Salvation is an interesting thing. It is not something that rarely, if ever, weighs on the forefront of our minds, yet it is an idea deeply entrenched in the subconscious of humans and the societies we build. Whether it be the religions that have been around for thousands of years, or the new LA diets that are around every couple months, everyone seems to have an answer to salvation.
In America, the path to salvation is laid out plainly ? do whatever it takes to achieve money, fame, and material things.
These are noble goals to strive toward when they are used as means for greater positive influence or change, whether that be for oneself, one?s family, or a larger community. However, these goals are often marketed as an end-all be-all to happiness, and as a result people often sacrifice their own values, morals, and ideals just to reach the lofty standards set by society. This normal and often necessary process begs the important question: what happens when someone sacrifices their potential of self-actualization for the sake of promised salvation?
This question fuels J. Cole?s third studio album 2014 Forest Hills Drive, widely considered his magnum opus, as he tells the long and winding journey of losing and finding one?s values in the pursuit of the American Salvation. The result is a deeply profound, beautiful, and visceral work of art about life, love, and the human condition.
2014 Forest Hills Drive by J. Cole
To understand how he got to this point, it is necessary to know where he had been. Jermaine Cole began his career by releasing three mixtapes starting in the late 2000s. His third mixtape, 2010’s Friday Night Lights, was especially acclaimed and is now often considered one of the best hip-hop mixtapes of the last decade. These mixtapes were greatly praised for their originality in sound and style along with his impressive lyrical skills. J. Cole?s writing was seen as deeply humanistic, thought-provoking, and socially conscious. He gained great popularity from these releases and as a result he was signed to Roc Nation, a record label helmed by hip-hop icon and J. Cole?s own musical hero Jay-Z. He truly seemed poised to become a leading voice of the new generation.
However once he was signed, there was great pressure from his label, along with some internal temptation, to make radio-friendly songs that appealed to the masses ? this was in stark contrast to the type of music he was making in his mixtape days. In a 2017 New York Times interview, J. Cole detailed this time in his life, stating he now had the opportunity to pursue what he felt American culture had told him he should want ? money, women, fame ? and this culture pushed further on his temptation to play into the requests of the corporate system. He described pursuing these things felt addictive and he played into this addiction.
?It?s what we grow up believing that we need and want. It?s everybody?s dream?Who doesn?t want the pick of the litter on this, that and the third? Money, women, cars. And beyond all of that ? which I really wasn?t into ? praise?It?s addictive. To recognize it, it was the first step. And to change it required overcoming internal fear: I had to recognize, well, where?s the fear coming from??
We all have this fear. This fear of not being good enough, of not being successful enough, of not being worthy enough. And when you have millions of eyes watching you, and powerful corporate heads suffocating your desires, it becomes that much easier to play into the fears.
As a result, his first two albums, 2011?s Cole World: The Sideline Story and 2013?s Born Sinner, focused much more on appeasing these fears than making authentic music. I remember purchasing each of these when they came out while I was in high school, and listening to them over and over again at the time. While there were definitely gems throughout both albums that I still enjoy to this day, I still couldn?t help but feel that they were weighed down by commercial compromise on his first record and ingenuine edginess on his second record. In both albums, there was a sense that wreaked through that J. Cole was trying to please someone else other than him ? the masses on the first album and hip-hop heads on the second album. These were both good albums that are truly worth listening to, but there was a sense of compromise and inauthenticity trickled throughout that prevented the works from being truly great.
He later states in the same New York Times interview that deep down the decisions his label wanted him to make did not sit right in his heart. Despite great commercial success from these first two albums, he felt empty and depressed when he thought he should be happy ? he described this time of his life as ?trying to prove that I could do something that they don?t think I can, [which] was a very sad place when I look back?. Feeling lost and disillusioned with this superstar lifestyle, he decided to return back to his roots and pursue wholesome things ? he moved to his hometown, got married, and began to make music in his home rather than a studio.
In a 2014 interview with Angie Martinez, recorded shortly after the release of 2014 Forest Hills Drive, J. Cole talks about how pleasure and success became an insatiable pursuit and how this realization acted as a catalyst for a dramatic change in lifestyle.
?There?s no amount of money that will ever make you stop, if money is all you care about. You?ll keep going; oh, I got a million. I got to get 10. Got 10. Gotta get a 100. Got to get . Got to get a billion. If it?s cars, you?ll never have enough cars. If it?s women, you?ll never have enough women. You?ll be chasing them forever. If it?s success, you can never get enough of that. I realize that, it doesn?t stop. It keeps calling you; it?s like a drug?You?re never satisfied but if you place your importance on this, which is like appreciation, love. That is enough. It?s enough of that in everybody?s life right now if they just took the time to look.?
This realization culminated with his his third album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, named after his hometown address and coincidentally coinciding with its year of release, where he eschewed the radio friendly style with the intention of making music solely from the heart.
The album opens with an emotional bang on the track ?Intro?. Over glistening piano keys and calming chords, J. Cole asks himself the questions he?s been grappling with over his meaning and place in the world. In turn, he implores us to asks ourselves those same questions. He sings in this soft yet raspy tone, where the song conveys both a gentleness but a sense of urgency. The piano keys build to a climax as J. Cole sings his thesis for the project:
?Do you wanna, do you wanna be, free? Do you wanna, do you wanna be, happy??
These lines repeat and repeat countless times. The chords grow stronger and fuller while J. Cole?s voice weaves back and forth between a broken whisper and an aggressive plea, almost sounding on the verge of tears.
The song is breathtaking in its understatedness, but the gravity of the minimal lyrics and sounds is an existential punch to the gut. It cuts through the noise of the day-to-day banalities and you?re immediately locked into the beauty, tenderness, and seriousness of this track. Each time the words are sung, the mission statement of the album becomes more clear: we still have time to change our lives but our days are limited. It?s up to us.
After a seamless transition, ?January 28th? opens with a sample of a choral song from the Japanese group Hi-Fi Set, which gives the track an atmospheric and anthemic grandness. The gospel-tinged choral samples immediately gives the sense that you?re floating above the world, while the precision and articulation of each word reminds you to stay grounded towards an important goal. J. Cole sounds determined and hungry, the long-repressed purpose dripping from every bar. There is a spiritual fire in his delivery that is palpable. He raps about moving back to his hometown, the racism he witnesses in both the low-class neighborhood and the elite upper class, and his determination to be at the top of the rap game. He weaves these topics together by pleading the importance of staying true to oneself.
?Don?t give them too much you / don?t let them take control / it?s one thing you do / don?t let them taint your soul?
As the album progresses through its tracks, it details J. Cole growing up in North Carolina, making it to Hollywood, and the eventual disillusionment that came with it. Throughout the journey, the idea of authenticity strings this narrative together.
For J. Cole, the start of sacrificing one?s values began in adolescence, often as a means of survival. Whether it be detailing a story about him and a high school crush lying to each other in an effort to impress (?Wet Dreamz?), recreating a high school conversation with a friend refusing to glamorize his drug-dealing life (? ?03 Adolescence), or painting a vivid picture of a young J. Cole needing to feign aggressiveness as a survival tactic (?A Tale of 2 Citiez?), J. Cole gives us many angles of how the seeds of inauthenticity were planted at a young age simply to get by.
This lack of authenticity only grows as J. Cole moves into early adulthood, as career, money, and power become increasingly more prevalent in his life and the people around him. He shines a light on how certain cultures can get watered down due to capitalistic greed (?Fire Squad?), the fear and sadness that can come with the glitz and glory of leaving one?s hometown for Hollywood (?St. Tropez?), of giving up one?s own personal and artistic values for commercial gain (?G.O.M.D?), and the lack of authentic figures in positions of power and influence (?No Role Modelz?),
This gradual deterioration of his ideals reaches a soul-crushing breaking point, as J. Cole reflects on the brokenness of his relationships. He expresses melancholy for not taking the time or effort to start his own family (?Hello?) and regret for neglecting the fundamental relationships with his mom and his girlfriend in his pursuit of success (?Apparently?). With these tracks, he realizes how far he has strayed from who he once was, and that he can no longer live a life that simply bleeds inauthenticity.
Through these wonderfully stirring and deeply personal tracks, the album climaxes in the penultimate track ?Love Yourz?, one of the best songs of the 21st century and J. Cole?s crown jewel in all of his discography.
?Love Yourz? by J. Cole
The orchestral chords and the soft piano keys draw you into this personal and reflective space as J. Cole sings the poignant message.
?Love Yours / Love Yours / No such thing as a life that?s better than yours / No such thing as a life that?s better than yours (Love yours) / No such thing as a life that?s better than yours / No such thing, no such thing?
With his soft and soulful singing, J. Cole reminds us to find the appreciation, gratitude, and love that can exist in all of our lives if we take the time to reflect deeply.
?It?s beauty in the struggle, ugliness in the success / Hear my words or listen to my signal of distress/?On the road to riches, listen this is what you?ll find / The good news is, n****, you came a long way / the bad news is, n****, you went the wrong way.?
With the phrase ?beauty in the struggle?, he inverts the commonly held idea that success is the only thing worth adoration. In fact, it?s the process of self-improving and striving that builds character, passion, determination, and humility. Far too often, we see ?ugliness in the success?, where success can breed corruption, cruelty, and complacency.
He expands on how he feels he went the ?wrong way?:
?For what?s money without happiness? / Or hard times without the people you love? Though I?m not sure what?s ?bout to happen next / I asked for strength from the Lord up above / ?Cause I?ve been strong so far / But I can feel my grip loosenin? / Quick, do somethin? before you lose it for good / Get it back and use it for good / And touch the people how you did like before / I?m tired of livin? with demons ?cause they always invitin? more.?
In this verse, J. Cole sounds lost, remorseful, and scared. He realizes he has sacrificed his own happiness and relationships for material gain and is terrified that he may have forgotten his core self permanently. He looks for a spiritual change, grasping desperately back for his buried morals, as a way to escape the personal demons that have been suffocating him. Whether it be spirituality, meditation, or just plain vulnerability, an emotional change is often necessary to re-align ourselves with our values.
Finally, J. Cole drops a contemplative yet deeply moving verse on reflections of being both broke and rich and the wisdom he wants his audience to take away:
?Think being broke was better / Now I don?t mean that phrase with no disrespect / To all my n****s out there livin? in debt / Cashin? minimal checks, turn on the TV see a n**** Rolex / And fantasize about a life with no stress / I mean this s*** sincerely / And as a n**** who was once in your shoes / Livin? with nothin? to lose, I hope one day you hear me / Always gon? be a bigger house somewhere, but n**** feel me / Long as the people in that motherf***er love you dearly / Always gon? be a whip that?s better than the one you got / Always gon? be some clothes that?s fresher than the ones you rock / Always gon? be a b**** that?s badder out there on the tours / But you ain?t never gon? be happy ?til you love yours?
He doesn?t want these words to be taken lightly because he knows the pain and jealousy he experienced growing up poor, but he wants to express that the vast amount of money he gained didn?t give him the happiness for which he was seeking. It was only when he looked inward and at the relationships around him was he able to find any peace of mind.
The message is summed up almost alarmingly simply on the final track ?Note To Self?. The gradual piano progression and the emotional gospel choirs that begin the track let you know this is a culmination of a journey. There is a sense of deep salvation and peace that comes across so effortlessly through J. Cole?s energetic and passionate singing that is adorned with the gliding bounce of the bassline.
?And wherever we go / And whatever we do / And whatever we see / And whoever we be / It don?t matter, it don?t matter / I don?t mind cause you don?t matter / I don?t mind cause I don?t matter / And don?t s*** matter / You?ll see in the end.?
Out of context, this may seem like a disturbing nihilistic message, but given everything that has preceded this song, it is actually incredibly optimistic. J. Cole is simply saying that our careers, our bank accounts, our accomplishments are not what define us ? they don?t really matter as it relates to our basic self-worth. What matters is how we treat ourselves and others in our lives, how we improve ourselves, and how we create positive change in the worlds around us. Family, friends, and self-love are what sustain us.
J. Cole takes it further as he reflects on all of humanity:
?I?ve got a feeling that there?s somethin? more / Something that holds us together / Something that holds us together / The strangest feeling but I can?t be sure / Something that?s old as forever / Something that?s old as forever / Love, Love, Love, Love.?
He realizes not only was this is his own journey, but it?s the journey that every human goes through in some way or the other. That we are all connected in this experience, and that it is only in loving and helping one another that this connection deepens.
The track, and the album, ends with an epic 11-minute speech where J. Cole thanks everyone who has been on this journey with him. He celebrates all that he has learned and the pinnacle of internal happiness he has surmounted, and that all great journeys are never done alone. Coated through the track is a deep acceptance for who he is, and a full appreciation for the life he has.
Having found that internal happiness and freedom that J. Cole questioned about in the intro track, the album comes to a beautiful full circle. It is an epic finale to an epic album that leaves us with a simple message:
Be who you are, love who you are, and always try to find the blessings in your life.
This message profoundly connected with his audience and ended up becoming his most commercially successful record yet, ironically reaching the masses in a way that J. Cole had been aspiring toward for years prior. In that same interview with Angie Martinez, J. Cole reflects on the success of the record, and how he had actually redefined ?success? for himself.
?On this album, that joint could have [sold] 2 copies, 5 copies, 10 copies. I would have been happy. Because to me, this is the first time I?ve ever felt successful before I dropped the album.?
This sense of internal success is what psychologists describe as self-actualization. In his 1961 work, On Becoming a Person, Carl Rogers proposed the Self-Actualization Theory which states that the self is the main component of personality, and that this sense of self motivates people to desire a trajectory toward self-actualization, called the actualizing tendency. This is an innate tendency among humans, yet is often disrupted by an environment that promotes incongruence ? a lack of alignment between the actual self and the ideal self. The actual self consists of the traits, thoughts, and actions of who someone is, while the ideal self is that of who they truly desire to be. When these are congruent, the self is on the path to self-actualization.
2014 Forest Hills Drive acts as an artistic lens into J. Cole reaching his own sense of self-actualization and in a way, his own form of salvation.
While an album can give us a sense of closure to the life of an artist, in actuality J. Cole will continue to evolve on his journey. He is bound to have more ups and downs throughout his life, which is evidenced by the emotions displayed on his successive albums. This journey never really ends. Rather than expecting an external endpoint to save us from our problems, we can focus on stepping towards a deeper sense of who we are and striving towards our goals without sacrificing our essence. The process of salvation is salvation enough. Listening to 2014 Forest Hills Drive gives us hope and a path forward ? that maybe we can start this journey too.
Photo Credit: Apple Music