Art by TTK

J. Cole Went Platinum With No Features, But Was ‘Forest Hills Drive’ a Classic?

Five years ago, Kendrick Lamar defied the trends and expectations of the digital era when he resuscitated the promise of the classic hip hop album with his major label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d. city. With it, K. Dot breathed new life into the album format and set a new bar for what could be done with the medium, despite the current piecemeal, on-demand, single-driven reality we’re living in. In the years since its arrival, ambitious artists have been held to the GKMC standard the same way previous generations were held to Paid in Full, Criminal Minded, Low End Theory, Illmatic, Ready to Die, Reasonable Doubt, 808s and Heartbreaks and so many more. As we celebrate this seminal release all week, MASS APPEAL asked some of our favorite writers to explore the works of other major artists of the modern era to see who else, if anyone, has delivered a new classic. —Ed.

There comes a time in every serious musician’s life when they must decide who exactly they want to be. The great ones reach for levels they haven’t yet seen, where it’s not so much about what is expected of them, or even what they consciously expect of themselves, but rather what speaks to them from deep inside, what propels them in one direction or another.

In the early part of J. Cole’s career, there were glimpses, often brilliant ones, hinting at the depths lying beneath the North Carolina-bred MC and producer’s public-facing persona. His layers needed to be peeled back. On songs like “Let Nas Down,” “Lights Please” and “Rich Niggaz,” among others, you could hear that he had the capacity for mining thoughts and feelings, his past and present life (if not his own insecurities) for material that seemed to connect with a specific core audience.

This audience was the often-overlooked demographic that makes up so much of the country now—the young middle class. Folks merely trying to put one foot in front of the other, each day, getting closer and closer to some elusive goal, some elusive dream. The American one? A version of it, yeah.

And so by 2014, after two mixtapes, a series of EPs, two albums (one of which, Born Sinner, beat out Kanye West’s Yeezus in first-week sales) and dozens of guest appearances, Cole had become a de-facto spokesman for this underrepresented generation. He was a dreamer just like them, except, well, he had actually made it. But 2014 was, of course, the year that cops killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in Staten Island and Tamir Rice in Cleveland (among far too many other victims of police brutality).

With his eye towards his people—his eye towards all people—Cole flew to Ferguson that August, long before celebrity activism had become trendy (and arguably self-serving), to march. On the heels of that visit, he released “Be Free.” Over blocked, electric piano chords, he sings, “All we wanna do is take the chains off/ All we wanna do is break the chains off/ All we want to do is be free/ All we want to do is be free.”

Though an outward plea for social justice, that message may have also stirred something in Cole himself, who by December of that year was planning to release his third album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive. He’d spent the summer crisscrossing the country on his second Dollar and a Dream Tour—the price of admission, a mere Washington—and with a deal for his Dreamville Records imprint at Interscope intact, plus the purchase of his childhood home, you got the sense he was finally ready to sink more completely into who he really was.

This preamble isn’t meant to bore you with history. It merely explains where a record like 2014 Forest Hills Drive fits in, exactly. An artist’s music is judged by where it stands contemporaneously, but then it’s also judged against their own work. And what is particularly great about this record, what arguably makes it a new classic, is that it’s very comfortably its own thing. It’s the work of an artist fully self-aware, and each song is like a chapter of a book that proves more autobiographical than any record company bio or media-sanctioned puff piece.

Take “03’ Adolescence,” about a young J. Cole looking at street life as a quick means to an end, then learning it’s not what it seems; or “Wet Dreamz,” a modest confessional about the rapper losing his virginity—purposely awkward and revealing, as experiences like that tend to be. From there the album transitions into “A Tale of 2 Citiez,” where he contemplates leaving his hometown of Fayetteville, N.C. (“Last night I had a bad dream, that I was trapped in this city/ Then I asked is that really such a bad thing?/ They robbin’ niggas on the daily”).

Around the halfway mark, the pace quickens. You’ve got the chest-beating “Fire Squad”—which includes shots at Eminem, Macklemore and Iggy Azalea, all points fair and justified—and the breezy “St. Tropez,” a winking nod to his big homie JAY-Z, reflecting the rapper’s rags-to-riches attitude once his deal had been secured. Almost as soon as that happens though, Cole’s disillusioned, watching himself turn into a person he’d rather not be, which he explores on “G.O.M.D.” and “No Role Modelz.”

The album’s latter portion sees Cole opting instead for a lifestyle beyond the rapper clichés, which suits him far better, whether it’s reconnecting with former lovers (“Hello”) or his former home and hometown (“Apparently”). But the record’s true climax­, which stands among J. Cole’s best songs, is “Love Yourz.” Over sparse, plaintive keys and a pulsing drum track, he suggests that happiness isn’t found in the never-ending search for things one doesn’t have, but rather, in the quiet joy of embracing all that one already has, even something as simple as their own heartbeat.

It is that song’s message, in particular, that seemed to propel Cole forward if his work on 2016’s 4 Your Eyez Only is any indication. A concept album as well, it is expertly-written and produced, a compelling masterwork that finds Cole the orator of a sprawling, intergenerational narrative largely told through one character, a partial composite of, one assumes, the rapper’s friends, family members and, most importantly, himself. This writer would argue that it may eventually be regarded as one of the finest hip hop albums ever made, a classic in its own right, though it is far too close in recent memory to call it that just yet. It is history, after all, that sounds the bell on such things.

And yet, three years after 2014 Forest Hills Drive, its singles still relentlessly play, its messages still endure, because despite its heft, it never lags, never feels heavy-handed, never sounds like anything but the truest expression of one kid’s life, as seen in his own memory, playing back like film. Perhaps it’s apropos then, that in the five years since good kid, m.A.A.d. City, which set the bar for new classics, that it’s Kendrick Lamar’s peer, occasional collaborator and friend, Jermaine Cole, who is responsible for one the most wholesome, listenable, end-to-end album experiences of recent times. It’s an album that not only leaves you thinking, as all great art should do, but one that leaves you feeling better, which so little art does.

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