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J. Cole, 2014 Forest Hills Drive
J. Cole is hip-hop's resident "aw, shucks!" rapper. Even in vulnerability, Cole tends to sound sunnier and, occasionally, clumsier than his peers, wearing hearts on both sleeves. The rapper who made "Crooked Smile" and "Let Nas Down" will never be mistaken for a tough guy, a tough nut, or a true cad. On 2014 Forest Hills Drive, Cole's nervous laughter, woozy hooks, and post-pubescent confessionals are all too poignant, baring all, a tape as honest as so many love letters I should have written but should never have sent when I lived in the university dorms.
With no singles or obvious hit records, Forest Hills is the least canny tape in J. Cole’s catalog. Like Born Sinner, this latest project is a middle class retrospective on adolescence, with frequent obsession of the bitties he never smashed and the father he never admired. This latest tape, however, enriches J. Cole's backstory with suburban anecdotes and surefire advice. Ever prone to oversharing, J. Cole gives us the rundown of puberty and first crushes on "Wet Dreamz," a rough recollection of virginity lost: "I knew I'd get played out, son/Hadn't been in pussy since the day I came out one." Striking a more earnest note, "'03 Adolescence" is the story of how J. Cole's childhood friend, unnamed, clowns Cole out of his brief consideration of selling weed.
There's autobiography on the one hand, and genre posturing otherwise. Still stoking the glow from Kendrick Lamar's challenge issued on Big Sean's "Control," Cole stays shouting out his competition. Much as Kendrick anointed himself "the king of New York," Cole's "January 28th," "Fire Squad," and "Note to Self" all come with claims to the figurative presidency of various municipalities. It's a qualified boast, amended by Cole's praise of Drake, Kendrick, and Wale in the album's roll credits. Still, this precarious balance of bubbling confidence, simmering insecurity, and commoner's pathos is, in fact, J. Cole's winning signature.
thIS precarious balance of bubbling confidence, simmering insecurity, and commoner's pathos is J. Cole's winning signature.
"Fire Squad" offers timely premonition: "This year I’ll probably go to the awards [show] dappered down/Watch Iggy win a Grammy as I try to crack a smile." Such rebellious tidbits are sprinkled throughout Forest Hills, mostly in the spirit of black pride and unprecedented manhood: "'Why every rich black nigga gotta be famous?' 'Why every broke black nigga gotta be brainless?'/ . . . That's a stereotype, driven by some people up in Ariel Heights." These are lyrical preoccupations that rap critics disregard as earnest, unfortunately; Cole's black power theses aren't backed by threats of absurd violence, so Cole's music is allegedly boring. (Unless you’re exotic or enigmatic, preferably both, there’s no pleasing the peanut galleries these days.)
Cole's fanbase has long been frustrated by this particular complaint, though Cole himself isn't fazed or altered by it on Forest Hills. The album's production is sparse and dreamy, hardly as desperate and scattershot as the indie-cinematic clusterfuck that is Cole World, his 2011 debut. On Forest Hills, "Wet Dreamz," with its funky drumming in the foreground, and "St. Tropez," with its prominent bass-and-melody nod to Mobb Deep's "Give up the Goods," are the rare "soulful," throwback beats. Otherwise, synth claps, booms, and screwed vocal samples abound, on the yappy, manic "G.O.M.D.," for instance, and the buzzed, tearful "Hello." As the album's standout track, "A Tale of 2 Citiez" is a hybrid of two sensibilities: No I.D.'s and Noah "40" Shebib's, though neither giant produced for Cole on Forest Hills. "2 Citiez" aside, the album is driven by the somber strokes of minor producers who've helped Cole resist the monotony of trap, which hardly suits him.
Since "Power Trip" and "Crooked Smile" minted his celebrity two summers ago, J. Cole seems ever adrift from the daily conversation about hip-hop supremacy and the real-time hype rankings. There are no obvious singles or hit records here, nothing so peppy or else trap, with "A Tale of 2 Citiez" serving as one possible exception. An unabashed personal essayist, Cole is beating the less-trodden path down Forest Hills Drive. He's cut much of the whiplash and false bravado that padded the grueling runtimes of his last two albums. He's annexed his niche and now sounds less like a kid, more so a man. Forest Hills is Cole's best (and best-edited) essay yet.