Thursday, January 8, 2015

2014 Forest Hills Drive J.Cole: A 'First Listen' Review by A.S. Washington

A Little Background

I've always been a hip-hop fan and that will never change. Though as my music tastes have grown and evolved, I've had the luxury of working for the Boys & Girls Club of Newark in the neighborhood I grew up in with teenagers. So I'm always up to date on the new hip-hop artists - from the best to the worst (I have an opinion). Can you imagine the headaches. One teen in particular Ade @adeaweekayear who's recently become an adult and college student - I call him the #1 J. Cole fan. He's actually the only diehard J.Cole fan I know personally. 

Ade and I have had several conversations on J. Cole from many perspectives. We both agree that J. Cole is a gifted lyricist and obviously talented. Ade though couldn't understand why he doesn't get the widespread love his talents should garner him, where other artists do. I've given him my many perspectives, particularly after Born Sinner, which I liked, but felt lacked in certain areas in regard to widespread love. He agreed in some parts, but assured me Cole's next album would be the one where he showed and proved. That album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, was released this past December without much fan fare and publicity, but had impressive first week sales of 360,000+ units.  Cole's third studio album is the highest selling hip hop album of 2014. Thus, I guess Ade was correct on at least one account.

Ade and I got to talking today about the album. I listened to Apparently and G.O.M.D. while I wrapped up my day at work. I promised that tonight I'd listen and write a 'First Listen' review of 2014 Forest Hills Drive. 

The Review: First Listen
I typically wouldn't write a review for an album after only listening to it once. The problem with that is because I hated Magna Carta Holy Grail by Jay-Z the first time I listened to it. Then once I heard the intricacies and certain songs grew on me, it became one of my favorites of the year and I understood why Jay-Z ranked it so high for himself personally. But a promise is a promise. So take the bad with a grain of salt and know that I plan to give Cole's artistic endeavor the justice that it deserves, by listening to it more later on. 

On the First Listen through, the records that immediately stand out are: 

1. Wet Dreamz. Talking about his first time, which ends up being the girl's first time who he thinks is more experienced. She also thinks he is more experienced, though he's a virgin just like her. Of course he doesn't say this to her aloud. Cole speaks on the things going through many young boys' head as that first time comes along. There's realness and honesty on the record and Cole opens up a bit. No surprise here as Cole always does love and sex well in his music. Most of his hit records have been for the ladies and/or on the topic of sex. 

2. 03' Adolescence. It is kind of the quintessential story of growing up in the hood. Two friends, one's the neighborhood dealer, forced to live the fast life and carry a gun and maybe even shoot it. The other is the smart cool kid who doesn't get to dress as well because he doesn't slang. They come to admire one another for the qualities or materials in which they lack, and the corner kid is shocked that his well-to-do buddy wants to do what he does for the clothes, money, and girls. Yet, the good boy finds that his boy looks up to him for all the qualities he possesses, and the good decisions he makes. This a story that happens so often in the American ghettos. It really touches on the complexity of how kids from the hood are grouped into one batch based off of fashion and musical tastes. When on the inside they struggle, but as if they were raised in totally different circumstances. Brilliant.

3. Fire Squad. J. Cole's lyrics stand at the forefront and he reminds us that he can really rap. He's a talented wordsmith who can weave a thoughtful maze like anyone in the game today. He stands above with the crown, this false crown, as an equal to his peers, hoping to bring a bit of unity to the titans of new. No hate, no discrimination. I could have done without the soliloquy at the end, though it helps to put into context the lyrics for those who aren't paying a deep enough attention. 

4. Apparently. Apparently stands out sonically. Cole's stretches his vocals out here and shows us his ability to sing or croon, depending on how you want to look at it. His voice isn't annoying, it matches the music and the content is interesting. Looking at women through a lens and seeing his mother, apologizing for his failures, and then seeing his woman who is a mirror image of his own mother. However, the song took a turn that I didn't like and disrupted my mood as Cole goes off on a somewhat braggadocios tangent. While lyrically he is demonstrative and perhaps even ingenious, the mood of the first half of the song is destroyed for me there. I didn't want that. I wanted what I was looking for during the first half of the song. It's not totally mood killer, but it seemed inappropriately placed. 

5. G.O.M.D. Cole takes the opportunity to express his disdain for what people decide to listen to and call hip-hop or rap. All of that nonsensical music that keeps people dancing, screaming, jumping up and down, partying, getting shit-faced drunk, and living it up - though lacks any real substance or thought provoking elements. I hear you Cole. The production is carefully crafted to assist in getting the point across about what people want and what Cole wants to put across to the public. The last minute I could have done without him being the best here or there and wearing the oh so elusive crown that everyone owns that he took off during Fire Squad. The beat change while sonically good, was like 'ah no.'

6. Love Yourz. This was by far the best track on the record for the reason me and Ade discussed today. The music, the lyrics/subject matter, Cole's tone of voice, and the emotional character of the song goes hand in hand. In this song it is never interrupted and I got what I felt at the beginning, throughout the song, and by the end. I was completely satisfied here. 

The records that I didn't mention, didn't particularly stand out or I didn't really like them and since this is the first listen, I wont go into deep detail about them.  You can scroll down my twitter timeline and get the a quick review on each record.

Bottom Line

J. Cole is by far one of the most talented hip-hop artist to come around in recent years in my humble opinion. This album is better than Born Sinner and shorter by 9 tracks (the deluxe version). Track 13, Note To Self is simply the album credits i.e. his voice over music thanking everyone he needs to thank and shouting out everyone he wants to. To the tune of 14:35 (a large portion of my life). Next time Cole should make sure he gets his thank you script in before the album art goes to print. However, it was nice to see him be so humble and express how he's doing his own thing and not trying to conform to some notion that someone else has put across. Thankfully, his label and distributor are allowing him creative license to do so. 

Yet, I think in some ways J. Cole suffers from that very creative license in some ways. When I listened to Born Sinner, it got to a point where I felt like listening to one long song. Cole produced 17 of the 21 tracks on the deluxe edition which is the one I listened to. The energy of each record is about the same and I generally couldn't get too emotionally invested into any of them. It was like music to cruise to. I was happy to see that he trimmed it down this time which I think allowed him to focus more. Cole also produced on all but 3 of the tracks on 2014 Forest Hills Drive and I think it suffers because of that in some ways.

What I love most about Cole's music is that it's real, it's authentic, and it is irrevocably him. However, I don't feel like I meet him completely. Though the songs are topically different, the vibe often feels very much the same the way Born Sinner did. I never go through the valleys and peaks with him. There's no party music that makes me want to get up and dance. There's no record that sends goosebumps down my skin in anticipation of the beat drop. There's no moment where I know he was really angry. There's the thoughtful introspection of someone looking at the world with clarity, not particularly too mad, and if he is he wont show it. He's not particularly too happy, but he doesn't really want to let me crack the shell. As a listener, I want desperately to like you. Yet, you come off as stand offish. So when I'm angry J. Cole, failed to really take me there. With his music, when I'm angry, tell me to take it in stride. But I really want to scream, yell throw a fit and bitch. When I just want a shoulder to cry on, he tells me to perk up, so I find a different shoulder. I like him, but I can only go to him for deep thought and quiet consultation.

There is an artist for everyone, and I see the growth and maturity in J. Cole's approach to music. He does have a style of his own and his sales figures show me that people have joined the parade, are marching to his beat, and hanging out in his crowd. Though, I think if he opened to more features, which is non-existent on this record, and other producers (more than just collaboration), he'll be able to challenge himself in other ways. Interestingly enough, of the six songs I really liked, half were produced by other producers, with no touching by Cole except on 1. Might be a hint to take from that.

If I'm scoring the album it's 3.5 - 4 stars. I like it. I'm going to listen to it some more. How many more times will truly tell if I really like it. 

My score may matter, it may not. Ultimately, J. Cole is in a position to do as he pleases and as a artist, that's all that really matters. So rock on, rock on, rock on. 

Until next write...

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