Review: J Cole – 2014 Forest Hills Drive

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J Cole is not known for resting on his laurels, and his third album 2014 Forest Hills Drive is no exception. It follows hot on the heels of 2013’s Born Sinner, with less than 18 months between the two releases. Released with very little self-promotion, Cole let the record speak for itself. It’s a tack that has obviously paid off, as the album is his fastest selling yet, moving over 350,000 copies in its first week.

Whilst conscious hip-hop is nothing new, the past few years have seen a surge in the popularity of down to Earth rappers, largely thanks to the gargantuan success of Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City and Chance The Rapper’s Acid Rap. Cole capitalizes on this, producing an album promoting positivity and self-affirmation throughout. This is immediately apparent from the album’s introduction, which revolves around melodic piano and the refrain “Do you wanna be happy?”

Named after his childhood home in North Carolina (although it being released in 2014 is no coincidence), 2014FHD focusses heavily on Cole’s upbringing. Tracks such as ‘Wet Dreamz’ and ‘03’ Adolescence’ are prime examples, the former discusses a topic that just about every post-pubescent male can relate to: the pursuit of losing his virginity. Sexual prowess is not a novel theme in hip-hop, but ‘Wet Dreamz’ approaches it in a refreshingly honest manner (as the title suggests), describing how a young J Cole would fantasize about his crush in class “thinking about how that body looks naked…Teacher please don’t make me stand up”.

Like his contemporary Kendrick Lamar, Cole doesn’t shy away from describing the grittier aspects of his life, from early life in a trailer park and his get rich quick aspirations as a small time cannabis dealer (‘03’ Adolescence’) to committing robberies and his friends becoming murderers in ‘A Tale of 2 Citiez’, “my nigga Eddie caught a body…last night we pulled up on a nigga at the light like, nice watch, run it”. The difference between Lamar’s and Cole’s albums is that GKMC is disguised as a West Coast gangster rap album to a casual listener, whereas 2014FHD is a more overtly optimistic offering.

Consistency is key to 2014FHD’s success. Whereas his previous records have been hit and miss, the newest maintains its quality from start to finish, whether on bangers or ballads. Cole is credited as producer on 10 of the 13 tracks, and there is not a feature in sight. Sonically, the album benefits hugely from this, and the beats are replete with a string section and piano throughout. The only arguable weak point on the album is closing track ‘Note to Self’. The outro is a sprawling, 14 minute shout out to just about everyone, from everybody involved in the making of the album (all addressed personally), to Dale Earnhardt Jr and Jonah Hill, though he admits the latter two are a joke. Cole accepts that this skit is perhaps a little unappealing to everybody at the beginning, “this is ‘roll credits’ nigga, if you don’t wanna sit through the credits get your ass up and walk out the movie theatre”.

2014 Forest Hills Drive is Cole stepping up to the plate and delivering his most cohesive album yet, being light-hearted without compromising his arrogance, and deftly delivering both.

2014 Forest Hills Drive is available now on Roc Nation/Columbia.

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2014 Forest Hills Drive is Cole stepping up to the plate and delivering his most cohesive album yet, being light-hearted without compromising his arrogance, and deftly delivering both.

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