Nobody does impressions of J. Cole, or at least I’ve never seen one. Why does this matter? Because the most influential MC’s tend to be so distinct that if you just did the “Ugh!” Biggie ad-lib on a train, someone would probably mouth “Listening to ‘Hypnotize’ eh?” “Uh-huh!” is Jay-Z. “Ohhhhhhhhhh…” = Drake. You get the idea, dear Reader. The point is that J. Cole doesn’t actually have any signifiers, anything particular distinct about him – and he made his major debut feature over half a decade ago, now. It’s one thing to be the ‘everyman’ of hip hop, but at some point, is it just a symptom of overwhelming shyness? A lack of daring? An acceptance of mediocrity? Risk aversion can manifest itself in different ways – one of my friends is, by his own admission, extremely averse to taking any kind of chance on a daily basis: he constantly plays percentages. Yet, every now and then, he’ll surprise us all – this year he moved to the other side of the world. It was calculated, but fraught with potential difficulties – and in “2014 Forest Hills Drive”, J. Cole has taken a massive risk (by his own standards) in releasing a brutally honest, deep and self-analysing album that with bring about a multitude of diverse emotions, depending on who is listening to it at the time.
Here is the breakdown you need to ‘buy into’ before going any further: essentially, Cole is taking you back to the last decade, and the base of it all is his time at the address 2014 Forest Hills Drive (he sits atop the house itself on the stunning album cover). Following a mood-setting intro – which acts a subtle mission statement for FHD – you get a “December 4th” kind of set up song (“January 28th). Then, we launch headfirst into something akin to “good kid, m.A.A.d city” except over a much longer chronological period of time. To me, the album conjures up hazy memories of 2002 to 2005, in particular. The riskier element is that he essentially role-plays songs later on in the LP, especially from “St Tropez” to “Hello” where his ‘character’ finds career success but loses himself. If you are just giving this a cursory listen, you will be able to pick holes all over FHD; if, however, you really commit to it, you’ll find subtle gems interwoven into every piece of fabric.
Like Kanye’s MBDTF intro, which asks “Can we get much higher?” the intro to FHD finds Cole asking us and himself “Do you wanna be happy?” It’s a challenge of sorts to a 29 year old who is in danger of allegedly losing himself, and it’s already refreshing to hear “January 28th” exist in stark contrast to the vast majority of his first two albums. It brings to mind Michelangelo’s saying: “The greater danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.” Cole spans various topics, from his personal challenges, to Ferguson, and then addressing Drake/Kendrick about who the real God is (he shares his birthday with Rakim). It’s a lush opening, and leads into one of the most fully-formed songs on the long play: “Wet Dreamz” is a masterclass in storytelling rap, in which Cole gives an incredibly realistic account of his first time having sex. That would, ordinarily, be the stuff of nightmares, but the song just works because it’s so identifiable. The ending has a rather obvious twist but that doesn’t detract much, and the ‘z’ on the end brings to mind Tupac tracks which, one presumes, little Jermaine would have been obsessed with as a yout’.
“’03 Adolescence” is a fascinating track, one that the average middle class college student could potentially relate to – the allure of a certain lifestyle, and the ignorance of appreciating that the grass is already greener where you are… It’s deep, samples Biggie, details his own lack of confidence, talks about absent fathers and finds himself questioning: “Who am I?” The instrumental has a “Reasonable Doubt” feel to it, and you’ll constantly find yourself referencing other classic albums as you listen to FHD (surely this represents Cole’s influences at different stages of his life). It’s followed up by a serious one-two of the Kendrick-esque “A Tale of 2 Citiez”, albeit one that references Charles Dickens and Cole moving to New York. He was a big fish in a small pond (Fayetteville) and then gets swamped in NY’s inherent vastness. The self-referencing “Ugh, Nice Watch!” and concert-friendly “Hands… In The… Air… Now!” chorus work brilliantly, and then the action switches back to the ‘Ville. It’s cleverly crafted, the beat from Vinylz is sublime, and the same producer arguably does even better on the next track.
The inflammatory “Fire Squad” is one of the few real head-nod-shit songs on FHD, and it bangs – or at least the beat/chorus do. Lyrically, it’s all over the place, with moments of genius and banality duelling for supremacy, and the most unforgivable aspect is part of Cole’s DNA: apologising for saying something controversial (why, Jermaine, WHY?). It also marks Cole coming back to the present tense – which actually makes very little sense and sabotages the narrative. Mid-song, the bridge practically switches back to Lil Jermaine as it references Jay-Z, Tupac and Wu Tang, before getting the infamous part about “white people have snatched the sound.” Cole then says: “I’m just playing…” and ruins the entire point. Such a shame.
Back to the actual concept album… “St Tropez” has a Mos Def feel to it, with Cole singing the whole thing over a stunning Esther Phillips sample. It seems to mix being scared of ambition with clear drug references, and a general mistrust of Hollywood – the metaphorical pinnacle of his wants, which are now tearing him apart. This leads nicely into ‘Hollywood Cole’ jumping up on what is essentially meant to be a Timbaland track in all but name (this would seem to indicate that mid-Noughties Timmy era of dominance?). “G.O.M.D.” is basically Cole playing a rapper that makes/mocks a ‘typical club song’. It’s subtly slips in an entire break up and make up – the individuality of brings to mind the kind of shit that Little Brother might have done around that era (lampoon lowest common dominator fodder). It’s followed by another track in this vein – “No Role Modelz” – and it’s the first song that you’d instantly feel should never have made the cut. It details Cole’s questionable attitude, and it sets up the next few songs thematically, but first things first, it ruins the feel of FHD. Whether it’s a necessarily evil is up to you.
“Hello” finds Cole reminiscing about a former flame in a “Song Cry” way, and although it’s well sequenced musically, with the tempo matching the emotions, one could again question the inclusion, particularly after the disappointing “No Role Modelz” – some of the momentum is sapped. It’s an indulgent song on an indulgent album, but that’s the whole point – whether you can accept that is, again, your decision. At least the final two songs are fucking brilliant. “Apparently” is just epic in scope, expertly delivered and quite superlative (despite a couple of clunky lines, although that could be said of literally any J. Cole song ever). All of these could be applied to “Love Yourz” too, which is somewhat evocative of Common’s “Love Is.” It’s crammed full of jewels, pearls of wisdom (“The good news is nigga you came a long way/The bad news is nigga you came the wrong way”) and a beautifully simple instrumental. It’s the spiritual end of the album, and for some insane reason, is followed up by a Lupe “Food & Liquor” style 14 minute outro with audio liner notes. Why, Cole, WHY? Ugh.
I’m somewhat torn between incredible respect for “2014 Forest Hills Drive” and my critical nature genuinely not enjoying the more self-sabotaging moments that clip the wings of the LP. Cole’s downfall has thus far been thanks to personality flaws like insecurity, being desperate for ‘rap greatness’ and trying to anoint himself as equal to Drake and Kendrick. Yet, lyrically and flow-wise, Cole has massively stepped up his game – with fewer Game-isms and corny lines (though a few will always remain). He sings pretty much all of the choruses, more subtle than the radio-baiting “Born Sinner” but then this is a far more reflective effort, slower in tempo and veering into background listening territory at times. It’s a deep record and will go over many a head – but simultaneously, that doesn’t matter unless the quality level is there too (something that Kendrick arguably managed on GKMC). The engineering deserves a shout out, as it is exceptional, but a proper executive producer (a wise old head, perhaps) may well have trimmed the fat and presented us with an intro and 9-10 songs. He’s been afforded a rare amount of artistic freedom on “2014 Forest Hills Drive” and there aren’t even any singles, so it’s great that he’s more or less delivered. But whilst this definitely misses out on classic territory, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a bloody good album for the most part. Who knows what the future holds for J. Cole, but although it may not be a great album in everyone’s eyes, it’s clearly a great effort from the MC. And you can’t say fairer than that.