-minute documentary follows Cole in the studio as he works on his new album, For Your Eyez Only, which is set to drop next week. Included in the doc are two music videos for new songs that will not be on the album, a source indicated to Complex, but made waves with Cole possibly sending shots at Lil Yachty and Kanye West.
The candid clips show an element of Cole's work process that is rarely seen by fans, with the North Carolina rapper crafting a number of songs alongside various musicians in the studio. The doc was directed by Scott Lazer, who last connected with Cole on the 2014 Forest Hills Drive: Homecoming film that aired on HBO. We were able to catch up with Lazer to talk about the new Eyez documentary and what it was like to work with Cole on this special project.
Talk about the documentary and how this all came together?
When Cole started recording at Electric Lady, he called me and asked me to capture and film some of his sessions. I just started shooting. And I’ve never been to Electric Lady. I only heard about it. So it’s like always this legendary studio to me and I’m sure many other people. So walking in everyday was like an incredible feeling you know. And the space in there is very beautiful. I just found myself kind of framing the shoots and letting the camera go, without any real intention of what would come of it.
The more I started to do it, the more I got diversity of compositions in the studio and the control room and the lounge. I was kind of shooting them almost like still photographs in motion, and you can hear the music that they're playing and conversations that they're having and everything, all that good stuff.
When did Cole first start recording at Electric Lady for this album?
It's hard to remember, man, but it was during the summer [laughs]. I know that much. Like a week or so into it. I had this idea, I just pitched to Cole and his manager Ibraham. I said, I’ve been kind of shooting these long shots. Some of the shots I would hold the camera as long as two or three hours you know. And I said, this is kind of a crazy idea, but what if we made a long documentary, meaning like not an hour and half long film, but not a short film. Something that’s somewhere in between there, maybe 40, 30 minutes to an hour.
The idea was to provide the idea behind the idea. It was coming from me feeling like I was in a very privileged position of getting to watch Cole and these other amazing musicians work, and discuss what they were doing in great detail with a lot of thoughtfulness. It seemed like people would like to have this perspective. And by having those long uninterrupted shots, it created a sort of immersive experience for the viewer. At least I hope that's what it did.
That feeling really comes off with it.
That's exactly what we wanted to do. I think we just wanted to give an idea of the space and the people and the sounds that contributed to the making of this album, without giving anything away. Because you don’t hear any of the songs being created in the studio, obviously, you get those two songs and the music videos, which is kind of a fun thing and just to have in there.
How did the idea to include the music videos come about? When were they shot?
I don’t know [laughs]. I don't want to tell you something I’m not sure about. Sometime in the last year. Probably in the last eight months. It was actually Cole's manager Ibrahim's idea to try it out. And at first I was like, "Aw man this thing is already pretty weird. I don't know if we wanna make it weirder." And he was like, "Just try it." And we tried and it worked. So we're like, "Alright, let's try another one." That's kind of how that came about—it was a lot of just trying stuff, and Cole is very into that. So he was open to letting me experiment, which is great.
The videos added a cool balance to the documentary.
Yeah, and it's funny that you mentioned that, because I remember thinking when I was putting this together and I don't know if people beyond Cole’s core fan base are really going to enjoy this. Because I don't know. But I think what the music videos did was give something for people who may not be really into it—now there's something that they can go check out that they'll probably want to see, even if they are not a huge Cole fan.
Did you guys anticipate the reaction to the second music video? With how open and honest Cole is rapping on it.
I mean you know, we all watched the piece in its entirety a few times, and we were all excited about it. So I think we hoped that it would be well received. I don’t know, it's hard to say. It seems to have blown up on social media and stuff. So I guess people are excited about it too. Cole is one of those people who doesn’t really think or create with the reaction in mind. We just do stuff. And then, if were excited about it, he has a fan base that has a history of liking things that he gets excited about, so we're excited that the idea is that they'll be excited about it, too.
Compare this project and the Forest Hills HBO documentary that you made with Cole.
I was very nervous going into this with Cole because there wasn't really an expectation to do something. I definitely didn't want it to be like the HBO doc. I wanted to find some way to differentiate it from that project. So I think that was also part of the thinking when I came up with the idea of these of a sequence. Sort of a non-narrative sequence of uninterrupted shots. It was definitely something I was thinking about consciously. How to differentiate it. I think it's obviously a documentary about J.Cole, so there's similarities I’m sure you can draw between the two. But I did try really hard to innovate on the last thing that I did, or I guess I should say evolve, that I did with him.
How did you guys settle on calling the doc Eyez?
Initially we were going to name it the eyes emoji. We didn’t want to call it the album title, because it’s not really about the album so—I mean it is—I think what he didn’t want to conflate the content of the album or the content of the documentary, so we just kind of took that one word and used it. Eyez. It’s a cool title.