Review Summary: Who is the real J. Cole?
Hip-hop purists are potentially the most elitist group of music fans there is. They don’t concern themselves with first week album sales or ticket sales, they balk at the idea of a rapper signing for a major record company, they view radio singles with abhorrence and the words “sell out” pass their lips on a near daily basis. The only thing the hip hop purist is interested in is if a certain artist is “real” or not. Being real is what separates someone like 2 Chainz from say, Kendrick Lamar.
Hearing the story behind the title of J. Cole's latest effort 2014 Forest Hills Drive, it is the address of Cole’s childhood home that he bought back recently after it was foreclosed years earlier, suggests a real and personal album. And at a glance 2014 Forest Hills Drive is a hip-hop purist’s paradise; no singles were released prior to the album dropping, it features no guests and the surprise release means there was little to no promotion for this album. All this combined and it’s not hard to picture this as Cole’s meticulously crafted love letter to his childhood and an album that will follow a clear narrative; the rags to riches tale or something similar.
Unfortunately it isn’t, or at least if it’s trying to be it doesn’t quite work. Sure it’s nostalgic, even quite sweet at times and Cole details episodes from his past but it never feels like we’re hearing his complete story, he just dips in here and there to construct a vague idea of a young J. Cole. That’s not to say the album isn’t any good, there’s actually a fair amount to enjoy on here. For a start he actually manages to carry the weight of the album, all 65 minutes of it, completely on his own. His new affection for singing helps to keep things varied and although it may not be up to Drake’s level the way he strains to hit the notes give songs like Intro and Love Yourz an extra emotional dimension. The production is without a doubt the album’s best assest, laid back and soulful without ever becoming delegated to background music, the beats sweeten the album and compliment Cole’s direct approach, especially on the opening trio; Intro, January 28th and Wet Dreamz.
Speaking of Wet Dreamz, Cole’s greatest strength has always been how candid a rapper he is, taking subjects other rappers would hesitate to touch and he puts that to good use on this track. It is the album’s best song and is a showcase of frank yet funny storytelling as Cole methodically recounts the steps that led to the loss of his virginity. It’s a brave topic and he pulls it off giving the genre its first virginity losing anthem. A large portion of the album could actually be classified as brave; Cole never shies away from rapping/singing about loving yourself and others and much like Chance the Rapper on Acid Rap he manages to do so without it ever coming across as insufferably corny. He also doesn’t avoid rapping about how well he’s done. Stereotypical boasts of sitting on rap’s throne, putting his city on the map and generally being the best of his generation feature regularly on this album. 03’ Adolescence finds him wishing to swap places with a drug dealing friend before being told how lucky he is to have the chance to go to college and make something of himself. Even if true, Cole’s rhymes of how his friend looks up to him still feel slightly too self-congratulatory.
Worse still is that no matter how impressed he is with himself he never sounds impressively original. What constantly holds the album back is obvious on the second verse of Fire Squad when Cole raps “Cole you might be like the new Ice Cube meets the new Ice-T, meets 2 Live Crew, meets the new Spike Lee” and proceeds to name Bruce Wayne, Bruce Lee, Lil Wayne and Kevin Durant. The problem is that despite this being sold as a personal album J. Cole seemingly always wants to be somebody else. Primarily Kendrick Lamar and Drake; their fingerprints so thoroughly cover this album that they probably deserve a co-writer credit on tracks like A Tale of 2 Citiez and G.O.M.D. Elsewhere, St Tropez is pure old-school Mos Def and album closer Note to Self is a facsimile of Kanye’s Last Call. Even naming songs Wet Dreamz, A Tale of 2 Citiez and Love Yourz recalls 2pac’s use of Zs instead of S. One could argue Cole is paying homage but it comes across as uninspired and lazy.
The album can’t help but disappoint slightly since despite its premise it never quite lives up to the potential, with Cole failing to make any deeply personal impact on the record. If you’re a fan of J. Cole and believe what he says you’ll be fine, he believes he’s made a classic. For the rest of us J. Cole is good but not great, real but not fully realized.