This week’s Sonic Breakdown covers J. Cole’s album 2014 Forest Hills Drive. I am familiar with Cole’s previous albums The Warm Up, Born Sinner, and Cole World: The Sideline Story. I will follow the same format, giving a breakdown of each track followed by a conclusion on the album as a whole.
The introduction to the album is a piano playing slowly and softly followed by a saxophone, providing intimacy and warmth that escalates, creating a more dramatic feel. Cole flows over the music, asking the rhetorical question, Do you want to be “happy” or “free” from a gambit of things. His voice crooning over the instruments draws you in, making you pay attention, as if he is insisting the listener ponder what makes you happy or makes you feel free. The final question we should ask ourselves is: Free from what and/or why does whatever makes you happy make you happy?
The beat feels like a continuation from the intro in tone, and that translates into a level of gravity with a Nas Illmatic type of groove. The song sonically illustrates J. Cole’s attention to adding subtle nuances to set the landscape. The broad overall message is that we should try to be the best we can, regardless of others or obstacles, and wholeheartedly believe it. Believe it as Cole believes he is the God of rap, like Rakim. This is a foreshadowing message that is expanded on later in the album. The sound of a baby laughing is incorporated into the production, adding levity and a sense of hope for the future. It also sets up the progression of the album as a journey through J Cole’s life by marking this track as his birth, represented by the fact that January 28th is his birthday.
The production has a classic hip-hop air about it that brings you back to songs like Common’s “I used to Love Her” mixed in with portions of the beat from The Game’s “Like Father, Like Son” giving way to images of flashback scenes from retro movies. All of this adds to the allure of reminiscing on your adolescent days when emotions and hormones ran wild and you were about to lose your virginity. The song has low replay-ability. An interesting but predictable twist is revealed at the end, but I won’t give that away.
This track begins with an orchestral sound that brings to mind a Duke Ellington piece. J. Cole begins with a well-known Biggie verse leading into the song’s first verse about growing up in an area of turmoil without a father to guide him. The soliloquy encompasses different events in Cole’s formative years that lead Cole to the place he is now, from dealing with women to navigating life as a man. In the second verse, he speaks about a conversation with a high school friend about wanting to make money the fast and illegally to get new shoes to improve his social standings to get a girl. That friend was accustomed to that lifestyle and told J. Cole that when you have an opportunity to have a legal, prosperous future, you don’t take the path his friend is on. The beat has portions that climax with key lyrical points to elevate the listening experience.
“A Tale of 2 Citiez”
A very dark tone with light hints of DMX’s It’s Dark and Hell is Hot are infused in this song. The title is shared with the classic Charles Dickens novel while speaking on the same issues in a different climate. The parallel between the two is the treatment of aristocrats and peasants as discussed in the novel, interchangeable in the song as the rich and impoverished in today’s society. The sound of bells ringing adds to the association with the title of the novel that takes place during the French Revolution. The repetition of “hand in the air” is catchy and clever, providing a club vibe that can be misleading, causing one to believe the line mean to lift your hands in the air in celebration. The line actually means put your hands in the air because you are being robbed by a criminal or being shot at/stopped by the police. The production at the end has many layers that add to the heaviness. Combined with a monotone dubbed singing of the line “You’ll get your peace, but no peace will be found,” it has ominous inferences.
The production is much lighter and more carefree than the previous track. It has a b-boy (break-dancer boy) 1990s feel that is expanded on by the mention of prominent figures from that era like Ice Cube, Wu Tang, and Ice T. Cole uses a flamboyant confrontational approach on this track that was common in the 90s but now is only seen in glimpses, which is why Kendrick Lamar’s “Control” verse became a viral sensation. Cole’s most controversial verse regards the hijacking or acquisition of rock music before and now rap music by white artists from Elvis Presley to Iggy Azalea respectively. He somewhat backtracks with the following line, “I am just playing, but all good jokes contain true shit,” allowing room for ambiguity. The song finishes with a running theme that everyone is great, everyone is a king or a queen.
A very smooth bass line begins with the drums and the rest of the layers slowly build, exuding the imagery of cruising through the ocean or air but with no turbulence and traveling in luxury. The bridge refers to Hollywood and going to St. Tropez, France, both either symbolizing money or fame. The production has an elegant, expansive quality through the incorporation of the guitar and horns but mostly through the strings. J. Cole’s voice has some uneasiness, giving the indication that he isn’t sure of the decision to make this trip figuratively (attaining fame) and literally (to Hollywood). The addition of the horns at the end compounds the feeling of indecisiveness.
The song begins with women who sound like they are in a field picking cotton while singing something that is indistinguishable except for the sound of the melody. It has an up-tempo, sweetly beautiful tone that is followed by the drum and bass line, which ground it. The strings come in, lightening the production before J. Cole starts the first verse. The context of the song is him allowing himself get lost in fame. This theme, matched with the sound effects, might subtly insinuate he feels he became a slave to the fame. His being swallowed up by the traps of the industry is expressed in unique ways. The aggression of the chorus draws attention but is still infectious. In the last verse, the beat switches to a strong drum line and more negro spiritual singing that allows Cole’s flow to rises above it, similar to a pastor in a sermon, providing clues that maybe he has found himself again and is no longer lost in fame.
“No Role Modelz”
This song touches on an issue that many, like myself, can relate to and that is not having a father in your life. J. Cole touches on the broader aspect of him not seeing positive role models in general. An attention-grabbing initial line, “First things first, rest in peace, Uncle Phil, you the only father that I ever knew,” refers the uncle in the TV show The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. For many men without fathers or father-like role models the, TV dads and parents are the ones you gravitate to for that guidance. I was fortunate in that I had great individuals in my life like my Uncles David and Uncle Mark. The remaining lyrics deal with understanding women and determining the good ones from those who are traps. The fact that good quality female role models is lacking in many respects as well is pointed out in the line, “My only regret was too young for Lisa Bonet. . . now all I’m left with is hoes from reality shows.”
This is one of the songs that sonically didn’t hold my interest. It inspired a feeling of ambivalence. The context of the song revolves around J. Cole wanting to reignite a past flame that seems as though she isn’t responding by his repetition of “hello.” He is reflecting on the past and how he might have missed someone special that he should not have let go. The tempo gives a sensation of being in a rush or the anticipation of waiting for a response.
Again, Cole is reflecting on his past transgressions in not spending more time with his mother or treating the women who were there from the start as well as he should have. Not only is he acknowledging his mistakes and shortcomings, he is trying to fix them because he understands his value or importance in those people lives. The chorus can be taken as if it is directed to God or the important women in his life.
The piano chord with the violins reminds me of how I felt listening to Reflection Eternal by Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek. Both songs cause the listener to take an introspective look to determine how you value yourself. The chorus of “Ain’t no such thing as a life better than yours” is profound. When broken down, it is completely true; no one has the life experience that you have, which makes your life different and unique. The fact that we are alive is amazing in itself. Cole is trying to galvanize the audience to be satisfied with our own lives and not want to live anyone else’s. The song has a nice positive mantra to help end the album.
Three piano notes played in the same scale in a repetitive sequence followed by singing from one or two female singers and Cole, with the bass guitar, provides a soulful ending. The track has a feeling similar to Kanye’s “Last Call” in tone and in the concept of praising the people that helped you reach the point of success.
The album title refers to his home when he was a child, leading to the way the album is laid out as if it is his life from birth on January 28th to this point. Production is pretty intricate with elegance and restraint, which was mostly, if not all, done by Cole himself. There are no features on the album to bring home the point of how personal the album and its subject matter are to J. Cole. An auspicious vibe permeates throughout album. J. Cole asserts a high level of introspection that can leave an artist vulnerable but makes the act that much more courageous. This introspection also allows the audience to relate to him on a personal level.
“No Role Modelz” and “Love Yourz” are the emotional highlights for me. “No Role Modelz” connects with me due to the many role models in my life that cultivated qualities that affect me even today. Three of those role models are Lamont, Noel, and Doctor in Boston. Doctor helped foster my passion for the medical field as a young child. All of you have influenced me to this day from my interest in fitness (thanks to Lamont) all the way to Noel introducing me to reptiles (I still want a red-tailed boa). I have been lucky to have many role models, but I single out those three because I never had the chance to let them know how they affected my life in ways that would be too numerous to divulge. Hopefully, somehow, some way, they will all understand how much they have impacted my life for the better, and hopefully I can do the same for someone else. “Love Yourz” resonates with me because that is a philosophy I try to live by: understanding that we all live great lives just by being alive, so appreciate that. Also to realize that my life is good enough, but that shouldn’t stop me from improving it, nor should I let that consume me. Cole paid homage to classic albums in the form of the how the song titles were written on the track list. This matched the sound in the production, resulting in a good to great album. Next week’s Breakdown will cover Snoop Dogg’s album Bush.