J. Cole Cares

North Carolina rapper tops charts with earnest third disc

Poignancy remains the occasional frenemy of rap, setting a thin but rigid boundary between affecting and corny. Gifted North Carolina rapper and chart-topper J. Cole toes that fine line on his new high-wire act, third studio disc 2014 Forest Hills Drive, with Philippe Petit’s precision.

On “Intro,” the MC presents the album’s theme rhetorically: “Do you wanna be happy?” Although a loaded question, Cole wields it as a weapon throughout the disc. The butter soft “January 28th” does its best “December 4th” impression (from boss Hov’s Black Album) as retrospective on where he’s been, with a critical lesson in the chorus:

“Don’t give ‘em too much.
Don’t let ‘em take control.
It’s one thing you do,
Don’t let ‘em taint your soul”

Future Cole classic “’03 Adolescence” continues the storytelling stream, examining the younger version of himself – on an academic scholarship to St. John’s University – idolizing a drug dealer friend from back home in Fayetteville. The friend quickly informs him of the difference in fortunes:

“You ‘bout to go get a degree, I’ma be stuck with two choices.
Either graduate to weight or selling number two.
For what? 100 bucks or two a week?
Do you think that you would know what to do if you was me?
I got four brothers, one mother that don’t love us.
If they ain’t want us, why the fuck they never wore rubbers?”

On “St. Tropez,” Cole slows down and smoothes out the Esther Phillips sample from “That’s All Right With Me,” previously made famous in Mobb Deep’s “Give Up the Goods.” “Apparently” goes over his deepest regrets, such as a flippant attitude over his mother’s house being foreclosed on. Cole purchased the dwelling, at the address for which the album is named, this year.

The most heartfelt cut, “Love Yourz,” captures the rapper at his most raw, sledgehammering home his point:

“Always gon’ be a bigger house somewhere, but nigga feel me.
Long as the people in that motherfucker love you dearly,
Always gon’ be a whip that’s better than the the one you got.
Always gon’ be some clothes that’s fresher than the ones you rock.
Always gon’ be a bitch that’s badder out there on the tours.
But you ain’t never gon’ be happy till you love yours.”

The album suffers from some bumps and bruises, especially on “Tale of Two Citiez” and “GOMD.” While not devoid of emotion, of which Cole has an endless well, the production lacks complexity and dynamism. Overall, 2014 Forest Hills Drive covers well-trod ground, but it fortifies Cole’s easy and nourishing flow. You feel good, but at just over an hour, those few colorless tracks stand out, undercutting an already low BPM collection.

Still, by the time you get through the high fructose ending, “Note to Self,” you admire and end up rooting for Cole – enamored with his earnestness. He’s become that lovably imperfect young man you’ve seen grow up, now succeeding to his wildest dreams. Instead of placing you at arm’s length, he invites you in.

He truly cares about you, and you believe it.

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