Album Review: J. Cole's "2014 Forest Hills Drive"

Do you want to be happy? J. Cole asks this question in the "Intro" to 2014 Forest Hills Drive, his third major release since signing with Roc Nation. Cole explores the idea of happiness through examining his own experiences  and relaying them to his listeners. As one of the better rap albums to come out recently, the album will leave fans with a definitive "yes, I do" in response to the question.

2014 Forest Hills Drive functions well as an album because of its particular focus on narrative. Each track serves a purpose in the grand scheme of the record, and together they paint a picture that, as Cole puts it, is “vivid enough to cure blindness.” Essentially, the entire album is like a movie for your ears. And he does this all solo--choosing not to feature any other big artists.

"January 28th" serves as the beginning of J. Cole’s reflection on the past. Although the song speaks a lot to his rapping ability, he ends the song talking about January 28th, his birth date. The final moments of the track integrate baby cries that put the picture in motion and set us up for the rest of his life story.

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Jump forward into “Wet Dreamz,” where J. Cole creates an excellent dynamic with his reflection on his first time having sex. He gives us the impression that he’s either in middle or high school, passing notes with a girl about getting it on.

“I ain’t never done this before,” he admits in the chorus, but of course he wouldn’t admit that to his love interest. By the end of the song, we discover that she, too, was only pretending to be experienced, so it turns out neither of them was “a pro” at this.

“03’ Adolescence” continues his reflection, looking back to his youth when he complained to a friend about life only to realize that his friend had it worse than he did. He starts to become somewhat thankful and seems to have a better point of view, but this optimism doesn’t last long.

Once “A Tale of 2 Citiez” begins, the sound of the album begins to dramatically shift. The old school, simple beat that accompanied Cole’s years into adolescence is replaced by a more sinister, trap-influenced beat. This change in background mirrors the transition into adulthood, where he reaches his lowest point.

Although Cole raps about other illegal activities in later tracks, this particular song stands out as the one story where he himself commits a violent crime. After watching his friend get robbed, Cole then turns around and robs someone else. It is a vicious cycle, and at its center is the focus on material wealth. Illustrating Cole's discomfort with this notion, his subconscious asks in the background, “What is the value of a thing?”

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The song ends with a plea for help, to be saved from this lifestyle, providing a fluid transition into the song “Fire Squad,” which reveals that Cole has been saved from that criminal path through his rap career.

Basically, J. Cole’s past self, whom he has been rapping about all along, has now gained fame and status through rap, which explains why he starts referring to other rappers by name and also speaks about award shows: he’s moving up in the world.

Next comes “St. Tropez,” a transition track that not only speaks about Hollywood but actually sounds like it too. The beat and rhythms help paint the picture that Cole is flying to Hollywood now that he has landed a deal as a rapper.

This is where things get interesting. It’s as though J Cole’s life begins to fall apart once again as he loses himself in the different, more expensive world in Hollywood. “G.O.M.D.” is about, as Cole puts it, “Hollywood Cole,” so as to separate this part of his life into a new section of examination.

“I come home and don’t tell nobody,” he says, referencing how alone he feels. He continues, saying, “I wanna go back to Jermaine, and I won’t tell nobody.” It was an inner cry for help that no one could answer.

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Among other things, “No Role Modelz” examines his lavish lifestyle, sounding like he recorded it in his expensive California home, and his inability to get women that he wants. He does not want "reality show" women who are out of touch with reality, but at the end of the song, that is all he has left to choose from. What he wants is at odds with the life he lives.

In this song,  J. Cole starts to assume his current, more mature mindset. “Hello,” shows his legitimate interest in one woman, who’s old enough to already have a second child and has had a relationship with J. Cole in the past.

For the first time we get hints of J. Cole referencing his purpose in this album, saying it “seems so sad when you look back.” This kind of sad, yet necessary, reflection is essential to the album as a whole.

“Apparently” continues this maturation, looking back on his adolescence and early adulthood from a current perspective and thinking about all of the difficulties he was unaware his mother was facing, as well as the foreclosure of his house. He chooses to “think back to Forest Hills,” which is essentially the goal of the album.

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In the second-to-last track “Love Yourz”, J Cole gives a lesson on loving your own life because it’s the one that you’ve got. “No such thing as a life that’s better than yours,” he sings.

True to carpe-diem tradition, he finishes the song by reflecting on how there will always be better clothes and better cars, but that we won’t be happy unless we appreciate what we have. We get the feeling that it took him from his first neighborhood to Hollywood to figure that out, and that is the message he hopes his album will convey. Happiness doesn’t have to do with attaining something material; it is only attainable through the proper mindset.

The album ends with “Note to Self,” which functions first as a bigger-picture track that speaks of “somethin’ more” than you or him—which happens to be love—and then it serves second as the credits to the album. It’s a unique way to end a record and really hones in on the idea that J. Cole set out to make this album audible cinema.

One downside to this focus on the narrative arc is the weak choruses. They can at times just kind of be there, not adding much to the track and perhaps slightly detracting from it. If the choruses were a little stronger, this album would be all the better. Although not featuring other artists is impressive, it might have hurt the album without at least a few.

It is also hard to tell if, because of the focus on narrative throughout the album, this record will be able to garner continued listens throughout the years--or, whether it's like a pretty good movie that you enjoyed watching but don't feel the need to watch more than once or twice. However,  these negatives do not prevent the album from fulfilling its purpose of creating an intriguing story.

2014 Forest Hill Drive takes us vividly through J. Cole’s life, working at multiple levels to create a plot that engages and entrances the audience. The power of the album is its storytelling, and the story is definitely worth hearing.

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Jonathan Reed