J Cole – 2014 Forest Hills Drive – Review & Recap

Nathan Slavik

“It’s the ciiiiiiiiiircle of lifeeeeeeeee, and it moves us alllllllllllllllll.”

In many ways I got the idea of one listen album review from J. Cole, and he was right; one listen reviews are fucking up hip-hop, and no one knew it better than me. I’ve been writing hip-hop album reviews since the days when major labels would send me a CD….in the mail….weeks before the album dropped…but in recent years the album review game has mirrored American culture at large – faster and louder. Whether it’s a rap song or an international political crisis, the media is now in an arms race to get an opinion up NOW and MAKE IT A HOT TAKE before the internet’s toddler-level attention span wanders to the next topic. So is it really any surprise that we now get reviews calling an album a classic or complete trash the same day it drops?

DJBooth was caught in the same trap. I could rush to get a review up the second an album leaked, but then I’d be doing a disservice to the artist and the culture. Or I could sit with the album for weeks, like I used to, but trust me, if I posted an album review three weeks after a project dropped it’d be almost completely ignored, and in the meantime I’d get approximately eleventy-million “Yo, where that review at?!?!?!!?” comments.

But the more I thought about J. Cole’s tweet, the more I realized that it wasn’t one listen album reviews that were fucking up hip-hop, not exactly. There’s a first listen for every album (no shit), and everyone, whether you’re a fan or a critic, has immediate reactions. Immediate reactions aren’t fucked up, they’re human. What’s fucked up is immediate reactions masquerading as in-depth, long term analysis. So what if we stopped fronting? What if we were as transparent and open as possible? What if we pushed the “one listen” concept to its extreme and forced ourselves to listen to an album straight through, no repeating tracks, and wrote our immediate, gut level reactions? Then, we could do a follow-up review weeks later, after we’d had time to really sit with the project. Maybe that’d be the best of both worlds, give people a place to talk about their immediate reactions too and give an album the time it deserves before a more permanent pronouncement is given. Would that fuck up hip-hop, or would it actually be the most accurate reflection possible on the internet of how we experience albums in our real lives? Who knows, maybe I’d even write a paragraph that consisted almost entirely of rhetorical questions. Anything’s possible.

And so here I am, right back where it all started, with a new J. Cole album in my headphones. It’s an interesting time for Cole and Forest Hills Drive. The commercial/critical/public success of Born Sinner largely put to rest any doubts that he was an elite artist, now it’s a matter of figuring out how elite. Like any rapper worth touching a mic I think he genuinely believes he’s the best rapper of his generation, and I know he’s got a loyal army of fans who think the same, but the facts are that he hasn’t outsold Drake (yet) and hasn’t dropped an album widely considered to be a classic like Kendrick (yet). Depending on the week and/or your take, he’s either got the number one, number two or number three spot – personally I’d say number three – but who wants to be the disputed number one. Cole wants people to love him like they loved Pac; could Forest Hills Drive be the album that gets him there?

I’m legitimately stoked to hear the answer to that question. My wife and daughter are asleep, I’ve turned off my phone and everything else on my computer. It’s just me, Jermaine, “Forest Hills Drive,” these headphones and this keyboard for the next hour or so. Let’s do the damn thing. – @refinedhype

Continue at DJBooth.net for an in depth analytic of each track.