J. Cole brings it home in his third studio album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive. Titled after the house he grew up in, the album tells a vulnerable story of adolescence and unfolds like a compilation of journal entries. Cole is born into an oppressive system, learns to measure his self-worth by success and ultimately realizes what’s important: “Love,” which he repeats as the album comes to a close — a corny but important sentiment packaged in utmost sincerity.
There is no question that the album is political, with lines such as “What’s the price for a black man life / I check the toe tag, not a zero in sight.” The lyrics turn existential as Cole focuses on individual liberation. He raps about love and hope and about tackling a corrupt system by living his life in a positive way. This year has seen a lot of empowering tracks, from Lil B’s “No Black Person is Ugly” to Kendrick’s “i.” Cole is not the first nor the last to say that our country lacks justice. But in an age when rap albums reach more ears than sermons, his voice has agency, so he preaches the timeless message.
“No such thing as a life better than yours,” Cole sings in the soulful “Love Yourz.” The production is smooth and precise, creating a rich platform for Cole’s soft, poignant voice to linger through each line. It’s a hopeful message in a moment when people are finally wide-eyed at the present value of a black man’s life in America. In August, when a white police officer shot and killed unarmed 18-year-old Mike Brown, Cole flew with his crew to Ferguson within a week of the shooting to march on the streets in solidarity.
In “Fire Squad,” one of the strongest tracks on the album, Cole starts off dissing other rappers and asserting his greatness. His claims might have been overreaching, but the track ultimately touches at something deeper. “History repeats itself, and that’s just how it goes,” he says, directly calling out cultural commodification of black music. If white rappers are winning Grammys, there’s no point in fighting for who is king. Cole concludes at the end of “Fire Squad” that we are all kings “of ourselves, first and foremost.”
The album also showcases Cole’s humorous, playful side. He flawlessly samples George W. Bush struggling to remember a common saying — fool me once, shame on you? — raps about putting a condom on for the first time and dedicates almost 15 minutes of the last track to thank everyone who has shown him support.
Hip-hop fans have seemed to either worship or discard J. Cole. But this album has proved that he has a story to tell — and one that’s worth listening to. “It’s called love,” he says in “G.O.M.D.” “Niggas don’t sing about it no more.”
2014 Forest Hills Drive is now available on iTunes and wherever CDs are sold.
Contact Anya Schultz at [email protected].