Rapping lyrics on “2014 Forest Hills Drive”

J. Cole, the first artist Jay-Z signed to his Roc Nation record label, released “2014 Forest Hills Drive,” his third commercial album, early last December.

Named after the street where Jermain Cole’s childhood home was located, the album is a semi-autobiographical introverted journey through some of his memorable experiences growing up in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

This album is relatively minimalistic compared to his previous two efforts, with no guests featured and little outside production help. Unlike his past two albums, his debut “Cole World: The Sideline Story” and “Born Sinner,” the production on this album is a clear evolution of the sound of his early mixtapes such as “The Warm Up” and “Friday Night Lights.”
It opens with a light, friendly introduction, where Cole speaks on the desire to be happy and free. The soulful production, introspection and reminiscing on life continues through the next three tracks as he flows deftly.

The artist deals with a diversity themes, from “03’ Adolescence,” where Cole sings about the experiences of people who turn to the streets to survive, he transitions into darker production with songs like “A Tale of 2 Citiez,” an eerie sounding track that could almost have been on ScHoolboy Q or A$ap Ferg’s albums. The next track “Fire Squad” is one of the more talked about, where he raps “so ahead of my time, even when I rap about the future I be reminiscing” and takes shots at rappers oblivious to the direction of hip-hop.

G.O.M.D. starts with him as “Hollywood Cole,” with typical commercial production and lyrical content before he switches to his thoughts on people listening to club songs rather than songs about genuine love.

Through the second half of the album, J. Cole expresses his desire for the paparazzi to leave him alone and wanting to go back to being Jermaine. He goes on to talk about the shallowness of flings as a B-list Hollywood celebrity and refers to men’s blanket objectification of women and those women finding glory in that. In the song “Hello,” he reminisces longingly about his love from the past and goes back to contact her, but she has moved on, and so he tells himself that he is doing the same.

The production, flow and clever wordplay pick up in “Apparently,” another notable track where he raps about his past mistakes and thanks and wonders at how God, his mother and his girlfriend continue to believe in him. He closes with gratitude and motivation, ending with the hook: “no such thing as a life that’s better than yourz.”

All in all, J. Cole has proven that he has not sold out, as some fans, critics and notably rapper Nas, whose influence is obvious in his lyrics and who is one of his favorite rappers, have expressed. His lack of featured artists and radio-ready tracks popular in clubs shows his commitment to the true Jermaine.

Further, he collaborated with a few other producers. Unlike his previous albums which he produced entirely himself he shows a continuation and progression from what his core fans love him for most. His production includes gritty instrumentals like “Firing Squad,” the minimal, laid back “St. Tropez,” to bouncier production on “No Role Modelz” or somber but peaceful piano-based instrumental of “Love Yourz.” His flow does not conform to the trend of Atlanta’s trap scene, going from slow and well-spaced to fast-paced. On this album, he sings hooks or intros on a lot of the songs, with melodic vocals on entire tracks in “Intro” and “St. Tropez.”

As typically expected from Cole, his subject matter includes social commentary, nostalgia, of his early struggles growing up poor and his often criticized emotional venting on love and women, in addition to making clear his ambitions as a rapper gunning for the top with deft lyricism and clever wordplay.

The only downside to this album is some weak production on G.O.M.D. but overall, it will be hard for fans to find a track they do not like. New listeners will gain more faith in hip-hop in an era of increasing materialism, misogyny, and narcissism. For the naysayers, Jermaine Cole has proved himself again as a candidate for the greatest rapper.