With Forest Hills Drive: Live J. Cole has done what few rappers have been able to accomplish. He has bottled a full album concert that has added to the original’s excellence. 2014 Forest Hills Drive presents unflinchingly deep examinations of J. Cole’s coming-of-age years (“03’ Adolescence,” “No Role Modelz”). The production gets lush and soulful (“G. D.”) as he looks at his beginnings and where his life has led him, and his delivery is as subtle and sophisticated as the beats surrounding it. The 13-track project is the followup to his landmark album Forest Hills Drive, released in 2014. The album was recorded while J. Cole was performing at a sold-out show in his hometown Fayetteville, N.C at the Crown Coliseum in the fall of 2015.
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Is a student of hip-hop, the kind who moves to New York to stalk Jay-Z for an opportunity to rap for him, peppers his lyrics with nods to the greats, and pens an apology to Nas when his biggest single comes across as too poppy. Cole is aware of the structure and pace of good rap albums and anxious to apply them to his own music. For his third record, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, he channels the nostalgic self-mythology of Jay-Z’s. The cover is shot at his childhood home as Eminem did on the. The tracklist swaps s’s for z’s (“Wet Dreamz”, “A Tale of 2 Citiez”, “Love Yourz”) like 2pac’s All Eyez on Me.
With 2014, Cole is certain he’s made his classic; he’ll tell you as much partway through the 15-minute credit roll “Note to Self”, which apes Kanye West’s joyous, candid closer “Last Call”. Problem is, Cole hasn’t earned it yet. Cole is a workmanlike MC, a good-natured populist grappling with the ridiculousness of sudden celebrity.
He makes passable albums with memorable singles. He’s great at synthesizing everyman relationship woes into terse pop nuggets. He works well with guests; his collaborations with Drake, Missy Elliott, and TLC are highlights in his growing body of work, and he gets along so well with that the duo is rumored to have clandestinely recorded an EP together. In its quest to canonize Cole, 2014 Forest Hills Drive eschews both singles and guests. It’s a block of Cole raps and Cole hooks served mostly over Cole beats.
Bold move, and where it floats, it soars, but it flops gloriously when it doesn’t. The laughable wordplay fails of mixtapes albums past (“My money like a senior, watch it graduate,” “Cole heating up like that leftover lasagna”) are thankfully absent, but Cole isn’t yet sharp enough of a storyteller to carry a full album on his own. “Wet Dreamz” recounts his first time having sex in lurid detail, from lying to a girl about his prowess to looking at porn for pointers to finding out the girl’s been lying, too.
It’s relatable but hardly the kind of story you want to hear more than once. “No Role Modelz” parlays a suspicion about a hookup being a golddigger into a tirade about black women lacking respectable public figures, crudely suggesting that “she’s shallow but the pussy deep.” (For all the talk of Cole’s enlightenment he’s a perfect brute when it comes to women, and “No Role Modelz” is something of a tacit admission.) 2014 Forest Hills Drive often plays at a depth it never delivers. Still, ceding an entire hour to a rapper who works best in short bursts works better here than anyone could’ve expected. “03’ Adolescence” flips the classic rags-to-riches narrative inside out as Cole starts to reminisce about how hard he had it growing up only to get a chin check from a friend whose future isn’t half as bright. “G.O.M.D.”, “Fire Squad”, and “A Tale of 2 Citiez” all flash Cole’s technical excellence, while “Intro”, “Apparently”, and “St. Tropez” emote through his gruff singing voice.
The production here is never less than delightful; Cole’s own beats run coyly referential samples through milky instrumental embellishments. “Wet Dreamz” is an adept “Impeach the President” flip, and “St. Tropez” reimagines Mobb Deep’s “Give Up the Goods (Just Step)” as sedate, orchestral R&B. 2014 Forest Hills Drive is Cole planting himself in the pantheon of rap greats, a volley to the spike of Kendrick Lamar’s “Control” verse. He gets more than a little ahead of himself, though, claiming to be better than Slick Rick, LL Cool J, Rakim, and Big Daddy Kane on “January 28th”. Kane and Rakim’s flows were tighter, LL’s swagger is inimitable, and Rick’s stories surge with a purpose nothing in J.
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Cole’s canon can muster. This self-aggrandizing pageantry is a ultimately bad look on a guy who earns his keep speaking to the struggles of the common man, and these songs work best when they’re not busy telling you how good they think they are.
2014 Forest Hills Drive is a decent album selling itself as great. It wraps itself in the garments of a classic, but you can see that the tailoring is off.