Sometimes You Can Go Back Home
J. Cole has been on the precipice of greatness since his first album, according to himself anyway. That’s not to say that he’s delusional, but more that he understands the eminent pressure put on him by his fans and the hip-hop community at large. You’re signed by Jay-Z, doing features with TLC, and rubbing elbows with some of the best in the game (Kendrick Lamar, Wale & Drake). Where Cole falters as an artist, and on his album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive is his lasting appeal. He’s an artist that’s aware of how good he’s supposed to be, but inconsistently delivers at that level.
A lot has been said about J. Cole crafting an ode to not only his hometown, but to the home he grew up in. 2014 Forest Hills Drive is the home that his mom lost to foreclosure while Cole was away at college in New York City. A fact that is addressed several times on the album, most clearly on “Apparently” when Cole states how selfish it was for him to be pursuing his dreams in the big city while his mom suffered alone. The amount of accountability and responsibility that Cole puts on himself is sobering. He makes himself the center of a small universe, but not in an egotistic way. 2014 Forest Hills Drive is a retrospective on what’s made Cole the man and the artist he is. The most glaring problem is that for as thoughtful and talented as Fayeteville, NC made Jermaine Cole, it didn’t bless him with the charisma needed to carry a listener through his life story.
It’s not that 2014 Forest Hills Drive is bad, far from it, in fact. The album, as a whole, is solid. The production is tight and shows Cole’s growth as a beatmaker. He’s able to tap into parts of his voice and cadence in a way that hired guns may have missed. Every song is personal, but where the album shines is its relatability, like on songs like “Wet Dreamz,” where Cole recalls his first sexual experience and how awkward it all was. It’s simultaneously his story and ours. Even when he’s telling the story of how he could have easily gotten into selling drugs when he was on the brink of high school graduation. These tales should be more compelling than they are. They lack a level of depth that makes these albums work.
The base comparison is 2004’s College Dropout from Kanye West; From the self-production to the extra long shout-outs on “Note to Self.” However, where West was able to bare his soul and life’s work onto one album, this is Cole’s third. The concept and heart are in the right place, but merely addressing the dichotomy between Mr. Nice Watch and the man who would buy back his mom’s foreclosed home isn’t exactly enough to keep your attention for an entire album, and even less so on repeat listens. In almost the same breath, Cole calls himself “The God” of hip-hop and then argues that there isn’t a crown to aspire to since artists should find unity in the music. It’s all so contrite and annoying. By the time the album is done, he’s made some points, but you’ll probably miss or dismiss them later on. You’ll probably find yourself cherry-picking instead of revisiting the full project.
However, maybe that’s what he was going for. Maybe this was a story that he had to get out, to show his love and appreciation for the people that got him to where he is. We can’t fault an artist for delving into their own soul, but to self appoint your album as a “classic,” as Cole does on 2014 Forest Hills Drive, you end up drawing a line in the sand. Yes, J. Cole made a good album, but 2014 Forest Hills Drive is exactly where we’ll leave this. Next month, when the new year starts, the elongated acceptance speech J. Cole has made to his hometown will be a small memory for those who have moved on to something that actually lives up to their potential.
Originally published on – Inyourspeakers.com (12/19/2014)