Review: Forest Hills Drive, J. Cole

J. Cole's always been intellectual.

J. Cole’s always been intellectual. The honesty of his music coupled with his wordplay creates imagery that effectively brings to the forefront dynamics of social and political turmoil. With every project you can see the thought that has been put into each aspect of his work; from the lyrics to production all the way to the album artwork. Everything fits and works together to achieve Cole’s desired effect and purpose. Its because of this time and thought that Cole puts into his music that I wanted to review 2014 Forest Hills Drive with a certain degree of detail.

Before Release:

J. Cole’s 2013 release of Born Sinner was something that many recognized as something that Hip Hop had lacked for over a decade. Produced without an intended vision for radio plays Born Sinner was strictly about the music. Outperforming his label’s predictions for sales, the album was successful in cementing itself in discussion as it spoke intelligently and creatively to it’s listeners. On November 16th, Cole released a video trailer within which he announced he would be releasing his 3rd Album ‘2014 Forest Hills Drive’ on December 9th. This being the sole method of album promotion. The video contained footage pertaining to the making of the album where it was also revealed that the album name was the same address of Cole’s childhood home in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

Album Synopsis

‘2014 Forest Hills Drive’ is somewhat split into two sections, the first has Cole looking back on his past as Jermaine Cole, the intro setting up his journey for emancipation from the industry and capitalist enslavement moving through his life from his birth to him going to College to gaining his record deal. The second half is centered on his J. Cole’s journey to return to former self, to Jermaine. Starting from Fire Squad, Cole comes to realization that the industry is not all it’s cracked up to be, he sees the ridiculousness that has flooded the culture. Cole upon realization that money, fame and women are all a façade works his way back to his childhood home at Forest Hills Drive and his life before ‘J. Cole’. All the way through the album Cole maintains discussions of social injustice and the predicament within which the black community in some cases seeks freedom from and in other cases simply enjoys. Most of the album was produced by J. Cole himself. Guest producers included the likes of Elite and Dreamville members, Ron Gilmoe, Tray Samuels, DJ Dahi, !llmind, Cardiak, CritaCal, Vinylz, Organized Noize and JProof.

Tracks: * = *Denotes Producer

1. Intro [J. Cole] Production: 4.5/5 Song: 4/5

‘Do you wanna be x2…Happy?’ over ambient piano chords and the addition of a saxophone and strings, the intro fulfills its purpose in successfully preparing you for the rest of the album. After having worked so hard to become ‘Hollywood Cole’, Jermaine has come to realization that this paradigm of success is not equal to happiness. In a capitalist industry where everyone is interested in furthering his or her own gains, the question is an adequate one; Do you want to be happy? Do you want to be free? The mellow vibe of the Intro eases the mind to a point where you feel like you could be in the recording studio too, the track ending with Cole’s vocals ‘That was nice,lemme hear that?’ The Intro sets the running motif of the album. The liberation and restoration of Cole and in the same hand Hip Hop Culture.

2. January 28th [J. Cole] Production: 5/5 Song: 4.5/5

Cole’s production shines through with the beat starting firm but at the same time there is an introduction of a soft bass kick with a steady decay to set the pace and feel of the song. Cole’s lyricism slides along the beat but does so with a commanding presence. It wasn’t until one of the homies pointed it out that I realized the likeness to Jay-Z’s ‘December 4th’, both titles pertaining to the birth dates of these rappers. I also couldn’t help but think back to ‘A Star is Born’ on Jay’s The Blueprint 3, which for many was the first introduction to the artist. January 28th comes at you with a fury; like Cole’s demanding you recognize his birthright, but in doing so Cole also seeks to inspire and elevate “If you ain’t aim too high, then you’ve aimed too low”. To me it seemed like Cole goes on to adopt a role that he recognizes is void within the black community, an issue that he continues to raise in the album. In a society where black lives are viewed as next to nothing and the only way it seems possible to become wealthy is to either become a professional athlete or a rapper. Cole touches on something important regarding the security of Hip Hop culture, a point raised by the academic scholar Ian Condry, who questions that where hip hop has over a number of decades become a global phenomenon and seemingly and unfortunately slipped out of the grasp and handle of it’s creators, what is the message portrayed and perpetuated to foreigners ‘gang trotting mic wielding MCs or pro athletes’. In taking on this role as an icon for the community, Cole fulfills his role of an MC, a spokesman for his people, calling for harmony both within and outside of the music industry, ‘…please let’s not let our egos collide…’ However in the same breathe J. Cole re-introduces that competitive and provoking aspect of hip hop, an out-of-towner came to the birth place of hip hop and not only took over but also set a bar so high that modern run-of-the-mill rappers would be unable to reach it ending the song in the same provocative manner to how Kendrick approached his infamous ‘Control’ verse, you might be top tier in the ‘game’ but what’s top tier when you’re up against a god?

3. Wet Dreamz [J. Cole] Production: 4/5 Song: 3.9/5

I spent a while wondering where I’d heard the sample before then realized XV, one of Cole’s peers when he was coming up and a creative and dope MC in his own respect, had also sampled it his 2012 mixtape ‘The Squarians Vol. 1’ (check both these two ciphering on DJ Enuff’s radio show!). Cole samples the classic Family Circle – Mariya record for Wet Dreamz. The chop and arrangement of the sample slots together perfectly with the drum sequencing to create a dope sample based beat. Cole uses Wet dreamz to recount of his first time, to me it was holds this theme of growing up, the point at which many perceive as the starting point of adulthood. The first verse Cole recalls hiding the fact that he’s a virgin, playing it off like he’s a veteran whilst all the while going through the self doubt and worry of a first timer. The song ends with a twist; the girl he’s with feels she has to tell him to be delicate with her since it’ll be her first time too. Whether or not intended, I feel the songs highlights the mentality and actuality of majority of teen sexual experiences, where there exists a mind state where you have to grow up fast and for some life should therefore be lived to limit at all times [“I’m not trying to survive I’m trying to live it to the limit and love it a lot” – Jay Z D’Evils]. [“..and you should be gettin’ laid by the time you in 9th grade..” J. Cole – Dead Presidents].

4. 03’Adolescence [Willie B] Production: 5/5 Song: 5/5

03′ Adolescence has J. Cole vocalizing his deepest thoughts before his move to New York, low self-esteem, troubles with women, and the misapprehension about the “live free” lifestyle. Willie B was on point with the production, the way the sampled intro slides right into piano keys and then the beat fits Cole’s character perfectly. The switch from light to dark along with Cole’s introduction ‘I grew up a fucking screw up’ to me correlates to the fantasy and façade that comes with the reality of life. The blissful introduction is removed to reveal a deeper story. The 1st verse has Cole reminiscing about a previous infatuation with a girl in his home city however he doesn’t fit the category of guys she’s attracted to. He paints himself a quiet sideliner incapable of expressing himself, his confidence the thing that is holding him back all of which seemed to be a reference to Cole World: The Sideline Story and implying that at this point he’s just not up to par with star players. Growing up without a father and living in a place where death is commonplace, J. Cole struggles with self-identity hence him questioning, “Who am I?” The hook is Cole’s realisation that change is inevitable but he won’t let the negatives get the better of him. To get through tough times he smokes as a coping mechanism. The line “One time for my mind and two for yours” an obvious word up to his influence Nas. Verse 2 centers on a 17 year old Cole and his friend both smoking and chilling. Somewhat envious of his friend’s lifestyle Jermaine asks what he has to get what he has only to have pointed out to him his own blessings. Whilst J. Cole is set to go to college and has the actual possibility of a straight life ahead of him, his peer’s only option to hustle in order to survive. Cole’s friend continues to educate him on what his life is really like – A drug dealer and provider of a family whose single mother doesn’t even love him. Retrospectively J. Cole’s life is painted in a better life.

5. A Tale of 2 Citiez [Vinylz] Production: 3.5/5 Song: 3.5/5

So I’m five songs deep into my first listen and I message the same dude who put me on. ‘This is all point / no doubt / but I dunno lol / I haven’t heard a turn up track yet’. Then this came on and I go ‘Never mind haha’ “Hands in the air, now, hands in the air run it!”

An allusion to Dickens’ novel of the same name, set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution. ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ portrays themes of rebellion and conflict between the rich and poor and the coming into political consciousness, all themes that play in the background of the song. For Cole the song focuses on the events take place after his move to New York City and so Cole raps from a perspective of two cities, Fayetteville and New York City, that differ based on the themes raised in Dickens’ novel. J. Cole tackles these differences within himself, the first verse he looks back to when he considered himself to be a good kid, an observer of all of the negativity surrounding him whilst the second has him partaking and indulging in the negativity. Cole takes the time to pray, asking for forgiveness, to deliver him from his suffering. As with everything, God warns that there are downsides. A cliché but so often forgotten, be careful what you wish for because it may not play out as expected. The running motif, wealth and fame don’t necessarily amount to happiness.

6. Fire Squad [J. Cole, Vinylz] Production: 4/5 Song: 5/5

The drums and synth on this song are resemblant of a 90s DJ Premier-esque beat; infectious and hard hitting. So far Cole’s spoken about his past and his own insecurities and self doubt. Fire Squad switches this up. J. Cole’s climbed his way to the top, the hook seemingly an internal lecture where he scolds himself for any inhibitions or notions of holding back. Cole spits as an artist who’s already taken the throne, at this point rappers are playthings, intellectually inferior to a point where even when they think they’ve bagged him, he’s really the one with the upper hand. Here as well as in the end credits J. Cole portrays himself as the paramount of hip hop royalty; after him there are no more crowns to be handed out as he recognizes the lack of benefit to the culture to argue over these things. Cole alludes to the aftermath of Kendrick’s control verse, “who gon’ snatch the crown” the 3rd verse an attempt to restore the balance in Hip Hop as he criticizes white privilege and white appropriation of Hip Hop culture — namely the likes of Macklemore and Iggy Azalea.

7. St. Tropez [J. Cole] Production: 4/5 Song: 3.5/5

Here J. Cole remains in the present, although there is a significant change in mood as we see the artist’s career take off. The Production features a bouncy drum sequence with brass additions creating a bluesy beat. While the verses could be about another relationship, St. Tropez is typically within Hip Hop associated with fame and fortune. A fairly short song, St. Tropez seems almost like an interlude to bridge the past and present together.

8. G.O.M.D [J. Cole, D. Andrews, D. Holmes, E. Jackson, J. Smooth]

Listening to G.O.M.D’s sample made Cole’s intention that much clearer. The beat starts with a sampled portion of Branford Marsalis – Berta Berta that repeats throughout the song; a slave working song. The choice of sample further highlights Cole’s state of awareness and intellect. Beginning to lose himself in Hollywood, Cole realizes the Industry’s capacity to enslave minds and how even as a successful rapper; iron chains in many cases have simply been traded for gold ones. Simply put it’s still slavery. The prelude to the hook mocks the sound of commercial and club Hip Hop further highlighting the ridiculousness that is rife throughout the industry. The hook itself needs no explanation. Entering the 2nd verse Cole begins to doubt his new lifestyle. In wanting to return to his former self he realizes he should focus more on true happiness and genuine love. The 2nd verse takes the listener back in time, with a mention of Amerie’s ‘1 thing’. Cole uses it to talk about love and how it isn’t talked about anymore. Taken with the 3rd verse, Cole goes through a whole relationship including a break up and a make up.The 3rd verse in particular points out what Cole has already touched upon before, that blacks are seemingly portrayed to only be successful through entertainment and that poor or working class blacks have to be ignorant. Suggesting that these are notions that have been constructed by elite racist whites who would never associate themselves with the lower classes.

9. No Role Modelz [Phonix Beats, J. Cole] Production: 3.5/5 Song: 4.2/5

No Role Modelz features a looped brass sequence and a drummed bassline resulting in a thick sounding production. After his realization on G.O.M.D Cole begins his last journey on 2014 Forest Hills DriveNo Role Modelz is a look back into J. Cole’s life as he decides what he wants for his future. In looking back Cole realizes there was no role model for him growing up, regarding this as something that has affected him along his journey. No Role Modelz begins with Cole paying his respects to the late James Avery known to many as Uncle Phil on The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air. J. Cole already desires to be a good father one day is framework for success being Uncle Phil: to be able to provide for his family and live a happy life as opposed to walking out like Will’s own father did. Cole and Will’s situation is one to which many blacks can relate to and one that which Cole seeks to right. The hook “don’t save her, she don’t wanna be saved, don’t save her” I took both literally and metaphorically with respects to Hip Hop. The girl and Hip Hop are both in a bad state not really living but existing to turn up, they need saving but Cole feels this is a self-made environment of living. As much as people complain, they love the turn up music in some cases more than they appreciate music for the mind. The 1st verse to me has Cole almost asking ‘what’s next’, he has the money, the fame and his pick of girls and when called out on his status he claims he was the same before Hollywood but begins to question if that was really the case thinking back to his previous less industrialized persona. Cole in the 2nd wants something real; he recognizes the vacuousness that comes with the industry.

10. Hello [J. Cole, Pop Wansel, JProof] Production: 3/5 Song: 3.6/5

Hello has J. Cole call up an ex to see if they can re-kindle what they had after realizing in the previous song that he lacks a love life however he finds out she started a new life. Throughout the song Cole tries to reach her over the phone contemplating how he could have changed his life with her. Now 29, J. Cole barely has a home and unaware of where he belongs the decision to settle down and raise two kids seems out of the question. In the end Cole decides that everything is already in the past and is unchangeable. He points out that when considering the past, it offers lessons, but also comes with regrets.

11. Apparently [J. Cole, Omen] Production: 3.7/5 Song: 3.8/5

Apparently features an ambient beat with sampled bird tweets, implying that Cole has returned back home to his childhood home of Forest Hills Drive. Coming to the end of the project, Cole reflects on the wrong decisions he’s made and tries to correct them now knowing how much of a role model he’s become for people. Cole emphasises that rap is an art form and whether his work is accepted or not is irrelevant since at the end of the day there’s no correct method to create art. However in spending so much time on himself in terms of his craft and career, he admits that he forgot his family that’s been there from the start for him. He’s reached a point where he wants to be more with his girl and mother, especially after the way he treated them before. Cole further admits that whilst he isn’t the best servant, he remains faithful, looking to God for guidance, even shouting out God first on the album’s credits. The socio-political landscape of America sought to stifle his potential but his dreams were his liberation and so regardless of what happens he’s confident in his future, a point that he continues in the second verse, not all has been said and done and regardless he’ll still be rhyming somewhere in the world his attitude signified by his wordplay.

12. Love Yourz [!llmind, Cardiak] Production: 4.5/5 Song: 4.8/5

I’m a sucker for piano keys so, the beat production from the get go for me was on point, straight smooth. Love yours, it’s come full circle. Cole is points out that it is imperative to love and appreciate what you have, relatively speaking a person might possesses more but when you have true love for not only yourself but what you’ve been given you’ll end up being much happier.

13. Note To Self [J. Cole] Production: 5/5 Song: 5/5

Even though it’s the credits and 14 minutes long, I could straight up listen to Note to Self again and again. I feel it just ties the album together oh so nicely and is a personification of J. Cole. A soulful introduction that is ultimately an expressive and fun track. As the last sample clears Cole turns the song into the ending credits, first and foremost giving thanks to God and continues with shout outs to everyone who has helped in the making of the album and his journey to get to where he is now; his shout out to his mother is particularly moving. J. Cole makes a point of saying that there are no more crowns. As mentioned previously ,immortality in the culture should be what is strived for instead of crowns. He also acknowledges the protestors in Ferguson, where he himself visited to pay his respects to Mike Brown. Cole also calls out those who have made it difficult for him to clear samples with, arguing that he should be able to use their material if he pays them for it so that he can influence others as they have influenced him. J. Cole ends the track clowning with a shout out to Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jonah Hill only so admit that he’s never met them before.

Album Rating: 4.9/5

Overall J. Cole was successful ineffectively emulating his feelings about his own life, cultural difficulties and the flaws of the music industry. The way each track flows into the next with a clear narrative is something that should be commended and celebrated. Truth be told ‘2014 Forest Hills Drive’ sits at the pinnacle of modern day Hip Hop and is undoubtedly one of the best, if not the best Hip Hop album of 2014.

Words: Kitan Ogunfeibo

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