J. Cole's fourth album arrived exactly two years after 2014 Forest Hills Drive. Released on short notice and with minimal hype, it's another one without guest verses, and his leanest yet. Told in the first person, most of its tracks trace the life trajectory of Cole's slain friend, as someone who dealt drugs, changed course after falling in love, and died at the age of 22. Cole also draws from some aspects of his own life. One track regards an unjustified SWAT raid on a house he rented for recording, leaving him feeling targeted, "Even when the president jam your tape." There's a moment of levity and sweetness throughout "Foldin Clothes," where Cole enthusiastically handles some domestic duties, while the two parts of "She's Mine" regard, respectively, his wife and daughter. Most moving and forthright is the closing title track, nine minutes of grimly focused reflections from multiple vantage points. Cole's predominant scarred yet resolute feeling, perfectly conveyed in his downward, furrowed gaze in the album's promotional images, is likewise reflected with the productions. Mostly slow and nuanced, cooked up with a crew of well over a dozen co-producers, they involve instrumental help from the likes of trumpeter Theo Croker, guitarist Steve Lacy of the Internet, and keyboardist Masayuki Hirano. It's a special work, one that might require several thorough spins -- across a long stretch of time -- to be fully appreciated by those who love Cole's hit singles.
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AllMusic Review by Andy Kellman