Words by Vince Lee
J Cole’s new album Forest Hill Drive marks ten years since he first came onto the scene. A concept album of sorts, it reflects the progressing states of mind throughout Cole’s career, ultimately bringing him around full circle. The Intro is quick to delve into the albums elements of freedom, happiness and love.
The journey begins with January 28th, where Cole isn’t hesitant to appoint himself as one of rap’s gods – he knew it from day one, and today he’s a seasoned spitter. Wet Dreamz finds young Jermaine reminiscing over his first time with a girl: playing it cool, putting on a pro lover front, balancing the fact that he’s a virgin. It’s a fun narrative with a twist, making use of soul samples laced with boom bap drums, reflecting Cole’s ability to infuse honesty and vulnerability into his work.
03 Adolescent and A Tale of 2 Citiez take us back to the rappers early years, while flexing his lyricism and cadence on Fire Squad. The feel of the album starts to move with St Tropez, coinciding with the point Cole’s career starts to really take off. With a melodic hook interpolating Rufus and Chaka Khan‘s Hollywood, the song depicts his newfound success, journeying down a path to fame and fortune, and moving to Hollywood. Cole’s often overlooked production abilities shine through on this track. Sampling Esther Dean‘s That’s Alright With Me, coupled with strings and live saxophone, it’s sure to incite visions of sailing over sunsets in the South of France. G.O.M.D and No Role Modelz finds Hollywood Cole losing himself in the lifestyle, only to realise that the lifestyle isn’t for him.
The album begins to turn again toward the emotional self-reflection of the final tracks. In Hello, Cole laments his lack of real love, while Apparently is directed at fans and people that look up to him. Love Yourz shows a now-wiser Cole, reflecting on the most important things in life like love and happiness. It is one of the highlights of the project and also an appropriate way to conclude the journey. Singing on the hook, “There’s no such thing as a life that’s better than yours,” Cole encourages fans to appreciate what they have, to appreciate the beauty of the struggle, and reminds them that the pursuit of money, fame and fortune is empty. The track displays Cole’s genuineness and integrity, leading into final track Note To Self, acting as both outro and the kind of thank yous usually reserved for album liners.
The concept behind Forest Hills Drive is ambitious, but well executed and consistent. Cole delivers slick wordplay and thoughtful songwriting, not to mention excellent production – the album was predominantly self-produced, and contains almost on features. Perhaps the only drawback is that the tempo and feel of the album doesn’t veer far from its initial trajectory; perhaps additional producers or artists could have added extra flourishes. Nevertheless, the album sold more than 370 000 copies in its first week without any major release, marketing rollout or star power features, a true testament to both his devoted fanbase and the quality of this album.