Key Tracks: “Fire Squad” “No Role Modelz”
J. Cole wrote “magnum opus” all over this album. This is the album he envisioned as leaving his mark on rap, his childhood-based album, his “Here’s what New York is like” album. It’s not that, but it’s at least a solid release, largely devoid of some of his clunky lyrics of the past.
Defense seems to be the strategy on “2014 Forest Hills Drive.” It’s J. Cole’s album to lose. This is probably the most apparent in the lack of credited guests. He dominates every song, and although other voices do drop in, they’re uncredited and not the big names you’d expect. The album’s overarching theme is childhood and youth, as earlier this year J. Cole bought the house he grew up in, after it was foreclosed on in 2003. He defends this, he defends New York City, he defends his own position in rap. But the most effective is his defense of race, one of the few areas where J. Cole has been distinguished as of late. He gives a Ferguson mention on the sprawling finale, “Note to Self,” reminiscent of him being one of the first entertainers to make a visit to the town. On “Fire Squad,” he raps about white people taking over rock and rap, and how he’ll try to crack a smile when Iggy wins big at the Grammy’s. And on “No Role Modelz,” he raps, “I came fast like 911 in a white neighborhood.” At the album’s best, it’s provocative and button-pushing, a step forward for someone still looking for his place, and certainly forgiveness for Nas.
At the album’s worst, though, it falls into blander hip-hop lyrics and beats. “A Tale of Two Citiez” is particularly clunky song, just a self-serving boastful sex song. There are others on the album, and even better tracks like “Fire Squad” fall victim to some cliche moments. The album doesn’t do enough to bring in some cliche elements into other more, progressive ideas. Most of the album has surprisingly melodic and dense music, but trashy lyrics don’t always fit against them, and it gets jarring. J. Cole’s clearly working on tightening up his ideas and sound, and he’s not there yet, so an album of this stature may have jumped the gun.
“2014 Forest Hills Drive” isn’t going to be remembered as being on the same level as the albums that inspired it. It has some worthy songs, some piercing lyrics and a lot of great music (even the intro has compelling music behind it), but it’s all a little too messy so far. J. Cole doesn’t have the experience to pull this album off yet – just listen to “Note to Self,” the nearly 15-minute, improvised finale, where he namedrops everyone who helped make the album, and continuously tells the listener they don’t need to sit through the credits. It’s a big idea – challenging the listener to keep going. But, it’s also supposed to be fun, and we’re not in on it. J. Cole is coming towards mastering the formula, but it hasn’t quite all come together yet. Challenging me to go on was bold; I gave it a few minutes before I stopped.
-By Andrew McNally