J. Cole was faced with a challenging task while crafting his third album following 2011’s Cole World: The Sideline Story and 2013’s Born Sinner. He had to impress audiences with something new while holding on to the reason that fans have heavily praised the MC since his early mixtape days. And after trying to keep the album on lock for private listening sessions and trips to fans’ homes, the project’s out. So, how did he deliver?
Off top, it’s important to note that 2014 Forest Hills Drive is a concept album. Its name comes from the address of a home that he once lived in, a home that was eventually taken from his mother and one that the star now owns. The trajectory of Cole’s career and of this project’s storyline centers around this same type of journey: a yearning for stability, a dream realized, a disappointment and a triumphant return.
The album narrates this story in rhyme form, traveling through Cole’s early years with introspective, compelling and sharp storytelling (“03’ Adolescence,” “Wet Dreamz”), the growth and aspirations (“A Tale of 2 Citiez”) and the yearning for success, or the crown (“Fire Squad”). After a brief interlude (“St. Tropez”) which signals Jermaine’s voyage to Hollywood, the album follows Cole’s less-than-positive experiences with success. You can hear his battles with change and women (“G.O.M.D.,” “No Role Modelz”) where he struggles with temptation, seduction, and disillusion. Eventually, Cole realizes the pitfalls of the fast life and discovers that love was always more important than his success even if he didn’t always know it (“Apparently,” “Love Yourz”).
On “Love Yourz,” Cole sings about these realizations, helping the album come to a resolution. “No such thing as a life that’s better than yours,” he sings on the track. He later explains his journey with the following lines: “The good news is, nigga, you came a long way / The bad news is, nigga, you went the wrong way.” As a result, Cole’s gone back home, making amends with his mother and his loved ones, denouncing some of the perils of the limelight. Through this album, you hear Cole come to grips with the fact that he never needed funds to have love in his life.
By using that life as the subject for this piece, Cole was able to tap into something relatable and insightful. It’s this type of understanding and self-awareness that allows Cole’s concept to shine. There’s a vulnerability mixed with confidence and self-analysis that leaves you rooting for him to find that happiness by the end of the album.
On top of this, Cole’s production on this effort lends itself to his journey with sample-heavy beats that provide a soulful nostalgic charm. As the album progresses, the beats also vary enough while maintaining the cohesion. For examples of this connected variation, check the mellow “January 28th,” then the dusty banger in “Fire Squad,” and then back to the serene smoothness of “Love Yourz.”
So, while Cole definitely had a tough task to overcome when he hit the lab for this third effort, this project shows he was able to conquer the challenge with the perspective and depth that the concept deserved. 2014 Forest Hills Drive has given us a different, more detailed and streamlined look into Cole’s artistry and personal life in a creative manner. Simply put, Cole’s made the best album of his career.