Review written by Brad W. (@Brad_C_Williams).

Those familiar with J. Cole’s discography and career understand how pivotal 2014 Forest Hills Drive is for him before listening to a single song. Eighteen months ago, Cole’s sophomore effort Born Sinner challenged Kanye West’s Yeezus for the top of the charts, and hip-hop fanatics worldwide flocked to music stores to celebrate the day. However, the album was (arguably) the most polarizing project of his discography and received lukewarm critical reviews.

Jermaine’s solo music career remained relatively quiet since then. He focused on his executive role with Dreamville Records and contributed to the successful releases of BasLast Quarter and Cozz’s Cozz & Effect. Also, in response to the events surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, J. Cole has been notably vocal, protesting in Ferguson and New York to support the movement. Nevertheless, with all of his cultural relevance, I was hoping that whenever we received a new album it would reflect the social passion of the year.

2014 Forest Hills Drive marks the homecoming for J. Cole (moving back to his childhood home with the same address) and his musical endeavors. Many have noted how Cole shows his influences very transparently. Pitchfork notes how he mimics Tupac Shakur’s All Eyez on Me with song titles like “A Tale of Two Citiez,” Jay Z’s “self-mythology” from his Black Album, and Eminem with the Marshall Mathers’-like album cover. However, J. Cole’s third studio album more accurately parallels in many ways Kanye’s Graduation. Both the third studio albums in each artist’s discography, each demonstrates a positive transition away from their previous sound while offering a strong perspective on the current state of urban culture.

2014 Forest Hills Drive delivers thirteen new tracks (twelve new tracks with a 15 minute outro) without features, placing his outlook front-and-center. Lyrically, J. Cole manages to hone his storytelling ability in a way that delivers the heavy uncertainty of America not heard on other Cole projects. “Wet Dreamz” describes the psychological preparation in his adolescence before his first sexual encounter and the realization that he is not alone. “Apparently” reflects on his personal transgressions in his life and what type of message these actions sends to his younger, idolizing audience. Even songs like “G.O.M.D. (Get Off My Dick)” demonstrate how easy it is for artists to fall into misogyny and self-adoration.

Capitalistic incentives no longer drive J. Cole by the end of 2014 Forest Hills Drive, but it took ten years for him to reach this point in his career. From “O3’ Adolescence” to “Love Yourz,” we watch the chronological progression of his career and understanding the facets that defined success at each point. The nice Rolex watches and gold chains from his previous efforts now transition to family, friends, and knowledge. On “Fire Squad” he summarizes this in the context of the music industry: “I recognize that life is a dream, and I dream lucid/And break the chains and change minds, one verse at a time/And claim 2-6, and fuck it, if the shoe fits.”

The production on this album is much more layered, complex, and soulful, emulating his inner pain and turmoil. Overall, I feel this is where Cole progressed the most from Born Sinner. Songs like “January 28th” and “G.O.M.D.” expand the musical capacities of his artistry to new plateaus and leave me anxiously excited for his future as a produce.

While I enjoy the majority of 2014 Forest Hills Drive, I wish Cole maintained the energy and power from beginning to end. “St. Tropez,” “Hello,” and “Love Yourz” fall victim to their own somberness and lack cohesiveness, causing me to momentarily tune-out. Also ending the album with “Note to Self” seems to self-aggrandize under the guise of thanks, seemingly undermining the message of the outro. For me, these moments are excusable in the context of the album in its entirety.

2014 Forest Hills Drive is not the strongest or most attractive statement in hip hop this year, but the urban culture needed this album to summarize the social sentiments from the year. Whether or not you’re a fan of Cole’s earlier work, I appreciate J. Cole as an entertainer focusing on the impact of the art form. Welcome home Jermaine, we’ve been waiting for this moment for years.

Purchase J. Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive and let us know what you think in the comments!