Monday, December 8, 2014

album review: '2014 forest hills drive' by j.cole

You ever have one of those rappers that you like, but ultimately don't quite love, that might be a talented MC with good wordplay and a lot of personality, but is just a shade away from being truly amazing? For me, J.Cole falls into that category, and I'll admit I've been hard on him since the very beginning of his career. His early commercial singles originally presented a really poor picture for him, and while I've come to respect him more since then, he's never really struck me with a great album. 

And the frustrating thing is that I keep seeing snippets from J.Cole that suggests he could make that star-making record. He's introspective and personal, he's got a decent ear for beats and samples, he's one of the few rappers who has ever had the balls to tackle legitimately serious topics, but maybe it's the tone he takes, which is very melancholic and serious and can make his albums - which always feel overlong - tough listens. Part of it is that I can see a lot of his direct influences in his sound, especially from Kanye, and while it does not quite make him a wannabe, it doesn't help him stand out. As much as I like Cole World and Born Sinner, I still got the feeling that J.Cole hadn't quite found his lane yet.

And yet I had a strange feeling that that might change coming up with his newest album 2014 Forest Hill Drive. On the one hand, it was the longest J.Cole project to date, which didn't exactly enthuse me, but on the other hand, J.Cole taking more direct control and not having any features on the record did look interesting, especially with J.Cole's outspoken reaction to the political and social strife that has erupted across 2014, especially tied to Ferguson. For everything I've heard, he was looking to make an artistic statement with this record, with no singles released ahead of time or any promotion. Well, besides controversy relating to a lyric that some have taken as a shot against Eminem and might lead to J.Cole being banned by Trick-Trick from performing in Detroit. But putting aside hip-hop politics, how is the album?

Honestly, at this point I feel like I'm a bit of a broken record here - because instead of a massive change in formula, J.Cole has delivered with 2014 Forest Hills Drive an album that does feel more cohesive and well-structured thanks to its overarching concept, but really isn't all that new or gripping. In other words, a very good record, but not a great one, and by placing himself into the direct spotlight, he has only highlighted his strengths and his weaknesses in even sharper focus. In other words... goddamn it, I really wish I liked this more than I do. 

Because let's be fair, there is a lot to like about this album, and I think the best place to start would be in instrumentation and production, most of which J.Cole handled himself. And outside of that badly tuned piano that bookends the album, most of the production straddles a smoother commercial sound and a grittier, old-school vibe fairly well. I still don't like pitch-shifted vocals, but I did like the fluttering guitar leads on 'January 28th', the warm old-school soul vibe of 'Wet Dreamz', the classy strings and keyboard sample on '03' Adolescence' and 'Love Yourz', the washed-out bleakness with the thick bass hits of 'A Tale of 2 Citiez' and 'No Role Modelz', the choppy work song against the bass and mournful strings on 'G.O.M.D' at least until it went to that limp keyboard line. And yes, it's all very reminiscent of early Kanye like it's always been, albeit with more of a downbeat, 'everyman' feel that's a major part of J.Cole's appeal. That's one element I definitely respect about this album - it has a distinctive old-school sound that's not trying to sound trendy or popular, and yet the production is still radio-friendly. There are a few misfires - every single track on this album runs long, and while I do like the texture and sleek vibes this album creates, I'm not always wild about the keyboards that J.Cole brings in, like on 'St. Tropez' or the slightly off-tune and chintzy vibe of 'Hello', and there are points where J.Cole's drearier side definitely plays against him, but overall this record is a lot more euphoric and upbeat than one might expect from J.Cole, which I did find to be a welcome change.

And you know, I like a lot of J.Cole's subject matter too. He steps in as one of the more honest MCs in the game, and he doesn't exactly share the same hard lifestyle that many of his peers tended to rap about, which places him in something of a unique position in hip-hop. And his best tracks on this album by a mile are when he uses that self-awareness to inform the album's narrative, which is a basic retelling of his life story in broad strokes from his teenage years to now. A song like 'Wet Dreamz' where he talks about losing his virginity where he was trying to be a big shot to win a girl only to realize she's in the exact same boat as he is, or a track like '03' Adolescence', where he idolizes a friend who deals drugs only for that friend to say he looks up to J.Cole for going to college and making something of his life, these are the songs where J.Cole absolutely shines - he's got a natural gift for those sorts of stories that are well-framed and honest enough to be completely believable. And I also really liked 'Love Yourz', which puts to verse the truth that it's the journey that's more interesting and fulfilling than actually having 'made it', when getting to that point can involve selling of part of your soul. Hell, the sentiment he put forward on 'Fire Squad' that infuriated Trick-Trick isn't wrong - it's generally accepted that white people are guests in hip-hop which originated as a black art form, and yet the mainstream typically awards white or watered down artists far more than their black counterparts. Look at the Grammys rewarding Macklemore over Kendrick Lamar - hell, look at songs Eminem has made like 'White America' where he outright admits where he owes his fame and has made the Elvis comparison Cole makes in multiple contexts.

But of course J.Cole follows that line with that he was 'just joking', and even though he says there's a lot of truth and Iggy Azalea will probably pick up gains over more deserving black artists, it brings up one element of J.Cole that does irk me, in that it's rare he puts his money where his mouth is. For as much as he tries to tell his story and expose vulnerability, I get the uncanny feeling that he doesn't throw enough on the line to show that real visceral connection that I get from rappers like Sage Francis or Open Mike Eagle or Kendrick Lamar or even Logic. And part of it seems to come from a lack of real competitive drive - the massive ending track 'Note To Self' is mostly an extended credits sequence where he shouts out props to many of his peers who he considers friends, where after he supposedly 'took the crown' on this album - and let's be blunt, his bars were nowhere near strong enough to convince me of that - he destroyed said crown because they're all special and love is all you need and there's no place like home and all the rest of the stuff Sesame Street used to bang on about. And you know, if J.Cole wants to be the peace-loving hippie of hip-hop, it's not a bad lane for him, especially considering how the general theme of the record is a middle finger to Hollywood and the lifestyle of empty fame and wealth over true love. But it's his steps here that feel a lot weaker and less impressive than they should, especially considering the many, many albums criticizing mainstream hip-hop from all sides that I've covered this year who bring more detail, punch, and emotional heft, from The Roots to Shabazz Palaces to Clipping. And it's mainly a lack of detail - he talks about the empty feeling and depression he feels, but it's very bare-bones on 'St. Tropez', 'G.O.M.D.', and 'No Role Modelz', the commentary he makes is good but feels a little thin and lacking in visceral punch of how it relates directly to him. It doesn't help that whenever J.Cole talks about women, there's a pretty harsh double standard that is revealed between those he considers confidants and those he just considers hoes, the latter group that he seems to have no trouble degrading and mocking. Now maybe it's just me, but if he really wanted to put his money where his mouth is, wouldn't it seem more appropriate to show respect to all women and not to spend songs calling them shallow after screwing them? And that goes to the underlying sentiment of the album - I definitely respect J.Cole putting forward ideas of love, and he gets points for trying to articulate his unhappiness even despite his success without disrespecting those who hustle and have less and sure, on some level, it is all relative.

But a lot of this seems like backpedaling from an artist that is looking for ways to articulate his unhappiness and a positive message without offending anyone, which means it comes across as broad and completely lacking in impact. Even though J.Cole never uses the word privilege as a college-educated successful rapper in a medium that can thrive on ignorance, it's clear he's aware of it and he feels caught between really asserting himself and taking definitive steps forward and potentially pissing someone off. And yet it's that lack of real gripping drama that hurts this album - J.Cole's trying to articulate his personal drama to drive this album, and while very specific portions are compelling, the larger arc feels criminally underweight and stretched, relying more on relatability for its appeal than hard-hitting stories, especially across the back half of the album. It doesn't help matters that there are still bars that could have used another rewrite or two to tighten up the technical lyricism and avoid rhyming words with themselves or the obvious moments where he is pulling his flow from Kanye or Kendrick. And what blows my mind is that if J.Cole wanted to take his positive message and throw some relevant weight behind it, he could have gone political and nobody would have batted an eye - that's dramatic and real, and he could have made it something special, and yet it seems like the struggle that gets the most weight on this album is his own. And outside of certain moments... look, it's not really much that feels new anymore, or all that interesting.

So at the end of the day, I definitely like the ideas behind much of 2014 Forest Hills Drive, but the execution doesn't impress me as much as I wish it did. I still don't feel J.Cole has really pushed himself or found his 'lane' as an MC outside of telling even more of his story, and the lack of gripping drama or hard-hitting commentary or even real lyrical flair really makes this record feel thin to me. I do like the instrumentation and production, and J.Cole is still a good artist, but even he calls himself a b-lister on this album, and that's not far from the truth. It's still a good album, which means I'm giving this album a very strong 6/10 and a recommendation, especially for fans, but it doesn't really grip me the way it should. Still worth a listen, but temper your expectations.

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