I’ve never been a big fan of defining myself by where I’m from. With that said, I live and work in North Carolina and there are plenty of things to like about this state. There are the local delicacies of sweet tea, Biscuitville and Cook Out. The Appalachian Mountains and the Outer Banks are both stunning in their beauty. Like sports? You can take delight in the furiously contested college basketball rivalries and the fact that our hockey team even took the time to win a championship. There’s also some great music that’s come from the Old North State. Which brings me to my next point.
I’ve never been a big fan of J. Cole. He has seemed to have built a career on little brother syndrome. Cole’s first album was neurotically subtitled The Sideline Story. His 2013 nap-inducing release Born Sinner had the misfortune (audacity?) to be release on the same day as Yeezus. Now, he has decided to steer into the skid and turn inward with the supposedly personal 2014 Forest Hills Drive.
The trouble is that while Cole’s story should be interesting, he is incapable of presenting it in a compelling manner. He spends much of the time bragging and posturing that it never feels like we get a truly exposed version of himself. On “January 28th” he claims he wants to “put our egos aside” while later calling out his contemporaries (mainly Drake and Kendrick) and claiming he is the god. This might be a more serious boast if 2014 wasn’t a diet version of Kenrick’s good kid, m.A.A.d city. Kendrick was able to bear every inner turmoil and insecurity in an intimate and true fashion. J. Cole’s answer is a gratuitous account of his first sexual experience where every detail apparently needs to be superficially recounted. With J. Cole he’s making us see what he saw without any depth, with Kendrick we were in his head.
It also doesn’t help that Cole’s flow is rarely novel and even less inspiring. He spends part of “Fire Squad” biting Drake’s “Started from the Bottom” flow before condemning the co-opting of artistic expression. Sure he’s not wrong that Elvis stole rock-and-roll and that Iggy Azalea might wrongfully win a Grammy, but some self-awareness wouldn’t hurt. Cole gets credit for some decent tracks, but most are unspectacular and overly reliant on strings and horns to seem soulful or sophisticated. And of course it wouldn’t be a J. Cole album without one track (“A Tale of 2 Citiez”) that is so tedious it almost made me curl up on my couch.
Cole is a smart and talented guy. This makes 2014 even more disappointing. There’s a reason Jay-Z swooped in to pick this guy up out of Fayetteville, North Carolina. There’s a reason he graduated with honors from St. John’s. And surely there’s a reason that Twitter is lousy with people ready to go to bat for the guy. Indeed, there might be a lot of things J. Cole knows, but when it comes down to an album of introspection and inner revelation, I just wish he had a better understanding of himself.