When I first heard of J. Cole, I thought I had found another Drake. Here was another artist I was sure to grow with. Sadly, the last few years have been trying times for him. Despite putting out two gold albums, they failed to captivate as much as the mixtapes released early in his career. Critics complained about a lack of growth. Other listeners just didn’t see the promise of his talent fulfilled. “Yeah Cole, you make your own beats.” “I get it, ‘a lil n*gga from the ‘Ville’, thanks.” 2014 Forest Hills Drive is the response to all critics, professional and amateur, and he doesn’t disappoint. On what is possibly the best rap album since good kid m.A.A.d city, J. Cole comes through with his best work to date.
The production throughout the record is cohesive and subtle. The gentle yet haunting beats set the ideal backdrop for such a rare hip-hop album. Forest Hills Drive is 13 songs deep with no features and no singles, a risk that pays off spectacularly. Childhood nostalgia and present day disillusionment play equal roles in this story as Cole addresses critics of his progress and reflects on experiences that humbled him. “’03 Adolescence” tells the story of a drug dealer friend who won’t let him fall, refusing to jeopardize Cole’s future. There’s even a healthy dose of social commentary on “Role Modelz” and “Fire Squad.” Without getting too preachy, Cole laments the lack of role models for both genders and begrudgingly accepts the presence of white rappers in his historically black arena. Song after song, he confidently showcases his talents, all the while hinting at the underlying theme of the album, love. All these songs are his way of reminding the world of a few forgotten pieces of advice: Love yourself and those who helped create you, have faith in your self, and pursue happiness. Competition is healthy, as long as it’s used as a means to elevate, not alienate.
It’s hard to find flaws in this album, but not impossible. Some may grow weary of Cole’s off key singing, and there are a few times where writer’s block strikes and some of the raps become superficial and contradictory. This doesn’t last long. The album ends triumphantly with “Note to Self.” Paying homage to The College Dropout, an excited J. Cole thanks friends and family, vents a bit and cracks a few jokes. With the exuberance of an artist who just finished his first album he screams, “I don’t care if we sell 3 copies! We killed this sh*t!” That won’t be the case but it feels good to believe him. Those are the words of an artist who knows he’s delivered a quality product regardless of record sales or promotion. This album rewards fans who never stopped believing in Hollywood Cole, and brings those of us who lost faith back into the fold.