By Ahmed Bubshait
The announcement, or lack thereof, of “2014 Forest Hills Drive” was met with confusion. Some speculated it would be an end-of-year festival; others claimed it was a surprise tour. Having a new J. Cole album at this time of the year rang too-good-to-be-true for many hip-hop heads who were now, in mid-November, reminded of three words, “Friday Night Lights.” The twenty-track project released in November 2010 established Cole as the leading light of the conscious-rap crowd. Jay-Z’s protégé followed up FNL with two LPs brimming with filler tracks and radio singles that alienated his day one fans.
Good news, “2014 Forest Hills Drive” is a vintage Cole’s hour-long offering with no fillers and no singles.
J. Cole is a striver, and his music attests to that. The album kicks off with “Intro,” a soulful self-reflection on Cole’s journey—“Look where I came/Look how far I done came.” The two-minute track eases into “January 28th,” an ode to the Fayetteville-native’s life in which he boldly claims to be “New York’s finest.” Cole lets go of his referential tendencies in track three, “Wet Dreamz,” as he muses over the anxiety of losing his virginity. The homage-filled “03’ Adolescence” details the inner thoughts of a slightly older Jermaine, who tackles his insecurities over a sophisticated Willie B. beat.
“A Tale of 2 Citiez,” Fayetteville and New York, is a braggadocios affair reminiscent of Drake’s “Worst Behavior.” Aggressive Cole reappears in “Fire Squad,” yet with even more complex introspection this time around; he splices together musical eras to address the white appropriation of hip-hop culture, name-dropping Elvis, Eminem, Macklemore and Iggy Azalea in the process. Cole’s signature production retakes the spotlight on “St. Tropez” as he repurposes Esther Phillips’ “That’s All Right With Me” to create a relaxing vibe. The mood drastically changes in the 808s-infused “G.O.M.D.,” a feisty record written from the perspective of “Hollywood Cole” who daringly pronounces himself as the “best in the West.”
The album’s best moment is also its most intricate. In “No Role Modelz,” three verses packed with fierce rejoinders are mingled with a George W. Bush snippet and a crowd-inducing infectious hook—“Don’t save her/She don’t wanna be saved.” Unfortunately, it’s followed up with a succession of the album’s weakest points. “Hello” contains the album’s least-flavorful bars, and “Apparently” relies too heavily on Cole’s mediocre singing skills. Cole, however, bounces back with the emotional “Love Yourz.” The drum roll and the strings blend nicely as Cole touches on highly personal themes.
The final track on the album exemplifies Cole’s growth over the past year. He takes his time on “Note to Self,” a fifteen-minute denouement that serves as the album credits, to charismatically thank everyone who worked on the album.
“2014 Forest Hills Drive” is an album of higher quality and more variety than Cole’s past two works, and this could be attributed to the minimal promotional effort that took place this time around. Under less commercial pressure, Cole manages to free himself from the “label-signee” moniker and shine as an artist.
Ahmed Bubshait is a contributing writer. Email him at email@example.com