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As the decade comes to a close, music fans have began to reminisce over the artists, albums and songs that defined the past ten years. One name that consistently pops up in conversations about the stars who’ve made a memorable impact during the 2010s is J. Cole, who is one of the rare talents to have hit the trifecta in the aforementioned categories.
From building his legend on the mixtape circuit with classics like Friday Night Lights to dropping a string of platinum studio efforts, the Fayetteville native and Queens transplant has become an omnipresence by quietly building his empire one brick at a time. While many would deem the entirety of his career to be an overwhelming success, the one creative achievement from this decade that J. Cole will always be remembered for is his third studio album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive.
Released on December 9, 2014, the album completed the rapper’s evolution from impressionable rook to self-assured talent. A watershed moment for one of this generation’s most revered emcees, 2014 Forest Hills Drive has been appraised as the crown jewel in Cole’s catalog and the album that he officially came into his own.
In celebration of the fifth anniversary of the album’s release, REVOLT details five ways 2014 Forest Hills Drive marked an artistic leap for J. Cole.
1. The Promotional Campaign
Following lengthy promotional campaigns for his first two studio albums, J. Cole decided to change course with the roll-out for 2014 Forest Hills Drive by announcing the album’s impending arrival, title and release date less than a month before its release. Shunning the traditional media blitz that accompanies new drops by superstars, the rapper reverted back to his roots, literally, hosting a listening party at the childhood that inspired the album’s title. Inviting a handful of his most rabid fans, the setting was intimate and kept the general public salivating with anticipation, which made Dec. 9 more of an event than a release date.
2. The Singles
Touted as a gifted lyricist since first making waves with his 2009 mixtape, The Warm Up, the one minor knock on Cole had been his struggle to balance his artistic integrity with his pursuit of scoring radio-friendly hits. Sans the undeniable 2013 smash “Power Trip,” his singles may have garnered chart position and radio airplay, but were oft-maligned by his core base of fans and pundits alike. Heading into the recording process for 2014 Forest Hills Drive, the Dreamvillian took a different approach by choosing to let the music come organically rather than keying in on delivering a chart-topper. The result was an album with no obvious single even though tracks like “Apparently,” “Wet Dreamz,” and “No Role Modelz” all caught traction and appeared on the Billboard Hot 100.
3. No Features
A key ingredient to many great albums have been their guest appearances with some of the greatest artists of all-time getting assistance from their peers, resulting in some of the greatest collaborative efforts. At the outset of his career, Cole would take a similar route by enlisting heavyweights like JAY-Z, Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Missy Elliott, Trey Songz, Miguel and others to co-star alongside him on his first two studio albums. Receiving strong, but mixed reviews, on those releases, Cole pressed the reset button and adopted a new, self-contained formula during the writing and recording process for 2014 Forest Hills Drive. This manifested in the album being devoid of any feature artists, which has become a badge of honor for his legion of supporters.
4. The Content
J. Cole had occasionally revealed bits and pieces of the inner-workings of his life on previous albums, mixtapes and EPs. But, his transparency would reach unprecedented levels on his fourth studio album. In addition to the LP’s title; songs like “03’ Adolescence,” “St. Tropez,” and “Hello” all captured the psyche of Jermaine Cole, the man behind the metaphors. In terms of inspirational anthems, “Apparently” and “Love Yourz” were exactly what the doctor ordered and rank among the Born Sinner’s finest performances to date. And when you throw in more light-hearted fair like “G.O.M.D.” and “No Role Modelz” with gauntlets throw on “Fire Squad,” the culmination is J. Cole’s most cohesive album thus far.
5. The Accolades
While his first two studio albums were both commercially successful, 2014 Forest Hills Drive marked the height of J. Cole’s success at that point in time. Debuting atop the Billboard 200, the album moved 353,000 units in its first week, and trumped the initial returns for Cole World: Sideline Story and Born Sinner by a sizable margin. Selling more than three million copies to date, 2014 Forest Hills Drive was a massive commercial success, but was also praised by critics, many of whom deemed the album as one of the superior releases of the year. Garnering a nomination for Best Rap Album at the 2016 Grammy Awards, and taking home Album of the Year at the 2015 BET Hip Hop Awards, and Top Rap Album at the 2015 Billboard Music Awards, 2014 Forest Hills Drive achieved the coveted trifecta of critical acclaim, mainstream recognition, and commercial success.