Artist: J. Cole
Released: December 9th, 2014
Even after a bunch of mixtapes and three successful albums, J.Cole still seems a little like the new kid on the block. It isn’t talent that he lacks, certainly, and at this stage, it isn’t experience either. Critics have a variety of names for that elusive quality – stage presence, star power, the x-factor – but by any name, its absence is undeniable. In more concrete terms, it is best encapsulated in Cole’s self-confidence and self-awareness and the effects they have on his music. Cole and by extension, his latest album, 2014 Forest Hill Drive, suffer at the hands of that self-consciousness. He is just slightly too aware of his contemporaries and predecessors and as a result, the comparisons are ubiquitous (and not always favourable) and result in him trying too hard to differentiate himself, not realizing that most of the truly timeless classic hip-hop albums were created when the respective artists ignored their competition and just did what they came to do. Still, while he hasn’t learned that one lesson, he has still improved considerably in other areas. If 2013’s Born Sinner bored you, then 2014 Forest Hill Drives might offer a refreshing change – the production is sharper and with much more bite while Cole’s flows are tighter yet more diverse than ever. This isn’t Cole’s magnum opus by any means, but in many ways, it’s a strong, positive step in the right direction.
If nothing else, 2014 Forest Hill Drive really showcases Cole’s versatility. Whether nostalgic, angry or just hyped, Cole shows considerable aptitude in choosing which delivery style in his increasingly broad repertoire is best suited for the track at hand. The results, unsurprisingly, are rather mixed; when he gets it right, the track is amazing and worthy of a much greater album but even when he doesn’t get it perfectly right, he rarely misjudges his own production enough to truly ruin a track. Certainly, some tracks on the album are weaker than others but it is to Cole’s credit that the album has no real mediocre tracks that exist for no reason other than to space out their better crafted brethren. The diversity isn’t just in the style though – the tracks on 2014 Forest Hill Drive are a mixed lot as well, from the intensely personal ‘Wet Dreamz’ and ’03 Adolescence’ to the more socially aware ‘Fire Squad’ and the catchy ‘G.O.M.D’. Cole’s lyricism has improved as well, perhaps as a direct consequence of his relying less on predecessors’ influences. Yet for all that, one can’t quite shake the feeling that the variety being displayed is fuelled by Cole’s own awareness of how generic and unimaginative his normal flow and vocals are.
Like his rapping, Cole’s production has always been good but the question has arisen repeatedly about whether it’s good enough. Gone are the days when producer-rappers were scorned and were expected to produce little more than weak lyrics over poppy beats; these days, an artist attempting to produce for himself is expected to be as good with the boards as he is over the beat. Musically, 2014 Forest Hill Drive is pleasant but utterly without innovation. While it is somewhat more energetic and emphatic than the blandness of Born Sinner, if Cole truly has aspirations to make a bona-fide classic, he will have to do much better. There is nothing on this album that listeners have not heard before on any number of other, better hiphop records. If Cole insists on producing for himself, he might be well-served by throwing a couple of guest producers into the mix – the new ideas can help shake the project out of its own stupor and inspire Cole as well. As things stand though, the production is far from terrible but wrapped in the melodramatic nostalgia that Cole is most comfortable with.
On 2014 Forest Hill Drive, Cole is closer than ever to fulfilling the promise that he first showed when he first emerged on the scene. Forever a student of the game, Cole knows what it takes to make a great album; Forest Hill Drive mixes the ambition with honesty. The formula behind the album is apparent; the references to 2Pac (in replacing ‘s’ with ‘z’ in the song titles), Jay-Z and Kanye West as well as the increased braggadocio all suggests that he is trying to raise himself in the listener’s mind by drawing (faux) comparisons to other great acts. However, that formula cannot and should not detract from the intimacy of the album. The album is full of Cole’s life; the album’s finest moments are born from the marriage of the tender honesty of the incidents and Cole’s wistful delivery. It takes a certain level of courage, especially these days, to put out a real, honest-to-god solo album; like his idol Nas on Illmatic, Cole’s latest effort has no guest appearances, famous or otherwise. Ultimately, 2014 Forest Hill Drive is the Cole show through and through – it’s Cole rapping over Cole beats. Unfortunately, few artists truly have the gravitas to pull off a solo album and Cole just isn’t one of them. In an album both personal and derivative, Cole has somehow managed to offer both
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