J. Cole

Album: “4 Your Eyez Only”

Grade: 3 stars (out of 4)

J. Cole’s latest album, “4 Your Eyez Only,” is an intimate one. It unfolds like an old journal that’s been unearthed and shared with an audience of one – that is, an audience of you, or, more important, the daughter of a friend whose shooting death ties the rapper’s latest set together.

“Bloodshed done turned the city to a battlefield, I call it poison, you call it real,” Cole raps on “Change,” before narrating the final moments in the life of James McMillan Jr., whose life was cut short at 22. The fragility of life – particularly that of young black men who too often are felled by violence – shapes the frustration and desperation that permeates the album.

Low on frills (production or otherwise), and rich with introspection, the Grammy nominee’s fourth studio set may not immediately resonate with listeners anticipating an album to match the buzz surrounding Cole’s purported digs at Kanye West on “False Prophets.”

What’s clear now is that “False Prophets” was less about throwing rocks at the throne and more about Cole bearing his disappointment over a fallen hero. He’s over fakeness, and if sincerity and storytelling matter more than sensationalism, then fans will find “4 Your Eyez Only” to be a solid – albeit, sometimes slow-moving – follow-up to 2014’s “Forest Hills Drive.”

The album opens ominously, with Cole facing his own mortality on “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” “Tired of feeling low even when I’m high. Ain’t no way to live, do I wanna die?” he sings.

Cole is constantly drawing parallels between himself and the guys still grinding. It’s a struggle he can’t shake – even with fame and fortune – as illustrated on the powerful “Neighbors,” where Cole raps that any black man can be “a candidate for a Trayvon [Martin] kinda fate. Even when your crib sit on a lake.”

But for all the looming dangers, Cole has hope, and he’s moving in a beautiful direction. He’s unguarded and in love on the delicate “She’s Mine, Pt. 1” and “She’s Mine, Pt. 2.” He even turns the act of doing laundry into a grand romantic gesture on the omg-that’s-so-sweet “Foldin Clothes.”

The album’s title track is the last of the bunch, and over the course of nearly 9 minutes, Cole relays a heartfelt and frank message from McMillan to his daughter. The meandering, jazz-tinged track is tragic, touching, wise – and a little bit sleepy – everything that Cole’s album is.

— Melanie Sims, Associated Press

Conor Oberst

Album: “Ruminations”

Grade: 3 stars (out of 4)

Conor Oberst is 36 now, and the former wunderkind singer-songwriter once celebrated for the precocity of his work as Bright Eyes has been making records for so long he’s easily taken for granted. But this true solo project – recorded in 48 hours with only the backing of his own acoustic guitar, piano and harmonica, after he moved from New York back home to Omaha, Neb. – demands attention. It benefits both from dark-night-of-the-soul musings that come with a brush with mortality (he canceled tour dates last year after a cyst was discovered on his brain) and the bitterness that beckons with youth slipping away. “Closing my eyes, counting sheep,” he sings. “Gun in my mouth, trying to sleep.”

Oberst has said he penned “You All Loved Him Once” about the burdens placed on pop-star oracles such as John Lennon, but he could have written it about his own once-worshipful audience. Also sharp and winningly cynical is the awkwardly titled “Mamah Borthwick [A Sketch],” named after Frank Lloyd Wright’s lover and muse, which wrestles with the challenges of trying to create art that will stand the test of time.

— Dan DeLuca, Philadelphia Inquirer

Hope Sandoval & the Warm Inventions

Album: “Until the Hunter”

Grade: 3 stars (out of 4)

Hope Sandoval’s voice is breathy and quiet, full of introspective calm and detached cool, but tinged with mystery. It’s instantly familiar to fans of Mazzy Star, Sandoval’s partnership with David Roback, and it’s equally compelling on this, her third album with My Bloody Valentine’s Colm O’Ciosoig. Although some songs, such as the nine-minute opener, “Into the Trees,” are so slow and abstract they threatened to drift into the ether, “Until the Hunter” is full of subtle textures and variations.

O’Ciosoig deploys a wide range of guitars as anchors: a gentle slide here, acoustic fingerpicking there; sometimes gauzy, reverb-drenched feedback, sometimes shimmery, psychedelic swirls. The arrangements often are sparse, even when fleshed out with a full band and Sandoval on vibraphone, but the mood is captivating.

For an added treat, Philadelphia’s Kurt Vile drops in for album highlight, “Let Me Get There,” a laconic, seven-and-a-half minute duet in the vein of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood.

— Steve Klinge, Philadelphia Inquirer

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