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Record In Review: J. Cole’s “Forest Hills Drive”

By Pat Gunther

Fayetteville, N.C. native Jermaine Cole has ascended to the top of the hip-hop world since becoming the first signee to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation imprint in 2009. After releasing two studio albums since his critically acclaimed mixtapes The Warm Up and Friday Night Lights, the St. John’s grad dropped his newest, and best, album 2014 Forest Hills Drive on Dec. 9.

Compared to his last release, Born Sinner, Cole has delved deeper into his own conscience, reflecting on his entire life over the span of 64 minutes and 13 tracks. The concept album, named after his childhood residence in North Carolina, details everything from losing his virginity, to mingling with gang bangers and drug dealers and finally to his triumphant ascent to the pinnacle of hip-hop’s promised land.

No Singles, No Problem

The track “Wet Dreamz” details the emotions running rampant in the week leading up to losing his virginity through detailed imagery, skilled word play and that classic Cole flow that fans have come to know and love. Unlike his previous efforts, though, Cole’s album does not boast any singles or features, allowing the talented MC to take us on an aural journey through his life. The production, handled largely by Cole and associates, varies from slowed-down Jazz based cuts to straight hip-hop bangers.

Tracks like “A Tale of 2 Citiez” detail the violence and struggle he faced while living in the place that’s often referred to as Fayettenam. As opposed to his debut effort Cole World: The Sideline Story, Forest Hills Drive features Cole at his most mature and reflective, not forcing any singles or features due to the pressure he must’ve felt prior his highly anticipated debut back in 2011.

Poignant Project

Cole’s trials and tribulations, however unrelatable they may be to the casual suburban listener at times, offer honest insight into the life of an underprivileged youth trying to make a name for himself as a intellectual, yet edgy rapper. With that said, though, plenty of tracks such as “G.O.M.D” detail emotions, like love and commitment, general enough to be felt by pretty much anyone with the capacity to care about another person. With that said, though, there are times on the album that Cole’s honesty and tell-all open diary type of writing is just not terribly interesting lyrically.

The most poignant tracks on this project come in the form of the head-bobbing, bass-kicking “Fire Squad,” in which Cole calls out Justin Timberlake, Eminem, Macklemore and Iggy Azalea for “stealing” the traditionally black genre of hip-hop. While the line is said in jest, Cole makes an incredibly valid and thought-provoking point on the current state of rap’s chart-toppers, evoking memories of Tupac Shakur in the last minute of the track. Moreover, the cut “No Role Modelz” details exactly what you think it does, reflecting on his time while he was grinding away on his come-up.

Cole the Craftsman

The sonic trip through Cole’s life takes us through all of the ups and downs of his youth and the memories he forged in his home on Forest Hills Drive, culminating with the track “Note to Self,” which serves as his thank you note to everyone who’s ever made an impact on the creation of his music.  Though there are no killer features like on his previous release Born Sinner, Cole provides us with varying timbres and flows, flexing his lyrical dexterity in different ways along the ride.

If you’re a fan of hip-hop and concept albums, this is a perfect listen for you; and even if the genre doesn’t pique your interest, J. Cole’s innate ability to craft an intriguing and attention-grabbing storyline will, because at the end of the day the most important thing music can do is provide us with an unknown, new perspective that we’ve never had before.

Favorite Tracks: “Intro”, “’03 Adolescence”, “January 28th”, “A Tale of 2 Citiez”, “Fire Squad”

Least Favorite Track: “Wet Dreamz”, “Hello”, “St. Tropez”

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