In many ways I got the idea of one listen album reviews from J. Cole, and he was right; one listen reviews are fucking up hip-hop, and no one knew it better than me. I've been writing hip-hop album reviews since the days when major labels would send me a CD....in the mail....weeks before the album dropped...but in recent years the album review game has mirrored American culture at large - faster and louder. Whether it's a rap song or an international political crisis, the media is now in an arms race to get an opinion up NOW and MAKE IT A HOT TAKE before the internet's toddler-level attention span wanders to the next topic. So is it really any surprise that we now get reviews calling an album a classic or complete trash the same day it drops?
DJBooth was caught in the same trap. I could rush to get a review up the second an album leaked, but then I'd be doing a disservice to the artist and the culture. Or I could sit with the album for weeks, like I used to, but trust me, if I posted an album review three weeks after a project dropped it'd be almost completely ignored, and in the meantime I'd get approximately eleventy-million "Yo, where that review at?!?!?!!?" comments.
But the more I thought about J. Cole's tweet, the more I realized that it wasn't one listen album reviews that were fucking up hip-hop, not exactly. There's a first listen for every album (no shit), and everyone, whether you're a fan or a critic, has immediate reactions. Immediate reactions aren't fucked up, they're human. What's fucked up is immediate reactions masquerading as in-depth, long term analysis. So what if we stopped fronting? What if we were as transparent and open as possible? What if we pushed the "one listen" concept to its extreme and forced ourselves to listen to an album straight through, no repeating tracks, and wrote our first take, gut level reactions? Then we could do a follow-up review weeks later, after we'd had time to really sit with the project. Maybe that'd be the best of both worlds, give people a place to talk about their immediate reactions too and give an album the time it deserves before we issue a more permanent pronouncement on its place in history. Would that fuck up hip-hop, or would it actually be the most accurate reflection possible of how we experience albums in our real lives? Who knows, maybe I could even write a paragraph that consisted almost entirely of rhetorical questions. Anything's possible.
And so here I am, right back where it all started, with a new J. Cole album in my headphones. It's an interesting time for Cole and 2014Forest Hills Drive. The commercial/critical/public success of Born Sinner largely put to rest any doubts that he was an elite artist, now it's a matter of figuring out how elite. Like any rapper worth touching a mic I think he genuinely believes he's the best rapper of his generation, and I know he's got a loyal army of fans who think the same, but the facts are that he hasn't outsold Drake (yet) and hasn't dropped an album widely considered to be a classic like Kendrick (yet). Depending on the week and/or your take, he's either got the number one, number two or number three spot - personally I'd say number three - but who wants to be the disputed number one? Cole wants people to love him like they loved Pac; could Forest Hills Drive be the album that gets him there?
I'm legitimately stoked to hear the answer to that question. My wife and daughter are asleep, I've turned off my phone and everything else on my computer but iTunes and a Word doc. It's just me, Jermaine, Forest Hills Drive, these headphones and this keyboard for the next hour or so. Let's do the damn thing.
Piano chords and singing, I already feel like this is going to be a truly personal album. Some of that real artistic shit. This isn't that hip-hop album intro where he comes out rapping a mile a minute. He's not trying to prove he’s an amazing rapper, he’s trying to prove he can make an amazing album. Same heartbreak voice we heard on that Ferguson song. Just some straight singing, some shower singing, and Cole proves that if you sing it hard enough it will connect, even if you can’t "sing." And yes, for the record, sure, I do want to be happy Jermaine, thank you so much for asking. Luckily, writing about hip-hop makes me happy, so thank you for that too. Oh, and he left in the little clip of him talking to the engineer in the studio, a time-tested "this is authentic, not manipulated in Pro Tools" trick.
That’s one hell of a smooth beat, there's a lot of instrumental layering here. Is that a live bass? Come on man, you really had to drop a "bananas >>> peel this back line" line? That's a punchline my dad would write. Wait, I take it back, one million bonus points for that nice Johnnie Cochran reference. And...we’re back to singing on the hook, I’m not mad at it. He's really going for the full on inspirational, motivational vibe. I'm super down for an entire album like this, just don’t let me hear a radio song like "Work Out" seven tracks from now. This value of a black man’s life talk is especially powerful after the Eric Garner ruling. I can’t wait for all the blogs to turn that Kendrick Lamar and Drake name mention into a "Shots Fired" headline, even though it's not even remotely a shot. Oh hey, a sample of a baby, word to Timbo. Two tracks in and I'm thoroughly enjoying myself.
Another smooth beat, this one’s on some real soul sample, 9th Wonder-type shit. The drums on this really knock. Now we’re going the nostalgia route; I won’t front, it has me nostalgic. Man, I remember all those science classes I spent trying to not get caught staring at [name redacted]‘s boobs. This is some real relatable shit. In middle school, the girls were really so much more sexually advanced than the boys, even if the boys fronted. I’m sorry, where were we? Oh yeah, reviewing an album. Not sure how this fits into the theme of the last two songs, but right now it doesn’t really matter. If this song was supposed to take me on a trip down memory lane, mission accomplished Jermaine. Oh shit, twist ending!!! I won’t ruin it for y’all, but I feel a little naïve for not seeing it coming the whole time. Well, that’s officially the greatest rap song about losing your virginity in hip-hop history. (Nope, I’m not able to name any other songs about losing your virginity either, but still.)
Back to the violins and lush instrumentals, I haven’t heard a “hard” beat yet and I dig it. It gives the entire project a kind of dreamy vibe. That means nothing’s blown me away yet, but that’s not a bad thing. This might have been better as song three, but I won’t get into album sequencing second guessing on a first listen review. Really a high school nostalgia project. So this is the story of how Cole tried to live that street life but the streets wanted better for him. Is this a real story? I'll add that to the long list of questions I'll ask him if I ever get an interview. Kind of a dear mama track, some more inspirational music. Cole really positioning himself to be the everyman rapper of his generation. So far, so fucking dope.
"A Tale of Two Citiez"
Oh shit, this shit sounds dangerous. I'm waiting for the drums to hit….wait for it...one more bar…and…yep, there they are. Kind of a "Worst Behavior" vibe, especially considering how hard that bass knocks. This has some real banger potential, it’s gonna be hard not to put this on repeat ten times right after it ends. Maybe that says something about the music I really want, don’t we all just want bangers? Ok, I was so caught up in the beat I really missed that first verse, let me refocus on the vocals. This "hands in the air” hook is going to be an anthem live. I really want to hear his vocals get next level intense, mean, put some real fury in his voice, at least really switch up the flow and hit something double time for a minute. He might just not have it in him. Gut reaction, this one’s going to inspire fourty million freestyles, dope, but just didn’t really hit me in the chest the way I was hoping. Jesus, now I need to hear ScHoolboy Q on this beat before I die.
Now the album’s really picking up some momentum, this might prove to be an excellent driving, road trip album. I kind of wanted the intensity of these vocals on the last joint. Just some straight up rapping on this one. (Note to self: Research "the ’02 Lil Wayne.") This is the most purely enjoyable joint so far, but not as sure what the point of it is. Nevermind, this is that song all the bloggity blogs are blogging about, the one where he mentions Eminem and Iggy. A really powerful take on white gentrification in hip-hop, I really respect that. Wait, did he just say "just playing"? JUST PLAYING????? Aaaaahhhhh!!!! Come on man, you said some real powerful shit, stand behind it. Don't hide behind a "just playing." You’re not playing, that was some very non-playing shit to say, don’t qualify it, don't excuse it. Well, that was mildly infuriating, but that vocal outro’s enough to calm me down. On the whole a very solid effort.
Back to the more laid back vibes. Whoever mixed this album did an outstanding job, remind me to look at the notes and give them some serious props. Probably my favorite beat so far, come on Cole, deliver on it vocally. Please. A lot of singing again, but I’m still not mad. Reminds me of some Mos Def, and that’s a good thing. This one doesn’t have a real structure, no core, but that seems to be the point. Something to really vibe out too. Oh damn, and a complete beat switch. This is really a producer's track. Scratch that, a composer’s track. Those strings are beautiful. Wish we had gotten a story, this would have been the perfect backdrop for some real narrative rap he can do so well, but I’m too impressed by the musical quality to care. So many elements layered on this one, just fucking excellent.
Some real chopped sample stuff. OOOHHHHHHHH, first time I’ve really made an unqualfied oh shit face today. This beat though, and now the bass, wait for it, when he brings the drums back in. Yep, I’m losing my shit right now on the couch. Now this is a beat. Wait…and now it’s changed again completely. I just lost all my momentum. I’ll trust him though. Damn, now my head’s nodding again to a completely different beat. Is he going to combine the two later on? And who's this yelling on the hook? The Ying Yang twins? And now he’s singing in that voice that’s almost crying? I’m so confused right now. Exactly the type of track I’d have to listen to 17 times to get a good handle on. The momentum keeps stopping and starting, it’s like someone giving you a plate of delicious food, then two bites in they pull it away and give you a new plate of delicious food. A lot of deliciousness, but I also want some time to really chew on something. And now there’s some bounce music type shit? What just happened in the last five minutes of my life? Well, he’s really pushing some boundaries, this is like four different songs having an orgy, I’ll applaud that.
"No Role Modelz"
Goddamn right rest in peace Uncle Phil. I'm vibing to this - how many times is Cole going to say "bitch" in this song though? It just sounds forced coming from him, and now he just said, "Before I started calling bitches bitches so heavily." Seems like he wrote that line first and added more "bitches" to the previous lines to make it work. Something about this I’m just not feeling, really the first time this album I’ve felt like this. Shame too, cause I’m really into that beat that kicks in on the chorus. A George Bush sample! What do you have to do to clear that sample? And now he just threatened to load the chopper and let it rain? What’s up with all this fronting? The rest of the album was the craziest, most honest shit. I might have to pretend like this song never happened. Now we’re singing about shallow pussies? Nopes. Noppity nope McNopesalot. Mayor McNopenstan.
Now it's back to the piano. I have to say, this album has me on my heels, I don’t know what to expect from one song to the next and I like that. I kind of want him to turn down that uptempo clapping though, it’s crazy distracting. And…again, the chorus hits and I’m not really sure what’s happening right now. Is this life? Preemptive strike against those who say I can’t handle weird shit, mostly because I got a lot of "well you just can't handle anything that's not cookie cutter" after I didn't like parts of Yeezus. My left arm is covered by a giant tattoo of a skeleton William Burroughs with a needle in his head holding a smoking shotgun. If you get that reference THEN you can talk to me about weird shit. Anyway, this is clearly an experiment, and I genuinely appreciate that, but at the moment it doesn’t feel like an experiment that worked.
More singing over a piano. If you haven’t figured it out by now, this is really the album where Cole is just singing like crazy and not giving a fuck. He always sang, but now he's on some full on soul/R&B shit. Now I’m feeling this much more. Yes. Yes McYessyyesyes. Mayor McYes. Another "Dear Mama"-esque joint. Hell yeah, moms need the love. That hook is catchy as fuck, but not without all the negative connotations that a phrase like "catchy" usually has. I’m all in on this track. I can sing along to this in my car. And…now we’re talking about two bitches on his trombone. Happy birthday mom! Always feels like there’s this one thing that's holding me back from totally, completely loving these songs. Or am I being overly critical? If I hold him to a higher standard, I'd like to believe it's the same high standard I hold the people I consider his peers to. Whatever, right now I'm just going to relax and enjoy. More excellent instrumentation and production on the end of the song. Plus a straight up horn solo. I’m all in.
I’m sorry, I got so wrapped up in this song I forgot to type. I didn’t want to miss a note, the best compliment I could pay. Some truly original commentary on consumerism. Maybe my straight up favorite on the album.
"Note To Self"
Alright, looking at my iTunes this shit is 15 minutes long. You know what, let’s fucking do it. I’m not going anywhere. You got me Jermaine, I’m ready to invest in you. Nothing else, you have my full attention. Let the beat build, let’s do it. This has a real '70s soul vibe. Man, some Marvin Gaye type shit. Wow, now here he’s really taking a chance. This dude doesn’t want to be a rapper anymore. You really don’t hear songs like this, this is that Motown 20 musicians in a giant room recording music shit. And now we’re going to get the monologue, some thank yous. But fuck it, I’ll sit through the credits. Wait, what did DJ Dahi do on this album? And Social Experiment (aka Chance the Rapper's group) did some of that live instrumentation? Fucks yes. I completely disagree with his take on sampling, but that's a topic for another time.
Ok. Deep breath. Looking back on this I want to start editing like crazy, lord knows it's not exactly a shining example of the craft of great writing, but that'd be a "1 Listen Review" fronting as something deeper. If this review seems all over the place, that's because it's an exact running diary of my thoughts from second to second on the album, I started typing when the song started and stopped when it ended, and 2014Forest Hills Drive has enough twists and turns to inspire an almost schizophrenic stream of reactions.
As of right now, literally one listen in, I have a new level of respect for Cole. I was never a super fan, but I always liked him. What I felt was lacking in Cole was the desire to really change music, to really innovate, and this album is nothing if not artistically courageous. At the very least he's obviously gotten over the "pressure to make the label and radio happy" burden that dragged down Cole World. Only time will tell if my relationship with Forest Hills Drive stays at the level of appreciation or deepens into something like love, but that's what time is for. I'm looking forward to putting this one repeat for a while, listen to it in every situation and setting imaginable, and that's all you could really ask for after one listen. I'm more than happy I pre-ordered Forest Hills Drive, now let's watch the time go by and see if that $9.99 bought me a classic.
[Nathan S. is the managing editor of The DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. His beard is awesome. His Twitter is @RefinedHype.]