J. Cole’s ‘2014 Forest Hills Drive’ Turns Five
J. Cole, born Jermaine Lamarr Cole in 1985, came of age in Fayetteville, North Carolina, as Puffy Combs and Bad Boy Records were introducing shiny suits and millionaire opulence to hip-hop on MTV. After graduating from high school in 2003, he left Fayetteville for New York City on an academic scholarship. But he had stars in his eyes. The dream: to get a record contract like the greats before him, and become a rap star.
In 2009, two years after he graduated magna cum laude from St. John’s University, Cole completed the first stage of his dream, signing a deal that made him the first rap artist on JAY-Z’s Roc Nation imprint. Five years after his signing, on December 9, 2014, Cole released his third studio album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, named after the address of his childhood home that he bought back from foreclosure.
The LP was a chance for the Fayetteville rapper to capitalize on the popularity and prestige he’d accumulated through his Billboard-charting records, Grammy nominations, heralded mixtapes, intimate concerts and celebrity relationships. This was Cole’s opportunity to make what Graduation was to Kanye West, what Urban Legend was to T.I. and what Come Home With Me was to Cam’Ron — an album that would help him ascend to a new level of rap stardom.
2014 Forest Hills Drive begins with a question: “Do you wanna be happy?” Then, a follow-up: “Do you wanna be free?” These inquiries recur without answer, alternating, with mounting emotion. The tone of Cole’s voice is affecting. On the verge of shattering, he expresses the type of fragile sincerity that Kanye West summoned throughout his fourth studio album, 808s & Heartbreak. Unlike West, Cole doesn’t dye the candidness of his words with robotic pitch correction. Cole’s singing is natural, imperfect — the voice of a man, not a rap star.
A rap star is supposed to be a giant among men. A rap star isn’t meant to be ordinary, but that’s who J. Cole chose to be. His literal return to 2014 Forest Hills Dr, Fayetteville, North Carolina, 28303, symbolized his coming back down to earth. He was always the everyman rapper, but on “Intro,” and throughout the entirety of the album, Cole finds a voice for rap music without larger-than-life romanticism or headline-worthy sensationalism.
Thematically, the album is expertly sequenced. It begins with his birthdate (“January 28th”) and runs through a semi-autobiographical retelling of scenes from his adolescence and young adulthood. The stories Cole shares aren’t embellished to make his image grander, more refreshing or more enjoyable. “Wet Dreamz,” originally recorded in 2009, revels in the awkwardness of Cole losing his virginity, instead of making sex sound, well, sexy. Then there’s the Willie B-produced “03’ Adolescence,” an honest portrait of growing up black, lower-middle-class and uncertain of one’s self. Cole had no interest in sharing a decorated version of his childhood.
When we arrive at the heart of the album — “St. Tropez,” “G.O.M.D.” and “No Role Modelz” — we come to realize our narrator is all grown up, or so he believes. Cole is chasing his dream and acquiring fame and fortune. But in the process he has lost himself. All three records depict a man who is adrift in his pursuit of a dream, and Cole’s return home is symbolic of the need to have a space to retreat to when feeling lost in the world — a place that keeps you grounded in reality and guards you against dreams deferred.
The album’s penultimate track, “Love Yourz,” finds solace in acceptance and preaches appreciation of the moment. It stands as Cole’s most timeless message to the masses. “Love Yourz” is everything 2014 Forest Hills Drive embodies. This is an album that refuses to advance an illusion of fame and fortune. As a dreamer himself, one who left home with nothing to his name, Cole made it to the other side. But he saw what was being offered in much of hip-hop culture and refused to resell it. “[I] think being broke was better,” he raps sincerely.
The attitude of modesty and acceptance Cole embeds within “Love Yourz” was also a substantial element of the album’s release. For the first time in his career, Cole chose to have no additional features or promotional singles, and the project wasn’t given a conventional rollout or press run. 2014 Forest Hills Drive wasn’t meant to be a commercial giant. Rather, the album was a refusal to play the rap game. If he were going to rap, it would be by his rules, and for his fans.
Artistically, 2014 Forest Hills Drive solidified the end of Cole’s dreamer era. The albums he released prior aren’t different in sound or style, but in perspective. He is confident without forcing melodies in hopes of commercial success; he doesn’t overthink his raps to impress peers and naysayers. Though “Fire Squad” begins with a boast about being the greatest rapper, by song’s end Cole isn’t interested in competing for hip-hop’s crown. After coming home, Cole no longer wished to be king. He found his throne on a rooftop.
Five years on from the release of 2014 Forest Hills Drive, Cole is ending the decade as one of the most famous musicians in the world. A new generation of kids is watching him, starry-eyed — not because of how Cole portrays being a rapper or how much money he’s made, but because of the music and the man his songs represent.
J. Cole and 2014 Forest Hills Drive showed hip-hop that being yourself is enough to be a star.
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