Following the release of his second studio album, Born Sinner, just last year, J. Cole returns with the succeeding project, 2014 Forest Hills Drive. The title of the album derives from the address of the house that Cole used to live in as a child, and subsequently throughout the album he revisits moments from his childhood that have affected his life.
The opening track, ‘January 28th’, is a typically smooth introduction from the North Carolina wordsmith, soulfully setting the overall tone of the project, similarly to the way he began his acclaimed 2010 mixtape, Friday Night Lights. Despite calling on a number of different producers, which is a first on a J. Cole album, the cohesion of the record is not affected, and people may argue that it is in fact improved because of it. Criticism of his previous albums that only included production from Cole himself, came from the feeling that the bodies of work did not include enough peak points, allowing the record to just drift unnoticed from start to finish. This cannot be said for 2014 Forest Hills Drive, as listeners are treated to an explosive change of direction from Cole, on back to back songs ‘A Tale Of 2 Citiez’ and ‘Fire Squad’.
On ‘A Tale Of 2 Citiez’, Cole speaks of the differences faced between a young man staying in his hometown trying to make money by any means, and another young man attempting to move on to bigger, and hopefully, better things by seeking higher education in a different city. This, of course, mirrors Cole’s own situation that he faced growing up and he creates a vivid picture of such. J. Cole’s aggressive flow as well as the gritty production helps to grab the listener’s attention, and the same can be said for ‘Fire Squad’ where his much-publicised lyrics about the success of white Hip Hop & R&B artists included mentioning Eminem, Justin Timberlake, Iggy Azalea and Macklemore. Cole remarks that white artists that make music of black origin are often favoured in terms of how successful they can be, specifically with regards to the awards they receive (e.g. Macklemore beating Kendrick Lamar to the 2014 Grammy for ‘Best Rap Album’).
Cole, as was the case on his previous album, Born Sinner, chose not to have any verses from other rappers on his latest album, which is not necessarily a negative trait. Although, something that can be viewed as a negative was the neglect of any guest vocalists on the album, especially considering Cole’s production style that often caters for such artists. Instead, Cole stretches his vocal ability to its limits, leaving the listener pondering how much more effective certain songs could have been if a truly accomplished singer took the lead on certain parts of the album. ‘Love Yourz’ is an example of where Cole could have used the help of guest vocals, despite the song being a potential standout track, as he speaks on people learning how to appreciate their own lives, instead of coveting the lives of others.
Some criticised J. Cole for using the same samples from Hip Hop classics when producing tracks for Born Sinner, particularly Outkast’s ‘Da Art of Story Telling’ on ‘Land Of The Snakes’ and A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘Electric Relaxation’ (Ronnie Foster – ‘Mystic Brew’) on ‘Forbidden Fruit [Ft. Kendrick Lamar]’. He’s followed suit on 2014 Forest Hills Drive via ‘St. Tropez’, this time opting for use of Esther Phillips’ ‘That’s All Right With Me’ which was used on Mobb Deep’s timeless ‘Give Up The Goods (Just Step)’ from their 1995 Album, The Infamous. Cole’s attempts this time around should avoid disapproval as he’s completely altered the mood of the sample compared to the Mobb Deep version, something he didn’t really achieve on Born Sinner. ‘St. Tropez’ paints the picture of his transition from an aspiring rapper to the established artist he has become today, explaining the highs and lows of the journey.
Despite a couple of minor hiccups in the form of ‘G.O.M.D.’ and ‘Hello’, J. Cole has again delivered a project that will quench the thirst of his fans. Cole seems to be a lot more relaxed on this album, allowing him to return to form not seen since Friday Night Lights. The use of other producers has allowed him more time to concentrate solely on his lyrics, which has assisted the fluency of the project as a whole.