Take 2 Album Review: J. Cole's (Almost Classic) "2014 Forest Hills Drive"

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I know there were some haters out there, some doubters, naysayers if you will, who thought I wasn't going to actually come through with my promise to re-review J. Cole's 2014Forest Hills Drive a month after it dropped. I know because they naysay-ed all over my Twitter timeline. Well, in the immortal words of Diddy (almost), TAKE THIS!!!!

As promised, I really did follow up on my 1 Listen Review by spending the last few weeks listening to Cole's album in the car, at the gym, while washing dishes, in short in every location and situation an album can be listened to (except sexy time, I'm not trying to make another baby to the sound of Jermaine's singing). And more than that, I listened to Cole talk about the album, I talked to other people about the album, I spent some serious time pondering its meaning and impact and force. I lived with this album. And, at the end of all that, spoiler alert.....nothing really changed! How exciting!!!

While it'd be more dramatic and interesting to say that repeated listens brought on some epiphany about what a classic album this truly is, or that the passage of time seriously dampened my initial excitement, the truth is that for the most part I thought this was a very good album and I still think it's a very good album, certainly Cole's best, and certainly an album that places him, once and for all, undeniably, among that upper echelon of artists. 

That's for the most part though - that doesn't mean I'm still in the exact same place with Forest Hills Drive as the first time I listened. Notably, I've grown to embrace some of the songs I was initially hesitant about. I was literally driving across the Bay Bridge last night, the winter sky looking breathtakingly beautiful, feeling alive and spazzing out to "Tale of 2 Citiez" with zero regards for how I looked to other drivers. And while the frequent beat switches and complex layering on "G.O.M.D." initially threw me off, after a solid 20 or 30 listens the song now sounds completely fluid. I can coast right along with it without missing a single head nod, and "St. Tropez" has become an absolute go-to song when I'm feeling stressed, which is just about always and forever. 

More importantly, especially after hearing Cole talk about his intentions for the album, I gained an additional level of respect for Cole's commitment to artistry around Forest Hills Drive. Even after one listen it was obvious that he was dedicated to pushing some serious boundaries in his musicianship; the concerns about sales and radio spins that so clearly weighed down Cole World and to a lesser but still prominent extent Born Sinner were finally gone. He was finally artistically free and making the best music of his career as a result. He wanted to make music that mattered, music that wasn't afraid to shoulder the responsibility of being the voice of his generation, and there's really nothing more I could possibly want from an emcee. In his own words, "Fuck good, we demand great," and this is the album when he stopped being good and became great for me. 

However - you knew there was a "however" coming, didn't you? - I know I'm still missing something. The way I hear others talk about Cole, that passion in their voice, that fundamental, fervent belief that he's even better than great, that he's once-in-a-lifetime extraordinary, I just can't seem to get there. I'm at something like 90% of peak Cole appreciation, and I just can't seem to find that extra 10% no matter how hard I tried, and it bothered me. Was it me? Was it him? Both? What was I missing? What could I do to get to 100%? It was a question that I began to obsess over, and since this is literally my job, I had plenty of time to obsess. 

Frankly, I'm still not entirely sure, but I think I have the answer, or something close to it. In Cole's NPR Mic Check interview, he mentioned that as he was getting older he was discovering new meanings to Pac's music, meanings that it simply took certain life experiences to get. That was the brilliant thing about classic hip-hop, the way it contained enough to grow with you, and that was the music he was trying to make. Music that someone who's 18 right now might not truly grasp until they were 20, or 25 or maybe never. 

It's a great point, and a realization about music it fittingly takes a certain amount of life experience to come to. I first consciously realized it around Kanye's "All The Lights," which almost made me cry because when it dropped my daughter had just been born and picturing only being able to see my daughter at Borders was crushing. Before my daughter I just wouldn't have been able to connect on that more powerful, emotional level, even if I could have been able to intellectually appreciate it. There's that extra 10% Similarly, I'm just frankly older than J. Cole, both literally and in terms of certain life experiences. He just got engaged, I'm more concerned with how to sustain a marriage I've now been in for years. I think a core part of Cole's success is that his vulnerability and honesty makes so many people, primarily younger people, feel like he's living their lives right alongside them, but Cole and I just aren't at the same place in our lives. I can relate to 90% of what Cole says, but not that 100% that Killer Mike's been giving me right now, and that's not anyone's fault. It doesn't mean that someone like Killer Mike is inherently better or worse than Cole (another argument for another time), it just means that music is this living, breathing thing that will affect us differently as we live or breathe differently at different points in our lives.  

It'd be a shame though if I spent more time in this re-review on that 10% I just can't seem to connect with Cole on than the 90% I do. There's nothing complicated about a song like "Love Yourz." Especially in hip-hop, a genre seemingly now designed to make us constantly jealous, we need rappers telling us that there's no such thing as a life better than ours. We need J. Cole in hip-hop, and we need more 2014 Forest Hills Drive in hip-hop, and that's not going to change whether it's a first listen, a month or years later.   

[Nathan S. is the managing editor of The DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. His beard is awesome. His Twitter is @RefinedHype.]