Despite coming out in December, I decided to wait until today, January 28th, to share my thoughts on J. Cole's 2014 Forest Hills Drive. The date acts as both the name to the second track of the album, and this year, serves as Cole's 30th birthday. So as he enters his fourth decade of life, where does he stand?
Well it doesn’t take long for the self-proclamations to begin. After a nice, subdued introduction, he quickly dismisses Drake & Kendrick Lemar, before calling himself a god along the likes of Rakim, who happens to share his birth date. While I feared this may be the shape of things to come, the next track 'Wet Dreamz' is about Cole losing his virginity, hardly a mainstay topic of rap tracks but from a purely anthropological sense, it offers an honest look into an adolescent mind and the pressures exerted on teens who listen to their idols. It also has a great beat, and some strong storytelling, but it's still not something I want to revisit too quickly.
‘St Tropez’ is an airy number that has the least to say of all the tracks. It’s pleasant, but otherwise unremarkable. Elsewhere, 'No Role Modelz' begins with a washed out sample of the Major Lazer track ‘Get Free’ (which Cole had previously remixed) that gets me every time, and opens with a nice tribute to James Avery, who died at the age of 68 in 2013, and shows the lasting endurance of The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air. "First things first, Rest in peace Uncle Phil/For real, you the only father that I ever knew" yet immediately follows it up by saying "I get my bitch pregnant, I'ma be a better you", which to me completely undermines what he is saying. What he gives with one hand, he takes away with the other, as I'm fairly certain Uncle Phil never referred to anyone as a bitch, and wouldn't have stood for misogyny in his house.
The album itself is named after the house that Cole grew up in Fayetteville, North Carolina and it becomes very clear that family, history, and heritage are all important subjects that reoccur throughout the album. However, during ‘Apparently’ he commends his mother for all she did for him growing up, but later talks of his “bitches” and having threesomes on the very same track. It’s cheap, crude, and callous, undoing everything he's trying to prove in regards to being better than the rest of the pack.
'A Tale Of 2 Citiez' reinforces the themes; Cole will not only tell you where he's from and what he's been through, but he also won't let you forget. That's fair enough, any rags to riches take is worth hearing as it may serve as inspiration to the next child prodigy, but as Cole says on 'January 28th': “I turn the TV on, not one hero in sight/Unless he dribble or he fiddle with mics”. Does he buy into his own hype and believe he is the role model that the kids need, or realise that he’s part of the overall issue? Throughout he seems to be self-evaluating, and we repeatedly see moments of authority (and sometimes arrogance), followed by moments of doubt or compromise. When he lays claim for the throne on 'Fire Squad' he later follows up and says that reaching for the throne is a pointless and menial task. When he exhibits fears of getting stuck in the city for life and not being able to pursue his music career, he asks 'Is that really such a bad thing?' and weighs up the value in a life of crime. It's natural to never feel content, it's the human condition to always want more, but these inconsistencies of who he really is, and what he stands for, dissuade me from buying into his story.
Blandness is unforgivable, and thankfully that's not the case with this album. Cole has a lot to say, and as a direct result, we have a lot to say about it. At 65 minutes, the album overstays its welcome slightly, but that does include the long winded outro of the final track 'Note To Self' which serves as the "credits", a victory lap where he starts thanking everyone who has helped with the album. Even Cole acknowledges that people might switch off at that stage, and states that's he'd be surprised if people made it all the way to the end. That’s not what is expected from a rapper on his supposed Magnum Opus.
Cole is an anomaly. He’s clearly a flourishing artist, bringing heaps of talent to the table, polished production and laid back beats that are hard to resist, but his execution is so frustrating and contradictory at times, it undermines everything he has to say. He often reverts back to lyrics about guns that are so dated, I don’t know if he’s expecting to impress or intimidate anyone, but just ends up sounding immature. He opens up on ‘Hello’, a track that appears to have some depth and honesty, but tarnishes the sentiment with very next track, and the worst lyrics of the entire album “Give a virgin the urge to rape me.”
Fundamentally, I liked the album before I started reading into it, and I haven't completely fallen out of love with it now. There are a lot of redeemable qualities, but it's not the seminal album Cole thinks it is. Good music should inspire thought, and clearly I had a few thoughts on this album, but I shouldn't find myself doubting the lyrics and the artist throughout, and that's where Cole goes awry. I really doubt he’ll be able to produce something truly of note until he figures out exactly what he’s trying to achieve in life. Now that he's found fame and fortune which is so often the motivator for aspiring rappers, he seemingly lacks having a goal to strive towards. He’s 30 now, so I can’t even pass off the grievous errors as the ignorance of youth.