Rediscovering Forest Hills: J. Cole and the Music of Life

Mateus looks back at J. Cole's 2014 album...

I have been a J. Cole fan from the moment I first heard his music. Though all his projects are interesting and masterful in their own way, it is 2014 Forest Hills Drive which has affected me most, and is often considered his best work. It is an album of emotion, joy and self-reflection which will undoubtedly stand the test of time, and here’s why.

By late 2014, J. Cole was already a well-established rapper. His first project was released in 2007, and he had dropped another four since then. Whilst many commended Cole for his humorous delivery and lyricism, many had also criticised the rapper for his inconsistency: his serious songs were often marred by lyrics which resorted to braggadocio rap tropes.

I do recognise the critiques thrown his way, but find it hard to grasp those who label him a ‘pseudo-conscious’ artist. Cole manages instead to find a balance between the polar opposite topics of love, fame, and racial identity within his music. It is this blending of different issues and themes that allow the listener to enter into the picture of his life, and see how there is a hidden beauty in hardships and in pain.

Forest Hills is an album about growing up, hence it is named after the location of one of Cole’s childhood homes in North Carolina. But in dealing with the topic of youth, Cole taps into a wider theme of the struggles faced by African-Americans in poorer neighbourhoods.

Cole raises important questions regarding racial stereotypes in America, in ‘G.O.M.D.’ asking “Why every rich black nigga gotta be famous? / Why every broke black nigga gotta be brainless?” As well as challenging societal norms, Cole is open about the pains of a turbulent upbringing, with one such aspect being the absence of his father in his life. In ‘No Role Modelz’, Cole pays tribute to the TV character of Uncle Phil as “the only father that I ever knew”.

“the album doesn’t restrain itself…”

In other songs, Cole notes how he couldn’t cry because of his desire for a father figure, as survival in a dangerous city was more important. Cole, however, also manages to take a positive outlook on his early life, showing compassion in the line “Though sometimes we had less, / Compared to some my niggas / Down the block, man, we were blessed”.

But the album doesn’t restrain itself into being a retrospective endeavour, and Cole also illustrates the hardships that come with his wealth and success. In contrast to some of his earlier work, in which he expressed a love for fame, in ‘A Tale of 2 Citiez’, Cole notes that in seeking fame and fortune, “You’ll get your piece, but know peace won’t be found”.

Throughout the album, it is sometimes heart-wrenching to be hearing a man so disappointed with the person he has become. Notably, in ‘03’ Adolescence’, he sorrowfully sings that “Things change, rearrange, and so do I / It ain’t always for the better, dawg, I can’t lie”. It is almost as if this return to Forest Hills has helped him appreciate the qualities of freedom in his youth, whilst in fame, these privileges begin to crack.

This reaches a point of desperation in ‘G.O.M.D.’, with Cole pleading “I wanna go back to Jermaine, and I won’t tell nobody”: he is seeking the days before his stage name, before his career, before his ego. However, he also recognises how challenging those days were within a different framework, and how the grass will always be greener when viewed through nostalgic eyes.

Cole’s ego also feeds into his approach to love. There are several songs in his earlier discography in which he brags about his ability to get any woman he wants. There had been a gradual maturing before Forest Hills, but it was this album in which Cole dug deep to expose his darkest sides. In ‘No Role Modelz’, Cole reminisces over the days “Before I started callin’ bitches ‘bitches’ so heavily”, which serves as an overt critique of certain toxic aspects of hip-hop culture.

“Cole seems to have found an awakening…”

Cole also seems to have found an awakening in the form of true love. His honesty, in contrast to his earlier shallowness, is not only refreshing, but also astounding. This is light-heartedly displayed in ‘Wet Dreamz’, a standout track in which Cole tells the story of how he lost his virginity. Instead of bragging in a traditional way about his confidence, he instead presents a relatable and empathetic picture, one in which both him and his then-partner are excited, yet nervous and confused.

All these themes feed into an exploration of shame and guilt, explored in-depth in ‘Apparently’, be it how Cole forgot about his mother’s struggle when he became carried away with his newfound fame, or how he faced the temptation to cheat as part of his position. The turmoil and happiness of Cole’s stories are intrinsically entwined, merging together throughout the album, as they do in our own thoughts.

‘Love Yourz’ is one of the album’s final and most memorable moments, and it encompasses the core of its message. It is a wholly uplifting outlook on life; by confessing and reflecting on his past decisions, Cole is symbolically turning over a new leaf, maturing in a way that will bring joy to those he loves, but also to himself.

In this track, Cole professes an overarching theme of the album, that there’s “beauty in the struggle, ugliness in the success”. He recognizes that life is no “fairytale”; people have their inner demons, people make mistakes. But life is always susceptible to change, and our errors, over time, are able to point us in the right direction.

And thus you reach the epicentre of the project. It is a diary: a reflection of one man’s life and his struggles. However, it is not sorrowful; Cole instead “paints his canvas” with bright colours, passion in anger, sadness and joy, allowing the listener to not only embark on his journey of contemplation, but also consider the highs and lows within their own past.

Be it through childhood fears, the pressures of responsibility, or the embrace of love, 2014 Forest Hills Drive delivers more than most albums. It refuses to focus on one single topic, opting instead to explore an entire life, and all the uncertainties, complications and ambiguities within it. It is intimate, it is vulnerable, it is thought-provoking, it is vibrant.

2014 Forest Hills Drive will be remembered because it is what so many other albums fail to be: human.

Mateus de Sá

Featured image courtesy of ‘The Come Up Show’ via flickr.

Image use licence here.

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