By Maceo Maddox
2014 Forest Hills Drive Album Review
J. Cole, the first artist signed to Roc Nation, has had a career met with a wide range of critical reception from journalists, casual listeners, and hardcore fans alike. His first three projects, all mixtapes, were generally well-received, showcasing his hunger, diverse flows, well-crafted stories, and what I consider J. Cole’s greatest allure: his passion and subject matter.
Cole amassed a large, loyal following in this span; however, his tenure following these initial three mixtapes has left his fan base questioning the future of a career that seemed so bright.
His debut LP, Cole World: The Sideline Story was his first trial in the mainstream realm. Though this album wasn’t terrible in-and-of itself, Cole was unable to actualize the potential seen in him, which resulted in lackluster execution and thus, reception. Exposure was a likely factor in this failure, with tracks such as Can’t Get Enough, Mr. Nice Watch, and Cole World weighing this album down.
His second LP, Born Sinner, revealed itself to be a pendulum swing in comparison to his first. Unabashedly safe, this album had a consistent sound, but Cole’s passion was all but absent. It seemed as though he feared the sharp critique that The Sideline Story was met with. However, while dodging that level of criticism, he produced a body of work that sounded a bit bland and unfetching, which led to the project being dubbed “Boring Sinner” by various personalities.
I was personally unamused by the audacity of Cole to sample hip-hop classics such as Da Art of Storytellin’ (Pt. 1) and Electric Relaxation so heavily. And Crooked Smile is an atrocity, but I digress. Even with his two mainstream near-misses, his fans still remained loyal and ready for Cole’s next attempt.
So this is where he stands now, with an anxious fan base all hoping that he can rekindle the fire that burned so passionately from ’08-’10. His third full-length LP, 2014 Forest Hills Drive.
This album features a loose narrative, that being J. Cole’s rise to Hollywood. Each song essentially encompasses his thoughts and struggles on this climb. The opening sequence of this album is the best part of this LP, which has its blessings and curses.
The piano on the Intro is classic J. Cole, and he lays down a short verse in the midst of an interesting inquiry. Smooth and not surprising. January 28th is a solid follow-up track, with vocals coasting in the background of a beat that knocks pretty hard.
Cole explores the thoughts that preceded his decision to become a rapper, and drops some braggadocious bars about how he’ll take over the rap game. Next up is arguably the best song on this project, Wet Dreamz, in which he raps the story of his first encounter with insatiable lust in his adolescence.
Masterfully crafted and relatable, this song is excellent. From lying about his virginity to the pre-coitus anxiety, Cole managed to weave a story which connects with damn-near any adolescent male, and he executes this with poignant lyricism and flow.
In ’03 Adolescence, Cole takes a dip into the pessimistic mindset of Cole and one of his peers, who is on his course to living “the life” and his criticisms in respect to both himself and Cole. This track is heavy, and hits the hardest when Cole and his friend share a dialogue which reveals the differing paths along which each of their lives is going. The instrumental on this song is solid as well, featuring chimes that steadily come in and out, along with a bass line that you feel, but isn’t too dominant.
A Tale of 2 Citiez is concerning on all facets. The beat on this song is unapologetically gimmicky, and so is the flow that Cole takes. Due to this, it’s difficult to engage with the track’s content. The pseudo-commerciality of this song renders it borderline skip-worthy in my opinion. I expect more of J. Cole than to produce something that follows such a banal trend in the rap community.
The following track, Fire Squad, is also concerning in regards to where the album may be headed at this point. The first two verses are nearly empty in regard to memorable bars, which is doubly unfortunate since it seems like Cole was trying to “come hard” in these two verses in particular. However, the “white people snatched the sound” verse brings this song to its feet; he offers something thought-provoking in the midst of this otherwise unstimulating piece.
Moving on to the halfway point of the album. St. Tropez is essentially an interlude; it includes mostly singing and cuts the album in half. If you consider the loose narrative of the LP, this track’s presence and placement actually make a fair amount of sense, but it doesn’t do much to add to or take away from the album.
GOMD is what I consider the most interesting song on this album. Throughout his career, J. Cole has been able to sprinkle themes and messages in songs that seem to be about nothing in the beginning. After a minute of instrumental and a tough first verse, GOMD features a gentle criticism on the absence of love. This track isn’t bad by any means. The chorus is intriguing, and the beat has a drum kick that resembles Niggaz Know. However, nothing about this song is particularly impressive or otherwise remarkable.
No Role Modelz sonically revitalizes the album, and is one of its best songs. Though Cole hadn’t released any singles prior to 2014FHD’s release, this track sounds like it could easily be on the radio. Normally that’d be a derogatory remark, but the subject matter on this track changes that. With a catchy chorus, critique on the “out-of-touch-with-reality hoes” in Hollywood, and discontent with the lack of real, substantive women for him to pursue, No Role Modelz is a nice, refreshing addition to the album.
The next track, Hello, includes an interesting sentiment, as Cole reminisces on a former lover and the alleged impossibilities of a relationship with her due to her having two kids now. The mid-way point of the song where Cole starts rapping in a quick, choppy flow is sort of disengaging, and the song is overall mediocre. Plus rising synth lines make the sound very cheesy.
In Apparently, Cole offers a nice sentiment to his mother for neglecting her in lieu of his pursuit of fame and his girl. However, the rest of the song is just more of Cole’s theme-less rapping over a piano riff that gets pretty old.
The final full song on the album, Love Yourz, has a wonderful message that pertains to all. He beseeches his audience to overlook the differences between your life and those who may be more successful. “No such thing as a life that’s better than yours.” I see this track having great replay value for years to come, as what it communicates is a lesson that many may struggle with.
2014 Forest Hills Drive offers consistency on the platform of production. The beats are solid, and don’t venture far, if at all, from what you would expect from a J. Cole project. However, when it comes to what’s being communicated from song-to-song, this album is one of highs and mediums. Nothing about the album as a whole is particularly bad. In fact, there are more things to praise about the album that to shame it for.
However, this album is more of a pendulum swing between the good songs and the mediocre ones. 2014 Forest Hills Drives offers fewer blunders than The Sideline Story and more passion than Born Sinner. However, the absence of the bad doesn’t equate to good. Also, it seems that Cole has lost his capacity to “go hard”, so to speak. Nearly every verse on this LP that doesn’t have a theme to follow is slightly-above-average at best, in regards to wordplay and delivery. Many of the flows lack competitive spice.
Still, this album is consistent. It sits on the fence between “good” and “decent.” If Cole can eliminate the mediocrity in his lyricism on the tracks that aren’t meant to be thought-provoking, then his next work will be a step up from here. This album will serve as a breath of fresh air to Cole fans who were expecting more from him in the wake of his previous two letdowns.
2014 Forest Hills Drive: 7.8/10