J. Cole fills a strange space. For all of his skills and accolades he’s never quite commanded the respect he rightfully deserves, as one of the top tier artists of the new generation. He’s been on the honorable mention list for a bit too long and has never quite carved his own lane. Unfortunately, 2014 Forest Hills Drive is much of the same. As an avid student of the culture, Cole relies heavily on his knowledge and love of classic hip-hop structure to fuel his pen game and nothing’s wrong with that. It’s just that he constantly feels ambiguous.
What’s great about Cole is he always has a message. His music is a carefully cultured organism that grows confidently, but never really makes waves.
At any rate, he’s a skillful artist. Tracks like “Fire Squad” are hard to deny and “A Tale of 2 Citiez” is a straight banger even with its oh so Swizz Beatz chorus. That feeling of déjà vu happens a lot on the album. There are beats, flows and inflections you’d swear belong to something you’ve heard before. Trying to guess the influence is a fun game to play while taking in 2014 Forest Hills Drive.
It could be that J. Cole’s approach to production is what makes things sound so familiar. Take for example “St. Tropez”, with its pretty recognizable Ester Philips sample or the “Impeach the President” loop on “Wet Dreamz” – much of the albums high points don’t feel new. Then there’s the skip material like “Hello” and “Love Yourz”, which have great messages, but frankly just bore you into calling them track 10 and 12. While even those songs benefit from Cole’s technical expertise, not all of it feels intrinsic. In other words there’s not much that says signature J. Cole; even the production, which Cole handles the majority of, isn’t defining. That boy can rap though and there are some strong moments on the album. “January 28th” is one of those moments. It’s like he reaches that plateau for that perfect moment where he’s not concerned about where this song’s going to play or whom it might offend.
What’s great about Cole is he always has a message. His music is a carefully cultured organism that grows confidently, but never really makes waves. He gives you glimpses of excellence, some safe production and just enough harmony to make it mildly interesting – enough to keep his name in the mix, but not always enough to make you pay attention.