Four Stars

The title of J. Cole’s third album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, makes reference to the North Carolina MC’s childhood home. As a setting, it provides a fitting backdrop for a record which is intensely personal. Well-established in hip-hop’s mainstream consciousness, Cole’s decision to look inwards rather than outwards for his subject matter is a bold gamble, into which he throws himself with confidence and vigour.

Cole namedrops his contemporary Kendrick Lamar on the album’s second track, “January 28th”, and it’s in the vein of Lamar’s 2012 work good kid, m.A.A.d city that Cole places his story: a three-act movement, from dark beginnings through to a final realisation. Despite his ambition, Cole isn’t quite as insightful a storyteller as Kendrick, but this framework lets him channel his best quality as an MC, namely his powerful, introspective honesty; his striking tales of a fatherless childhood in “03’ Adolescence” (“Four years or so from now I’ll probably cry / When I realise what I missed, but as of now my eyes are dry”) embrace sensitivity, and with it offer nuances of humanity to Cole’s early tracks. Likewise, “Wet Dreamz” finds him losing his virginity; his reminiscences on “watching pornos trying to see just how to stroke right” inject his childhood tales with much-needed self-deprecating humour.

Cole’s lyricism in the album’s first act matches his honesty and dedication; he eschews the immature wordplay of his previous records for a more tightly crafted focus on storytelling and mood. It’s a decision reflected in his delivery – often a foible for Cole on records past – which shifts from youthful innocence to a grittier timbre in “A Tale of 2 Citiez”. Similarly, Cole’s assured self-production moves smoothly through the record’s changing tones; drawing on myriad samples, Cole uses Japanese easy-listening to soundtrack the dreamy “January 28th”, but flips a shuddering drumbeat from Pusha T’s “Blocka” for “A Tale of 2 Citiez” just as adeptly. “Fire Squad”, the album’s highlight, channels ‘90s hip-hop with an insistent piano loop and boom-bap percussion backing both braggadocio and incisive commentary on cultural appropriation, imagining Cole watching “Iggy win a Grammy as I try to crack a smile”.

Yet as the album progresses, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Cole is stretched too thin. On “No Role Modelz”, he clumsily tries to turn suspicion of a girl into a discourse on female role models, and his venture into singing, albeit endearing, is a bridge too far for Cole’s independent designs. Although a bold choice, the refusal of guests falls somewhat into self-indulgence, demanding that Cole be at once the relatable everyman and the “god” that his ambition impels him to be.

However, even as 2014 Forest Hills Drive falls short of the classic status Cole desires, it remains a powerfully personal album, and Cole’s most focused effort so far. It may not be worthy of the lengthy final credits sequence “Note to Self”, which apes Cole’s mentor Jay-Z’s “My First Song”, but its integrity and bravery create an imperfect but highly enjoyable experience.