If the Truly Yours mixtapes are any indication, J. Cole is at his best when he’s not trying to be the best. On those EPs, there was no falling back on ’90s nostalgia by jumping on famous samples (“Villuminati” and “LAnd of the Snakes”) or paying tribute to the greats (“Let Nas Down”). Instead, it was just good raps over good beats. When he made a point of 2014 Forest Hills Drive not having any singles or features, I was excited: perhaps this was going to be an artistic statement whereas his previous two albums were mildly enjoyable bits of pop rap that mostly didn’t pop at all. (J. Cole’s no-singles move recalls Yeezus, which he had competed and outsold just the previous year. However, West changed his mind on the zero-single approach afterwards so it wouldn’t be surprising if J. Cole follows suit.) Perhaps we were going to get something out of left field, like Drake’s Nothing Was the Same, which dropped the maximalistic pop rap approach of Take Care for something much more minimal, barely featuring any guests at all. Would 2014 Forest Hills Drive become J. Cole’s own Yeezus?
Turns out, all of those moves were false advertising. On 2014 Forest Hills Drive , we’ve still got the same ol’ Cole, but with diminishing returns and without any friends to help him. (If you’ll recall, Miguel helped elevate “Power Trip” into one of the better songs on Born Sinner). With respects to diminishing returns, both his rapping and his production seems to be worse than ever before. The third verse of “January 28th” might be the worst response to Kendrick Lamar’s “Control” verse I’ve heard; J. Cole compares himself to Rakim before feebly namedropping five people and declaring that he’s God in his typical rhyme-a-word-with-itself-ness: “You ain’t the God / Nigga, Cole the God”. Elsewhere, he evokes the awkwardness of standing up in high school with an erection twice on “Wet Dreamz” (“Make it hard for me to stand up”; “Teacher please don’t make me stand up”). You can see the M. Night Shyamalan-esque switch of the third verse coming from a mile away. Those are the first two proper songs, and the following “03’ Adolescence” is challenging from the get-go, with its Disney strings and the unnecessary awkwardness of “I wish I won’t so shy”.
Thankfully, the album does manage to gain a steady footing after its shaky start. “A Tale of 2 Citiez” could gain from being just a tad faster to match the menace, but the menace is there, both in the twisted soul sample punctuating each line and with J. Cole’s own rapping (rhyming “tints” with “rinsed” with “since” with “limits” with “pimps” and finally “glimpse” in the first verse). Meanwhile, “G.O.M.D.” has the most inspired beat on the album, especially in comparison with “Fire Squad”, which sounds like J. Cole listened to Tyler, the Creator’s Wolf moments before. Although I’m bothered to no end by J. Cole’s endorsing of Jay Z’s disgusting Anna Mae incident of yesteryear, he at least re-earns my favor with “Why with every black nigga gotta be famous? / Why every broke black nigga gotta be brainless?” Nevertheless, it’s troublesome to hear lines like: “Niggas is faker than anime / Me I never hate, get cake like Anna Mae, woah / Eat the cake, bitch, eat the damn cake”. The Lil’ Jon interpolation may suggest this is ironic, but knowing J. Cole’s outlook on women, I seriously doubt it.
After that, it’s another mixed bag, spanning the occasional quotable (“I came fast like 9-1-1 in white neighborhoods” from “No Role Modelz”) to the cringe-inducing bullshit (“Give a virgin the urge to rape me, nigga please” from “Apparently”). The 14 minute closer “Note to Self” is a one-listen only affair, if that, but “Hello” and “Love Yourz” make up for it. The former builds up to a sprint both beat-wise and rapping-wise, and the latter is the most touching song on the album, ending with these lines:
Always gonna be a bigger house somewhere, but nigga feel me
Long as the people in that motherfucker love you dearly
Always gonna be a whip that’s better than the one you got
Always gonna be some clothes that’s fresher than the ones you rock
Always gonna be a bitch that’s badder out there on the tours
But you ain’t never gonna be happy till you love yours
If I’ve seemed unduly harsh on J. Cole, it’s because I know he can do better. I long for him to stop relying on rhyming the same word with itself, i.e. most of the second verse on “G.O.M.D.”. I long for him to stop being the punchline rapper that he chooses to be, and to instead start working on more holistic verses that I know him to be capable of. I long for him to decide whether he wants to be soft or hard instead of constantly doing the middle ground. I long for him to stop relying on stimulating emotions by telling us instead of evoking emotion by showing us.