J. Cole released his third album 2014 Forest Hills Drive today with almost no fanfare. For a rapper at the apex of his career, a star who outsold Kanye West in 2013, it’s a puzzling decision. The album, the best and richest of his career, doesn’t offer clear answers for Cole’s motivation. But we might find one clue by rewinding to August 18, when a wary, hesitant Cole stood before a Complex News microphone in Ferguson, Missouri, nine days after Mike Brown was shot and killed by officer Darren Wilson. Nervously itching at his elbow and averting his eyes, he explained his presence. “We ain’t come down here to do no interviews,” Cole said. “We came here to feel it. We wanna be a part of this just like everybody else.”
A few days earlier, he had posted a heart-wrenching song to his Soundcloud, simply called “Be Free.” Singing in a frayed, pained voice, at the top of his range, reaching for notes he didn’t quite have, he offered a message that was more heartbroken mumble than call to arms. “All I wanna do is take the chains off, man. All we wanna do is be free.” It was the most powerful song Cole had ever produced, and it had something new in it, something Cole has reached for but never grasped: gravitas.
Afterward, he lapsed into silence again. Rumors subsequently flew that he was in the studio, but Cole said nothing, only resurfacing in September to tersely confirm the album’s existence. He provided no singles to radio along the way, granted almost no interviews. Other pop stars have gone the cloak-and-dagger route to add drama to the otherwise-rote album release cycle, but Cole’s strategy lacked a Big Reveal. There was no gasp-inducing Beyoncé overnight drop, no Yeezus-style proclamation about transcending the radio. J. Cole simply cleared his throat, promised us an album, and then slipped it wordlessly into our hands. There’s an audacity to the move that communicates a sort of zen confidence: “I know this is a scary idea,” he says on the album’s 14-minute outro. “I don’t know if it’s gonna work or not, but right now, I don’t give a fuck, man. I’m just happy we did this shit”.
The album opens with an echo of “Be Free,” as Cole sings to himself under his breath: “Do you wanna, do you wanna be…happy?” It’s a question he is exploring more urgently than ever before in his career. Cole’s certainly sounded self-serious before, but this is the first time he’s ever sounded serious, an artist instead of a A-student with a furrowed brow and an burning need to say something important. In its comfort and insularity (there are no guests on the album), 2014 Forest Hills Drive feels like the project he might have made when he was first signed to Roc Nation, if he had no desire for a crossover audience. Instead, he released the scattered, diluted Sideline Story and Born Sinner, muddled and gray projects that tried to make thematic hay out of his struggles with the compromises of crossing over. On Born Sinner , this approach hit its nadir, as he spent entire songs fretting about how his hero Nas felt about his radio bid.
This time, Cole seems to have cleared away all of this reflexive self-positioning. He’s found a way to Mean Something, and it’s not the way “Be Free” or his Ferguson appearance telegraphed. This is not Cole’s protest album, in other words. There are pained flashes of indignation here and there — “What’s the price for a black man’s life?/I check the toe tag, not one zero in sight” — he raps on “January 28th.” But on the album’s thirteen songs, he focuses all of his shrewd intelligence and long, unwinding thoughts on a single, overarching subject: Love. He isn’t coy about it: “It’s called love, n***as don’t sing about it no more/don’t nobody sing about it no more?” he sings ruefully on “G.O.M.D.” As Kendrick did on “i,” Cole embraces positivity on Forest Hills as a sort of radical act.
The love Cole writes of isn’t The Great Mystical Force in the universe, however, and his language isn’t goopy or vague. His love is apolitical, specific, a daily good like sneakers or back-pocket cash. It’s the familial love found in your own childhood kitchen, the love celebrated in cheesy Christmas specials. It’s love reduced to its most tangible currency — diligent, fondly applied attention — and it’s the kind most people crave when they feel their loneliest.
Cole’s music has always been full of other people’s voices, but on Forest Hills, he is virtually surrounded: Girlfriends, friends, mentors, and more all stop by to worry over him and drop him some advice. Their words and recriminations give Cole World an Our Town feel. On “Adolescence,” he recalls a drug-dealer friend who sold “Reggie Miller with more brown hairs than Chewbacca” from his school locker. Cole confesses his admiration for the friend’s clothes and gear, who calls him a “clown”: “You ’bout to go get a degree, I’mma be stuck with two choices, either graduate to wait or sellin’ number two/For what? A hundred bucks or two a week? Do you think that you would know what to do if you was me?” The soliloquy takes a sharp turn into pain: I got four brothers, one mother that don’t love us/If they ain’t want us, why the fuck they never wore rubbers?” the friend wonders aloud. The depth of hurt in this brief sketch is almost shocking, and there are moments like it everywhere on Forest Hills that testify to Cole’s growth as a writer.
As a producer, though, Cole hasn’t changed his tricks so much as deepened them. He relies less on somber piano as a cheap and easy signifier of importance, instead filling his productions with live instruments that bleed into samples. There are dagger-sharp, face-scruncher beats here – like on “A Tale of 2 Citiez” – but the album’s mood is mostly autumnal. The closing stretch of “Hello,” “Apparently,” and “Love Yourz” boast some of the most gorgeous music to ever appear on a J. Cole project. “This is my canvas, I’mma paint it how I want it babe,” he croons on “Apparently,” and he sounds positively sensual. Even at its most ebullient, J. Cole’s music has always felt like someone’s term paper, but some central knot inside of his music has unclenched.
He also seems emboldened to say some things that he’s only danced around before. On “Fire Squad,” he calmly summarizes rap’s creeping tide of white privilege of the past three years: “Same thing that my n***a Elvis did with rock and roll/Justin Timberlake, Eminem and then Macklemore/While silly n***as argue over who gon’ snatch the crown/Look around, my n***a, white people have snatched the sound/This year I probably go to the awards, dappered down/Watch Iggy win the Grammy as I try to crack a smile.” For an indie rapper, that’s an easy line; Cole will probably have to shake Iggy’s hand at the ceremony himself, and is taking a real chance here. Like his predecessor Kanye, Cole seems to have decided that earning a seat in the inner circle is precisely the right time for his most pointed observations. J. Cole has been famous and beloved for awhile, but on 2014 Forest Hills Drive, he officially becomes interesting.