Album Review: J. Cole - 2014 Forest Hills Drive
It is impossible to make everyone happy. You could spend every waking moment of every day bending at the whims of others, bidding for their affection, fulfilling their every desire, and you’re still going to have someone with more wishes. Even a genie couldn’t handle that work.
The same goes for music. Hell, there are people out there who hate the Beatles and they’re about as ubiquitous as it gets.
So why not make something for yourself? Instead of making something that’s “tough”, “real”, “hot”, “conscious”, or any other superlative you can throw into a hip-hop debate, why not do what you want to do?
Well, that’s exactly what J. Cole did. For his third studio effort, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, the Dreamville General created a project that is all his own. Cole was the executive producer and penned every song, releasing an album without a single, without a feature and with a minimal amount of promotion. Rather than follow the industry standard, he took ownership of his own product and did it just the way he wanted to. Something he seems truly proud of as his personal credits roll in Note To Self, the final track on the LP.
The result is a raw and heartfelt offering, which is something Cole has always been able to extend to his listeners since his early mixtape days of The Warm Up and Friday Night Lights and in many respects, 2014 Forest Hills Drive has that same vibe to it. Through his music, J. Cole is accessible and honest, albeit sometimes to a fault and his lyrics are typically sentimental and introspective.
We are immediately in tune with this thoughtfulness as the Intro questions us on what we really want from life. Cole repeadedlty asks us, “do you wanna be, happy?” “Do you wanna be free?”
“Free from bills, free from pills/ You roll it loud, the speakers blow/ Life gets hard, it eats your soul/ It clears your mind, learn to fly/ Then reach the stars, you take your time/ And look behind and said, ‘look where I came, look how far I came’/ They say that dreams come true/ And when they do, that there’s a beautiful thing.”
The album in itself acts as a platform for self-discovery for J. Cole. Its namesake is the address of one of his favorite childhood homes, which he recently purchased. The title signifies a return to his roots as he retraces his past in attempt to see what has made him the man he is today. At the same time though, Cole is mindful of his current status as an artist and the price that comes with fame. This competing duality causes him to tiptoe between these two worlds of realization, which acts as a double-edged sword for him. It’s sharp enough to slice through the facades, but when wielded improperly, it’s easy for him to injure himself.
One of Jermaine’s greatest strengths has always been his storytelling ability and it is certainly a talent that does not elude him on 03’ Adolescence. A little over a decade ago, Cole was graduating high school and ready to enter college. While he seemed to be on the right path, he was admittedly attracted to the hustler’s lifestyle. One day he was spending time with a friend who sold weed and was asking to get put on. The astonished reaction of his friend enlightened him to a viewpoint he was previously unaware of.
“If you wasn’t my mans, l would think that you a clown right now/ Listen, you everything I wanna be that’s why I fucks with you/ So how you look up to me, when I look up to you/ You bout to go get a degree, I’ma be stuck with two choices/ Either graduate to weight or selling number two”. It was in this conversation where Cole received a moment of clarity. It was easy to get distracted by the money when you didn’t have any, but those were all short-term means with an either shorter lifespan. He goes on to say “I felt ashamed to complain about my lack of gear/ And thought about how far we done came/ From trailer park to a front yard with trees in the sky/ thank you mama dry your eyes, there ain’t no reason to cry/ You made a genius and I ain’t gon’ take it for granted/ I ain’t gon’ settle for lesser, I ain’t gon’ take what they handed/ Nah I’m gon’ take what they owe me and show you that I can fly”.
Cole offers perspective and advice that may be rarely provided in mainstream hip-hop, but is crucial to hear, especially for those coming of age. He speaks with a purpose, but sometimes that purpose isn’t always clear. In the following track, A Tale of 2 Citiez, J. Cole plays the role of C. Dickens, showing the juxtaposition of rich and poor. In the previous song it felt like he killed his desires, but he returns to that same theme as if to entice those feelings again. It’s not always clear if he’s rapping in the first person or vicariously through someone else when lines like “listen up I’m about to go and get rich/ Fuck with me my ngga/ We gon’ circle round the Ville and hit a lick/ Cop some tree my nigga/ And some powder, bag it up and make it flip” compete with the outro of the same track where he begs for forgiveness.
This lack of clarity or strength in opinion is what perpetually detracts from the overall power of this album. This extends into Fire Squad, where he takes his opportunity to fire some shots and seems like Cole is aiming for the head.
“History repeats itself and that’s just how it goes/ Same way that these rappers always bite each others flows/ Same thing that my nigga Elvis did with Rock n Roll/ Justin Timberlake, Eminem and then Macklemore/ While silly niggas argue over who gon’ snatch the crown/ Look around my nigga, white people have snatched the sound/ This year I’ll prolly go to the awards dappered down/ Watch Iggy win a Grammy as I try to crack a smile.”
This arguably could’ve been the most critical set of bars J. Cole has ever spit, until he says, “I’m just playin’.” By essentially redacting his statement after he made it, it’s like Cole climbed to the top of the mountain to scream at the world and then slinked his way down before he raised his voice. It’s moments like this where he seems ready to take a leap, but decides to skip instead.
It’s not as if he doesn’t have anything to say, in fact it’s quite the opposite. J. Cole is a thinker with a sharpened perspective and a molded morality. He has lines that challenge some of the best rhymers available, like in January 28th when he says, “what’s the price for a black man life? I check the toe tag, not one zero in sight.” Or in the outro of Fire Squad when he proclaims “ain’t gonna be no more kings/ Be wary of any man that claims/ Because deep down he clings onto the need for power/ But in reality he’s a coward/ Ultimately he’s scared to die/ And sometimes so am I.” Cole has always had a penchant for lyricism, it’s just that it he perceivably can lack opportunistic cohesion.
Although Cole may not swing the haymaker many have been waiting for, he does accomplish a strong thematic message to accompany his concept for his album. On the penultimate track, Love Yourz, Cole comes full circle with the Intro as he values love and happiness over fame and riches. Cole has found disillusionment with money, realizing that true worth is not measured in dollars and cents. His romantic disposition glides smoothly over the beat, as he does with most of the album. Sonically, 2014 Forest Hills Drive is a pleasant intermingling of instrumentation and boom bap, featuring production from the likes of !llmind, Cardiak, CritCal, Willie B., Vinylz, Phonix Beats and of course, Jermaine himself.
What can be ascertained from 2014 Forest Hills Drive is a better understanding of who J. Cole is, both as an artist and an individual. In many respects, he feels like an average Joe with an above average talent, who was thrust into the limelight, despite his introverted nature. It’s as if he’s comfortably uncomfortable with himself. He’s vulnerable and self aware, but still willing to share. Something that takes a level of courage that many of us cannot attain.
2014 Forest Hills Drive is an achievement in it’s self that a mainstream artist like J. Cole could have this type of creative control over a project in such a controlling industry. Hopefully this jurisdiction over one’s own art can inspire his peers to do the same. However, while his intentions were seemingly boundless, the product does not quite reach that same mark. 2014 Forest Hills Drive is a solid yet flawed offering with a beautiful purpose, but an execution that falls just shy of greatness.
Review by Carmine Colangelo