J. Cole’s position as one of mainstream hip-hop’s heroes is remarkable because of how he falls outside of the genre’s anti-hero narrative.
The appeal of his persona lies on how sympathetic he is. Press-averse and scruffy, the rapper looks like a man of the people just from physical appearance. He’s likeable enough of a star to have fans exclaiming, “We want him to finally win,” when he announced his third album, ‘2014 Forest Hills Drive.’
And emphasis on “finally.” Cole is pretty fortunate to be at the good standing he’s at now since fans were initially rooting for him to be the one sitting on Kendrick Lamar’s throne. The North Carolina hasn’t dropped a bad album; hip-hop fans are just needy — good isn’t good enough. ‘Cole World: The Sideline Story’ was a scattershot attempt at meeting expectations, and ‘Born Sinner,’ while better, was marred by too many tepid stretches. The stakes are higher on ‘2014 Forest Hills Drive’ with no surprise guests to steer the hype machine. With the pressure solely on him to win, Cole amplifies his best and worst traits on his third studio effort.
‘2014 Forest Hills Drive’ is a daring project in a not-so-obvious sense. One main criticism of J. Cole throughout his career is that he’s boring. The bland, overarching theme of retracing progress doesn’t inspire much confidence. However, on this LP, we get Cole’s most cohesive body of work to date. Gone are the obvious and poorly used samples (think ‘Work Out’ and ‘Forbidden Fruit’) in favor of intimate, live instrumentals that give an oven-roasted sense of nostalgia.
Lush chirping vocals on ‘January 28th’ set a romantic air that faintly travels throughout the album. But even with that continuous thread, the production maintains a sense of color throughout. Roc-A-Fella-era Kanye West soul finds its way on ‘Wet Dreamz’ — the most obvious choice of a single here — and bass-heavy controlled panic on ‘Fire Squad’ places itself nicely between the tension on ‘A Tale of 2 Citiez’ and the clear-eyed jazz of ‘St. Tropez.’
Watch J. Cole’s ‘Intro’ Video
It certainly helps that Cole isn’t hiding behind the production value. The goofball punchlines are here (on ‘January 28th’: “Like show me New York’s ladder I climb it and set the bar so high / That you gotta get Obama to force the Air Force to find it”), but there’s an enhanced track-by-track musicality to his words as they flow from lightning-round delivery to competent singing. It makes the on-the-nose concepts a little more digestible.
‘Wet Dreamz’ is further buoyed by Cole’s syrupy cadence in the same way ‘No Role Models’ — another one of the album’s most accessible, socially aware cuts — gets a push from his elasticity as he stretches from urgency to syllable-stretching mantras (“She shallow but the p—- deep” will stick). Cole is a decent pacemaker for the majority of the first half of the album. Not so much for the second half. ‘G.O.M.D.’ is about a minute too long as it cycles through multiple hooks — none delivered with enough charisma to justify them. We also get four schmaltzy, lightly rapped sing-a-long joints to close out the album. When Cole says, “If you made it this far, then I really f— with you,” near the end of ‘Note to Self,’ it feels like he’s referring to the sleepy streak that came before it instead of the track’s 10-minute long “thank you” list.
Cole’s career-long recurring flaw is also what prevents ‘2014 Forest Hills Drive’ from reaching the next tier of excellence. He’s an improved executor, but still lacking as an innovator. ‘Wet Dreamz’ story of virginity is marked by so-so punchlines (“Hadn’t been in p—- since the day I came out one”) and a clichéd plot twist. ‘A Tale of 2 Citiez’ wastes a potentially interesting “Small town n—- Hollywood dreams” on bland tropes instead of insight. On ‘Fire Squad,’ Cole touches on the White Appropriation Plague in what’s sure to be one of the most used #InstagramDeep quotables of the next few weeks. He misses the point — as feckless Eminem has become, he’s not part of the problem — but at least he comes off sharp and definitive.
As with his previous efforts, Cole is still coming off as indistinct in his quest to keep that clear connection with his fans. He hasn’t made a J. Cole album yet, because he keeps making a people’s album. Good is good enough here, but soon it won’t be. It doesn’t alleviate the fear that his goodwill will eventually run out.
Watch J. Cole’s ‘Apparently’ Video