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Review: J. Cole Goes DIY on the Reflective ‘2014 Forest Hills Drive’

SPIN Rating: 6 of 10
Release Date: December 08, 2014
Label: Roc Nation/Columbia

“No singles.” So decreed J. Cole in mid-November, when word first came of his December surprise. And detractors might nod to themselves, “Mission accomplished.” Zero guest spots, samples mostly relegated to clangorous snippets, blink and miss ’em choruses, a general sleepy vibe — this is about as fundamental as crowd-pleasing hip-hop gets.

Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive is a self-described personal statement, named after the childhood North Carolina home he recently bought back. It’s also quite the solemn affair, no surprise from a young man so uncommonly serious he turned a mild Nas diss into a crisis of confidence threnody. Rap fans who prefer juicy feuds on par with Ja Rule blinking 50 Cent’s blood from his eyes might sneer at Cole’s accommodating approach although false contenders get called out with malice this time around: Iggy Azalea, consider yourself warned. But taking issue with J. Cole’s solemnity is like critiquing Rick Ross for OD’ing on mafia cartoons: That’s the package, man. And Cole’s gotten better at managing his mind/body dualism, fervently in love with the cash yet high-minded enough to routinely caution “only thing that matters is your happiness.”

Of course, the cash doesn’t hurt, an issue the self-aware Cole refuses to duck. His practical takes on social mobility remain solid: whether musing, “Free from bills / Free from bars,” or recounting that time an old friend acknowledged Cole’s hard-won degree, the aspiring rapper was guaranteed a ticket out of Fayettenam. But when he’s less on point, those goopy generalities can sound like a Bernie Taupin cross-stitch: “This is my canvas / There is no right or wrong / Only a song.”

So how about a little more boom-bap? How about a few more tracks in the spirit of “Wet Dreamz,” a sex romp that rhymes “math class” with “fat ass” and finds a virginal Cole studying porn clips and stretching condoms in a nervous series of dry runs? How about a few more gags as broad as the sudden mid-album savaging of George W. Bush, in which Cole cuts out the music to better let the ex-president flounder? How about lopping a few minutes off the nearly quarter-hour finale, “Note to Self” to make some room for this past summer’s SoundCloud-only single “Be Free,” Cole’s emotional statement on the Ferguson atrocities?

Right, “no singles.” And right, it’s J. Cole’s vision and J. Cole’s childhood. Christ knows black artists have the right to keep the thuggish likes of Darren Wilson out of their nostalgic vistas. But Cole’s keen sense of injustice registers throughout 2014 Forest Hills Drive, whether slagging white artists for artistic thievery or seething over national media outlets pigeonholing black genius into sports/pop either/ors. “What’s the price for a black man’s life? / I check the toe tag, not a zero in sight” — you bet that’s a call-to-arms against the forces who killed Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and the next unarmed black citizen to get taken down before this goes to press. As for that epic finale, well, there are worse ways to keep your eyes on the prize than using 14 minutes to thank those you love and esteem. But the absence of “Be Free” still detracts. Unless you’re the type of moviegoer who sits patiently through the end titles, feel free to duck out of “Note to Self” a bit early and head over to SoundCloud.