Album Review: 2014 Forest Hills Drive by J. Cole

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Announced just a few short weeks ago, J. Cole’s third album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive is now upon us.  Cole earns his third #1 album on the Billboard 200 this week with it’s debut, selling 354,000 copies without any singles and minimal promotion.  However, quite literally, 2014 Forest Hills Drive finds J. Cole going back to his roots.

The album’s title and concept are centered around a significant moment in his life: the first house he lived in growing up, during his teenage years. Perhaps it’s no coincidence then that the album sounds a little more like mixtape-Cole. Without a doubt, this is his least commercial body of work since 2010’s Friday Night Lights mixtape (unless you want to count the Truly Yours EPs released in conjunction with last year’s Born Sinner). The album has no features and, as usual, production is done almost entirely by Cole. While the album is not immediate in terms of being catchy or commercial, it’s immediate in that it feels like a classic album that has organically made itself a part of your life. It’s just pleasing to the ears; it feels right; it sounds right… alongside other great hip-hop, and alongside Cole’s very strong body of work.

The project was unofficially preluded by the release of 2014’s most important song, “Be Free,” which Cole recorded in response to Michael Brown murder and the state of race in America.  Fittingly, he continues the message of “Be Free” on the album’s intro, which acts a preface introducing the album’s theme: the quest for success, fulfillment, freedom, love, and happiness. From there, the album enters it’s conceptual, retrospective arc as Cole reflects on growing up and how he became the person he is today.

The first full length track on the album is “January 28th,” fittingly titled after his birthday (perhaps a nod to Jay-Z’s “December 4th”). The track begins the self reflection with a look at his youthful desires. While “January 28th” is one of the album’s strongest tracks, it’s the similarly youthful “Wet Dreamz,” which immediately follows it, that quickly takes the title of standout track. The internet was abuzz with hype over the track upon the album’s release, and rightfully so. As usual, Cole takes an unfiltered and honest approach to the most relatable of topics: his first time. In a manner of story telling that is uniquely J. Cole, he captivates the listener with his lyrics, flow and sparse production. “Wet Dreamz” is not only a standout track on the album, but one of the best songs in his catalog.

Following “Wet Dreamz” are two more reminiscent tracks, focusing on Cole’s early years and growing up: “’03 Adolescence,” and “A Tale of 2 Citiez.” On the former, he talks of high school and going off to college, which continues on the latter, as he juxtaposes life in 2 cities: New York, and his home of Fayetteville. While in college at St. John’s University in Queens, he found success by releasing mix tapes which eventually lead to his signing to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation. Naturally, his life experiences changed drastically from this point on and his songs are a reflection of such.

Next up is the controversial “Fire Squad,” followed by “St. Tropez,” “G.O.M.D.,” and “No Role Modelz.”  All of these songs in one way or another deal with his success and the state of hip-hop.  Cole evaluates his success, reacts to it, and wonders what it all really means.  While “G.O.M.D.” is a bit jarring, the other three are all strong tracks all around.

The final trio on the album is “Hello,” “Apparently,” and “Love Yourz.”   Once again, on “Love Yourz” we see Cole using a “z” to replace an “s.”  As this is not something he’s done before, I can’t help but wonder if this is because that was the trendy thing to do back when he lived on Forest Hills Drive. These three songs, though, are different from the last four. The topic of the songs changes to love and relationships. On “Hello,” he talks to an old lover and speaks of regrets (“shit seems so sad when you look back”), and on “Love Yourz” and “Note to Self,” he talks more of his relationship with himself. None of these topics are new territory for hip-hop or Cole for that matter, but his perspective on these relationships is an uncommon one. He displays a vulnerability rarely seen in hip-hop.

It is in his honest vulnerability on “Apparently” that we see Cole at his best. Here, he addresses his relationship with his mother and his “girl” (Angie Martinez asked him if he was single, and he declined to respond, but did mention that he says enough in the music). “Apparently” encapsulates all that makes J. Cole great:  self-assessing, introspective, personal lyrics, organic, soulful production, and an emotionally delivered melody all topped off with, of course, an impeccable flow. Unsurprisingly, he opted to release a video for the song because he doesn’t want the song to be “slept on.” Hopefully the track receives the attention it deserves.

Closing the album out is “Note to Self,” bringing the album’s themes full circle, uniting it with one word: “love.” The extended “thank you” outro aside, the album clocks in just under 55 minutes, significantly shorter than his last set, Born Sinner, which ran for 78 with bonus tracks, and felt a bit too long.

2014 Forest Hills Drive defines quintessential J. Cole. “Defines” because before now, “quintessential J. Cole” hadn’t been quite yet defined.  In other words, 2014 Forest Hills Drive may very well go down as his defining album. It is far to deep even for this (relatively) short review to do it justice, and there may be further reflections on it and its songs here on EST. 1997. As a whole, it stands as a cohesive body of work unified not only by it’s sound and production, but by its lyrical content, as well. It is conceptual and thematic, with a distinct storyline. Is there a happy ending? Not exactly, but like any true great he acknowledges he is a work in progress and seems well aware that this isn’t the end for him. He also acknowledges that happiness is an ever fleeting and intangible perception. You can’t always have material things, success, or happiness, but you can always have love…

There’s something more

Something that holds us together

The strangest feeling but I can’t be sure

Something that’s old as forever

Love

Grade:

97/97

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