J Cole has crafted a slew of good albums, but he has yet to craft a great one. While each of his three major label releases contain scattered moments of brilliance, none of them are particularly strong as cohesive bodies of work. His latest effort, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, is no exception. It is certainly a solid release; his lyricism is sharp as ever and his delivery is passionate, but he fails to hold the listener’s attention for the album’s entire hour-long run.
With 2014 Forest Hills Drive, J Cole offers a no-frills glimpse at his progression from an ambitious adolescent to a successful rapper. The album is named after his childhood home in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where much of the LP’s narrative takes place. He interpolates coming-of-age memories seamlessly with tales of his current successes, uniting them with common themes of growth, lust, and gratitude. Devoid of any guest artists or discernible radio hits, the album is firmly centered around his storytelling.
Had J Cole’s masterful storytelling been paired with grittier beats, 2014 Forest Hills Drive might have possessed the punch it so desperately lacks. Cole appears to be stuck in 2004, spitting overCollege Dropout era soul-sampling tracks. The album’s production is lackluster and unengaging, falling short of the dynamic instrumentals featured on his previous release, Born Sinner.
J Cole’s strong conviction and unwavering confidence is admirable, and 2014 Forest Hills Driveshowcases these traits. While he seems to be growing bolder in his lyricism, as shown on the politically-charged “Fire Squad,” Cole still plays it relatively safe when it comes to subject matter and soundscapes. He has evidently become complacent with his current style of rapping, rarely showing any versatility. In order to reach his full potential, it’s absolutely crucial for him to begin taking musical risks.