In mid-November, J. Cole surprised the vast majority of the hip-hop community with the announcement that his third studio album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, would be dropping just three weeks later. Promotion was minimal, with no singles released in advance of the record itself and Cole merely tweeting a seven-minute trailer video explaining the reference to his childhood home in the album’s title – Forest Hills Drive, Fayetteville, North Carolina. Thus, the rapper and his Dreamville Records imprint had managed to create a certain mysterious air of curiosity in the brief, intense run-up to release day.
In the 18 months since his 2013 album Born Sinner, Cole has been working hard to realign his position within the diverse rap spectrum, earning plaudits from critics and fans alike for his efforts to push against the grain and distance himself from the materialistic, regressive themes of money, cars and girls that remain so pervasive within mainstream hip-hop. The seeds of this change had been sown from the opening track of Born Sinner – “My pops was club hopping back when Rick James was out, and all I get is Trinidad James / Wait a minute that’s strange, sip a bit of champagne, say fuck / If the hoes like it, I love it nigga nigga nigga” – but it wasn’t until the August release of Be Free, his personal response to the killing of Michael Brown, that people really started to fully take notice. Soon, Cole was being pictured at protests in Ferguson and New York, walking amongst fellow marchers calling for the killers of unarmed black men such as Brown and Eric Garner to face justice; a powerful image that formed a harsh contrast with some of his peers at the top of the rap game who seem more comfortable hidden from the public eye within nightclub VIP enclosures.
Given this context, those who jumped on to iTunes to pre-order 2014 Forest Hills Drive in anticipation of an album full of trap bangers and hot guest features were likely to be disappointed come release day. Immediately from the Intro, the listener is welcomed with a soulful soundscape of warm pianos and strings as Cole sets out his stall, presenting the album’s prevalent themes of freedom, love and home. Singing in his raw, gravelly tone rather than spitting the steady flows fans have grown accustomed to, Cole declares himself “Free from pain, free from scars / Free to sing, free from bars” as he references his tribute to Brown and asks the listener “Do you wanna be free?”.
The record then proceeds to take us through a tour of Cole’s life thus far, right from the start; “January 28th” takes a leaf out of mentor Jay-Z’s book by referencing the rapper’s own birthday, just as Hov did on The Black Album with “December 4th”. Cole sounds comfortable, at home over his own production, exploring new flows over a rich, multi-layered beat that incorporates an ethereal sample from Japanese chorus group Hi-Fi Set, deep grooving bass guitar and snapping snares. A rapper sometimes criticised for sounding boring on the mic, Cole certainly does not get enough credit for his production skills, and it seems that the ever-improving quality of his beats in turn inspires his raps. Cole describes the state of affairs as he structures the song cleverly, reminding us that he has gone from being “Carolina’s finest” in the first verse to “New York’s finest” in the second, and then asserting his place at the top of the rap game in the third alongside the “God MC” Rakim that he shares a birthday with.
Cole’s youth flies by in a showreel through the opening tracks, pausing to highlight certain key experiences, from losing his virginity on “Wet Dreamz” to graduating high school and having to choose between legitimate and less legal means of earning a living on “03′ Adolescence” and “A Tale of 2 Citiez”, using old-school boom-bap drum patterns and warm strings to help generate an air of nostalgia. It is this part of the album that is clearly the strongest – the stage of Cole’s life that it reflects on allows him to take advantage of his own fortés, pairing rich, head-bouncing hip-hop production with his vivid storytelling ability.
Having set the tone, Cole then begins to creep out of his comfort zone and take a few more risks; lyrically, as he tackles white appropriation of black culture in “Fire Squad”; and musically, as he conjures up a luscious soundscape of saxophones and intertwining soul samples on “St. Tropez”. Exploring his relationship with the high life, Cole imitates the club sounds prevalent in mainstream hip-hop on “G.O.M.D.” as he questions how rewarding the Hollywood lifestyle really is. Cole’s humour is one of his greatest assets, making him fun and likeable as he draws in the listener with comedy: prefacing an introspective verse, Cole declares: “This is the part that the thugs skip!”
However, the album sadly seems to peak far too early, as the quality takes a significant dip in the final third. The concept of development seems to get lost as Cole blurs multiple themes across songs, addressing (amongst various other things) his relationships with his mother and various girlfriends, as well as the absence of adequate role models for him growing up to guide him away from the materialistic ideals projected upon his impressionable mind by society. While these topics are no doubt meaningful and heartfelt, the warping of the chronology of the album’s story arc is confusing and only serves to betray the fluidity of the concept; Cole works so hard to craft such a well structured, multi-faceted dissection of his own growth as an artist, that it is almost heartbreaking to see it fade away as the record limps to its conclusion.
The self-sabotage is embodied in the album’s rambling final track, “Note to Self”, which consists of little more than Cole shouting down the microphone over a looped instrumental as he thanks an almost endless list of friends, colleagues and inspirations. It is shamelessly unprofessional and while it may be mildy endearing to hear the rapper expressing his gratitude to those who helped bring the record to fruition, it completely shatters the listener’s peace and brings us right back to the harsh reality of the music industry, rather than letting us enjoy the climax of the album as we reflect on its content and message.
J. Cole is clearly incredibly gifted as both a musician and a lyricist, and has impressed many with his increased keenness to use his position of power and influence to advocate social responsibility. Nonetheless, his own lack of tact and subtlety remains the main obstacle preventing him from joining the elite pantheon of great hip-hop artists. 2014 Forest Hill Drive could have been one of the albums of the year had it been granted the culmination it deserved, rather than being left in its raw, unpolished state; one wonders why Cole was not given a few more months of development to do so, with little urgent public clamour for release. As it is, this is a solid showing, but unfortunately the wait continues for Cole to deliver the truly classic album he clearly believes he is capable of.