J. Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive Is A Homecoming For More Than Himself (Album Review)

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There is beauty in the struggle. There is ugliness in the success.

Whether you’re currently satisfied within the achievements you envisioned for yourself, on the cusp of that individual gratification, or miles away from your desired prosperity, Jermaine Lamar Cole has arrived with his third full-length album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, rich with conviction, administering sentiments that will simultaneously ground, encourage, and inspire you on your quest for fulfillment.

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In today’s ever progressing Rap industry, artists dawning genuine self-awareness are certainly not expired, but the accessibility, and focus on them, has increasingly diminished. While it’s no surprise that J. Cole continues his career trajectory down a path of modesty, as his catalog has unwaveringly been rooted in his own humility, exemplified by a plethora of vulnerable tracks throughout it (“Lost Ones,” “Let Nas Down,” “Chaining Day,” “Crooked Smile”), Cole’s endearing sincerity has never been presented on the grand scale in which it is amongst the entirety of 2014 Forest Hills Drive.

Even before indulging in the music itself, Cole allows the listener a glimpse of the authenticity that his junior release will adhere to, simply by his preference of executing the project with no guest features. A rarity from the customary blueprint that most recognized and mainstream artists abide by, along with his au natural and solo approach to this project, there was also an absence of the conventional pre-sale marketing campaign. A possible shock method pulled from the pages of his mentor Hova’s book, Decoded? Perhaps. Nonetheless, the decision to make the leap by his lonesome, when at this point in his career any colleague would be accessible, exudes a striking confidence and reinforces the notion that whatever is to ensue on 2014 Forest Hills Drive (the address of the Fayetteville, North Carolina house he was raised in) will be profoundly intimate.

A storyteller first and foremost, Cole’s lyrical strengths perfectly align with the vision of the album, as the concept of Forest Hills Drive is a greatly personal story of adolescence, strife, independence, the quest and attainment of dreams, the trials and fabrication that accompany fame, and ultimately the realization of what matters most to him, and his readjustment to make that simplicity a priority.

After a harmonious intro that queries – “Do you want to be happy? Do you want to be free?”, Cole uses the second track, January 28th (his actual birthday), to exhibit that aforementioned self-assurance, as the first lyrics he raps on the album are – “The real is back, the ‘Ville is back / flow bananas, here, peel this back / What you’ll find is, your highness can paint a picture that’s vivid enough to cure blindness.”

Displaying obvious poise and ingenuity from the jump, Cole begins to present his story, as he sequentially covers subjects such as losing his virginity (“Wet Dreamz”), dealing with poverty while attending high school (“03’ Adolescence”) – “I grew up a fucking screw up/tie my shoe up, wish they were newer / Damn, need something newer,” however, beginning to understand that he doesn’t have it all too bad based on his friend’s situations – “I felt ashamed to have ever complained about my lack of gear and thought about how far we done came / From trailer park to a front yard with trees in the sky / Thank you mama, dry your eye, there ain’t no reason to cry”

As the album unfolds, the mood of it immediately takes on a different tone, with Cole spending the next two tracks (“A Tale Of 2 Citiez,” “Fire Squad”) rhyming much more assertively over two notably aggressive beats. Cole’s inflection becomes impassioned and somewhat enraged, as he both commences his craving for fame – “Small town nigga, Hollywood dreams / I know that everything that glitters ain’t gold/I know the shit ain’t always good as it seems / But tell me, till you get it how could you know?” and appears to gain confidence in his lyrical dexterity, professing that he is now the king of the rap game – “Ain’t no way around it no more, I am the greatest / A lot of niggas sat on the throne, I am the latest.”

The subsequent track is the first interlude on the album (“St. Tropez”), and it serves major purpose, as it signifies the moment in Cole’s life where he relocates to Hollywood in pursuit of his desired fame. – “He’s on his way, he’s about to get paid, he’s on his way to Hollywood.” Cole spends the following three tracks (“G.O.M.D.,” “No Role Modelz,” “Hello”) coming to terms with his new Hollywood life and image, but beginning to sincerely doubt the relationships he’s established, the integrity of the music he is creating, and thoroughly regretting his move out West, as he progressively grasps the reality that he has nothing of significance directly surrounding him. While sonically, this may be the most inferior portion of Forest Hills Drive, structurally it is the most essential, as it initiates Cole’s transformation into the definitive conclusion to remove himself from the counterfeit existence he thought he coveted.

As Forest Hills Drive comes to finality, Cole introduces the two most heartfelt tracks on the project. On the album’s first official single (“Apparently”), he reminisces on the key elements of his character and what shaped him, and how he lost touch with everything that mattered most. Focusing on his mother, and his return home to Fayetteville, he professes his apologies for going away to college (St. Johns) and leaving her alone to deal with the foreclosure of the same house that the album is titled after – “The only thing like home I’ve ever known / Until they snatched it from my Mama and foreclosed her on the loan / I’m so sorry that I left you there to deal with that alone / I need to treat you better / Wish you could live forever, so we could spend more time together / I love you mama.”

The culmination of Forest Hills Drive is undoubtedly the album’s final song (“Love Yourz”) before the outro. While it exemplifies the moment of tranquility that Cole had been seeking the entirety of the album, it also finds him channeling all of the lessons he learned throughout his course to clarity, and candidly extending the gradually obtained wisdom and insight. Surely the most honest three minutes of the album, Cole reassures and encourages the listener to refrain from being envious of the life of others, and instead appreciate and focus on loving the life and the people you have been graced with in your own. – “For what’s money without happiness, or hard times without the people you love? / Though I’m not sure what’s about to happen next, I ask for strength from the Lord up above / Always gon’ be a bigger house somewhere, but nigga feel me / As long as the people in that motherfucker love you dearly.”

While Cole wears the ups and downs of his life on his lyrical sleeve, and the album’s focus is centered on his own explorations, his real achievement is in his aptitude to invite the listener in to share and reflect on the same emotions he has encountered. 2014 Forest Hills Drive is for those who are struggling in any facet, yet remain determined. It’s for those who are in pursuit of more substance and personal enlightenment. It’s a reminder to stay cognizant of your roots, your youthfulness, your weaknesses, and your perpetual blessings all at once. It’s the audible representation of a newly self-appointed king, sitting confidently on his throne of truth, constructed off honesty, with his memoir in hand, benevolently offering the contents of every page to each soul that seeks and assimilates it.

2014 Forest Hills Drive is Jermaine Cole’s story, but it was made for the people.

Purchase 2014 Forest Hills Drive by J. Cole.

Author Michael Blair can be followed on Twitter @senseiscommon

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