“Do you wanna, do you wanna be…happy?”, asks a withdrawn J. Cole over the piano-glistened intro of 2014 Forest Hills Drive. It seems an immaterial question; at this juncture–one signposted with a self-founded record label, three studio albums, five other trophy mixtapes, and the hosting of in-home, Fayetteville listening sessions for fans, it’s hard to envision the 29-year-old Dreamville artist as anything but.
2014 was a mellow year for the producer/emcee; he rode Born Sinner’s sedate wave of recognition, his TLC-backed “Crooked Smile” hit bounced from one radio’s replay to another, Nas openly reaffirmed his approval of him after the “Let Nas Down” track made us think otherwise, and he did some quietly-marketed collaborations on the side. But a humble hip-hop Confucius with a conscience unsheddable, Cole’s 5 years in the game and still pondering the ‘rightness’ of it all; the fame, the money, all the accolades, and the growth from dorm room rhyme-scrawling to Grammy nominations. He’s had ample time to try on the rapper lifestyle, it just doesn’t really fit.
And though at times he might brag a little (“When I’m in LA I’m the best in the South/ When I’m in LA I’m the best in the West) [“G.O.M.D.”]…or adopt a prophetic tone (“Even when I rhyme about the future, I’m reminiscin”) [“Fire Squad”], even the mildest of Cole’s trash-talk comes out as unnatural. Every bar an attestation of his eloquence and poet’s poise, he’s part of a level-headed minority, up there with the Kendrick Lamars of the game—the highest echelon Gen-Y music fans have. And 2014 FHD is a scratchy, sometimes adolescent, sometimes adult-voiced account of his neverending temptation to break out of that equilibrium. Free of collaborations or flashy, DJ Mustard-grade production, his third studio album is the purest–and his own unprocessed, wordplay libretto.
Cole spends half the record in early-00s adolescent reminiscence; we’re time-travelled to his Carolina youth and all its uncertainty–first-love awkwardness, family dysfunction, and general troublemaking (“’03 Adolescence”, “Wet Dreamz”). The other half of 2014 FHD gets us in his adult head, via talks with God and diss rhymes over clattering, bass-drowned instrumentals. Permeating all of it, however, is unpent emotion–from the dreamy, smoked-out introspection of “St. Tropez” to the weak-kneed, love-y “Hello”.
FHD‘s innocuous atmosphere alters drastically with the sixth track, “Fire Squad”, a pounding and grungy, 5-minute cypher composed for Cole’s roast of corny white rap artists [see: Iggy Azalea and Macklemore], a handful of phony peers, and the epidemic of ‘vanilla’-appropriated hip-hop trumping its black counterparts. It’s phase two of FHD; its darker, adult half. The barreling production and deep-voiced taunts– though only boosted for a jestingly savage effect–certainly wipe “Power Trip”-Cole from our mental.
When he pauses “G.O.M.D.”s snarling freestyle to plead “Lord, will you tell me if I’ve changed? I won’t tell nobody/ I wanna go back to Jermaine, and I won’t tell nobody…”, Cole resembles a paradox; one that’s trying to cancel out insecurity with overconfidence, and feeling the same soul dilemma that any young adult would too. The track, an extensive allegory of his wrestle with fame and craving for anonymity becomes a metaphor for the artist’s five-year musical ascent.
What it lacks in aesthetics, FHD makes up for in power. Nothing like the club-fit Sideline Story, or the shadowy, repentant Born Sinner, it’s a trip back to the denser, contemplative material of Friday Night Lights. But it’s softer quality isn’t really soft; more so, it’s the result of J. Cole’s deep-thinking–and the focus on little other than that. It might not be the record that fans will devour, and for the radio-hit inclined, it’ll be slow as molasses; but for those patient enough to hear Cole’s genuine, hand-woven story, 2014 FHD is the hip-hop autobiography you need.
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