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Album review - J Cole - 2014 Forest Hills Drive

2014 Forest Hills Drive sounds like a ghetto version of The Wonder Years.
 J Cole. Ollie Millington/Redferns / Getty Images
J Cole. Ollie Millington/Redferns / Getty Images

2014 Forest Hills Drive

J Cole

(Roc Nation)

Three stars

After tasting international success and fame, 29-year-old American rapper Jermaine Cole re-examines his roots.

It was a journey that included buying back his childhood home, which the family lost to foreclosure in 2003. The address of the ageing building in Fayetteville, North Carolina, provides both the title and the inspiration for Cole’s patchy yet affecting third album.

He quietly released the record without any guest appearances, singles or videos. What might initially seem like arrogance, however, eventually makes sense, as 2014 Forest Hills Drive is intended to be listened to in one sitting.

The 13 tracks here move from meditation on Cole’s childhood, first love and lost friends to a resolution of gratitude and the intention to keep working hard.

Put it all together and the album sounds like a ghetto version of The Wonder Years.

In the luscious January 28th, Cole uses his birth date to reflect rather ruefully on his unexpected position as an ­African-American role model: “What’s the price for a black man’s life?/ I check the toe tag, not one zero in sight/ I turn the TV on, not one hero in sight/ Unless he dribble or he fiddle with mics.”

In 0’3 Adolescence, he details his former admiration for a drug-selling childhood friend. The way he lyrically turns the tables towards the track’s end is sublime.

Cole also wades into the Iggy Azalea controversy in the menacing Fire Squad. Over the trenchant beat, he observes that the Australian rapper is part of the age-old artistic process of appropriation.

“History repeats itself and that’s just how it goes / Same way that these rappers always bite each other’s flows/ Same thing that Elvis did with rock ‘n’ roll/ Justin Timberlake, Eminem and then Macklemore.”

The album’s lyrical intimacy is also underscored in what is perhaps the biggest let-down, the low-key and often rinky-dink production that in some cases sounds like cheap bedroom ­recordings.

An example of this is the lacklustre St Tropez, which skirts too close to Café del Mar muzak territory, while the keyboard hook in No Role Modelz is too muted to achieve the desired effect.

2014 Forest Hills Drive does a solid job of cementing J Cole as an artist with something to say. Let’s hope with the next ­offering, he can say it a little louder.

Updated: January 12, 2015 04:00 AM