J. Cole announced his latest LP 2014 Forest Hills Drive just three weeks before its release date. He did away with the normal single driven formula exhibited by record labels since the beginning of time, opting to rely on quality music and a loyal following to make the album a success.
And a success it was. 2014 Forest Hills Drive ended up being one of last year’s top selling albums, selling an astonishing 350,000 copies in its first week. Most importantly, it was highly favored amongst J. Cole fans. The people had spoken, but you know we had to break it down and give it the Ether Report treatment.
As a longtime J. Cole fan I can say that I was excited for this album. Born Sinner was a solid effort, but I knew what Cole was capable of. Something better.
You’re hit with a standout cut right from the gate in ¨January 28,¨ Cole’s intro track titled after his birthdate, also a metaphor for his birth in the story told throughout the album. Laden with a warm sample, horns, and drums, ¨January 28¨ created a certain mood that was cold in nature, yet reassuring tone. All three of Cole’s verses play a part in the song’s beauty as he touches on social injustice, progression, and his place in today’s everchanging rap game. It plays its part as a true intro, as those topics are what shape most of the content throughout the album.
It’s also the beginning of the story told on 2014 Forest Hills Drive. The album plays out like an autobiography chronicling Cole’s rise to stardom. His born day (Jan. 28), losing his virginity (Wet Dreamz), growing up (‘03 Adolescence), stardom (St. Tropez), and realizing what’s truly important (Love Yourz). Many have tried, but few succeed when it comes to putting together truly cohesive albums where every track plays a role. Cole did a good job of that here.
Another standout cut was the conversation starter ¨Fire Squad.¨ It was clear that Cole was looking to snatch the crown in the great rap debate and this was the trick he had up his sleeve. With help from Grammy nominated producer, Vinylz, Fire Squad’s instrumental thumps like a right hook and it’s subject matter serves it’s purpose.
Beyond the commentary about other rappers, Cole has a controversial line about music and its history in general where he makes an observation that hip-hop, an African American genre, is slowly being appropriated by white artists, such as Eminem, Macklemore, and Iggy Azalea. A strong bar indeed, many actually criticized Cole for pulling his punch after saying it. Was it the right move…or nah?
History repeats itself and that’s just how it goes
Same way that these rappers always bite each others flows
Same thing that my nigga Elvis did with Rock n Roll
Justin Timberlake, Eminem, and then Macklemore
While silly niggas argue over who gon’ snatch the crown
Look around, my nigga, white people have snatched the sound
This year I’ll prolly go to the awards dappered down
Watch Iggy win a Grammy as I try to crack a smile
I’m just playin’, but all good jokes contain true shit
– J. Cole, Fire Squad
It was a smart way to go about getting his point across. He softened the blow to avoid backlash, but made it effective enough for him to communicate his message. He ends ¨Fire Squad¨ with a poetic dismissal of hip-hop hierarchies, disenegrating the proverbial ¨crown¨ upon receiving it based upon his idea that every poet ultimately wants to be loved.
Other highlights from the album shined just as bright. ¨G.O.M.D.¨ was a mini-medley, ¨03 Adolescence¨ was a coming of age banger with my personal favorite verse on the album (the story told in the second verse), ¨No Role Modelz¨ was unpredicatably catchy, and ¨Love Yourz¨ was just beautfiul.
Of course the album had its share of criticism. The obvious one is Cole’s newfound infatuation with harmonizing. ¨St. Tropez¨ was an interlude that should have announced itself as such and ¨Hello¨ was a bit messy. Cole’s vocals weren’t strong enough for us to appreciate its decent writing and song arrangement. We get what that he wanted to explore himself artistically here, but it was a bit much during the entire last half of the album.
It was also apparent that Cole allowed himself to be influenced by what’s going on in today’s rap world. You can see the GKMC-concept like approach to the album—Cole found comfort in singing a la Drake , and just other little bits (I know I heard some Chance The Rapper there somewhere) scattered throughout the album song to song.
Overall, speaking as a fan of J. Cole, I can say that I was satisfied with 2014 Forest Hills Drive. Cole hasn’t disappointed in the past, but there was something missing from Sideline Story and Born Sinner that Forest Hills possesses. He’s proved he could rap as good as anyone out there; he’s proved he could make hits and now he’s proved that he could make an album. On his third effort he’s clearly still exploring himself artistically so I still don’t feel like we’ve hit a ceiling, but the aptly titled effort hits home, if not a home run.
*Ether Report Card (7.78 out of 10)