As other rappers stretched genre parameters to unexplored extremes, the beloved and bemoaned J. Cole walked a straight road. 2014 Forest Hills Drive finds the rapper in similar motion, but with a more comfortable stride.
Melodramatic pianos and hits have followed Cole World, his 2011 debut, but not once did the rapper emerge from the studio with a gang of new tricks. Familiarity works when an act relentlessly polishes past material, but Cole has never improved his music while mitigating missteps along the way.
The results, almost, but not quite records, deliver venerable work (“Lost Ones” and “Breakdown” off his aforementioned, freshman effort; “Mo Money” and “Let Nas Down” off Born Sinner) plagued by underwhelming normalcy. Critics and rap fans love to label Cole an insomnia cure, a claim he validates all too frequently. The biggest disappointments, however, come not in the banality of his vocal presence but in the uninspired rhyme structures and stale lyrics of “Can’t Get Enough,” “Mr. Nice Watch,” “Ain’t That Some S***,” etc. Few tracks approached the quotable lines and sentiments that lace “Enchanted,” “Premeditated Murder,” “Til’ Infinity” and “The Badness,” all songs from his fan-favorite mixtapes.
On The Warm Up, J. Cole was “broke trying to chase a dream.” Friday Night Lights found him scrambling past contemporaries. Sideline Story cemented a top-tier star in 2010s hip-hop and Born Sinner, in itself intended as a corrective medicine to compensate for its predecessor’s weaknesses, fell short.
As the stories evolved, one theme became apparent: unrealized potential. Forest Hills still slopes through peaks and valleys, but most of its running time unfolds on higher ground. The record is Cole’s closet realignment to the mixtapes that made him, a rush of storytelling (“Love Yourz”), insightful race remarks (“Fire Squad”) and memorable hooks (“A Tale of 2 Citiez”) lightly blemished by a handful of duds. Yet even the lesser tracks house gems worth excavating.
The first verse of “03’ Adolescence” is one of the album’s clunkiest, but a dreamscape beat and solemn chorus make it worthwhile. “Things change, rearrange and so do I,” he softly croons, alluding to the power of life’s grand, golden temptations.
“January 28th,” which might double to some as a lullaby, offers a clever couplet that highlights the stereotypical paths presented to young African Americans: “I turn the TV on, not one hero in sight/unless he dribble or he fiddle with mics.” Sadly, most of the rhymes here assert the Roc Nation MC a God not unlike Rakim, who shares the same Jan. 28 birthdate. The brags were exhausted on Born Sinner, and Cole later backtracks on his crown-oriented comments anyway, rendering a sizable chunk of the song’s lyrics a lifeless retread.
He’s at his worst when stunting in the mirror. He’s at his best when exposing largely untouched subjects.
“Wet Dreamz” revives the momentum by fulfilling that latter category. The Twitter wasteland is likely littered with wisecracks about Cole’s recollected first time, but the low hanging fruit for favorites and retweets is one of the most personally revealing and relatable rap songs of 2014. If your initial sex escapade doesn’t closely resemble Cole’s, you’re an outlier, for better or worse. “Hello,” also unique in subject matter, sees the lovestruck artist thinking about an old partner who now has two kids of her own. Unwilling to accept a step-father role, he tries to look to the future but can’t remove the woman from his memory.
“St. Tropez” recounts soul-tainting trips to the golden coast, and, like “Intro,” acts as a kernel, the thesis to explain this project’s retrospective nature and overarching need for positivity and acceptance. While “about to get paid and on his way to Hollywood,” Cole increasingly struggles to smile. Slithering snakes and phony fakes don’t do the soul any favors.
Save for the bland “Apparently,” Forest Hills’ final five songs comprise its finest stretch. “No Role Modelz” leads the pack, and the album, with a beat all but the most bitter Cole opponents would march to. Stuttering hi-hats, swirling horns and gospel accents underscore an enchanting hook sure to pick up radio steam in the coming months. At its core, “Modelz” returns to the ethos of “January 28th”’s best line. He attributes disrespectful behavior to a lack of moralistic community leaders, veiling his message behind an otherwise ignorant conquest of women.
Although he dedicates bars to such issues, and attacks rappers’ pursuit of a throne already stolen by white appropriators, Cole’s more so looking back and within. 2014 Forest Hills Drive is a personal document, and, upon repeated listens, shapes up to be his best full-length release since Friday Night Lights. The unexpected triumph, closer “Note to Self,” follows in “Last Call”’s footsteps, and boasts as much passion as any traditional song in Cole’s catalog. His voice strains as he screams “I love you” to his mother, his natural humor shines in a fibbed anecdote featuring Jonah Hill and Dale Earnhardt Jr., and his boyish excitement could deflect many of the complaints lobbed his way. Cole’s failures to appear charismatic on wax are paradoxical because, beyond the recording booth, he projects such a likable persona.
It makes you wonder if there’s anything left for one of the decade’s most successful hip-hop artists. Cole is undeniably good and arguably great, but a glass ceiling separates him from joining hands with the greatest. To have any hopes of rising through the all-time ranks, which we seem to care about more than he does at this point, he’ll have to tweak and perfect his traditional approach. Regardless, 2014 offers all the personal closure he could have ever dreamed of.
4 out of 5
You can purchase 2014 Forest Hills Drive on Amazon.