Second only to folk music, hip-hop is the paramount storytelling genre of all time. It builds on the abilities of funk and blues, two great predecessors. Most typically, we see it used as a poppy-hit-machine, though at its most realized, hip-hop is an outlet for feelings of rage, frustration, and oppression. While hip-hop stars are most often characterized as hyper-aggressive chauvinists, when used correctly the genre allows them to rise above and to tell their stories.
Born in Germany and raised in North Carolina, J. Cole grew up in a house with a folk-hippie mother and a hardcore gangsta rap loving father. As such, his sounds are blended and nuanced. His new album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, is without a shadow of a doubt, his best release yet. This is the most sensitive we have seen the J. Cole character to date. He’s frightened at the state of hip-hop and the world he lives in. The album is a call to action that is partially piggybacked from Jay-Z’s Magna Carta… Holy Grail; “We need to write the new rules.”
Four tracks in, “03’ Adolescence” represents the theme of reflection that runs through the album. In the song, Cole sits with an old friend and asks how he might break into the supply game. But rather than obliging, the friend denies his request, and ultimately is the one who convinces Cole to use the scholarships he’s been given to go to school: “You bout to go get a degree, I’ma be stuck with two choices \ Either graduate to weight or selling number two.”
While this song isn’t outright happy, it possesses an optimism and general positivity not usually seen in hip-hop music. The last two songs on the album, “Love Yourz” and “Note to Self” are perfectly placed. They leave the listener with an enveloping feeling of hope without downplaying the hardships discussed earlier. Songs like this have been heard from hip-hop artists in the past, such as Mackelmore and Watsky, but they take an entirely new meaning when written and performed by an artist who doesn’t come from a place of privilege.
No matter which performer, there are certain exceptions one makes when putting on a hip-hop album. No matter how positive and love affirming, you’re likely to get some chauvinism. Some “b*tches and hoes” type talk. This is the biggest problem with 2014 Forest Hills Drive. It’s difficult to completely buy into the concept of peace, love and togetherness pitched in this album, when you have songs like “A Tale of 2 Citiez,” which paints pictures of drive by’s, posturing and rampant materialism. Lyrics like “I know the sh*ts not always good as it seems / But tell me till you get it how could you know” are the antithesis of the message of this album, and ultimately detrimental to its reception.
2014 Forest Hills Drive is an album built on the foundation of love. If hip-hop is a doorway into the communities it represents, then we’re talking about a community reeling and recovering from the recent spurt of police brutality. As such, an album that forgoes most of the usual aggression of violence found in much hip-hop music is just what the genre needs. What the album does to herald sounds of peace, is severely tainted by archetypal hip-hop behaviors. If J. Cole really wishes to enact the change he talks about in this album, to make sure there “Ain’t gonna be no more kings,” he’s got a long way to go.