“Do You Wanna Be Happy?”
J. Cole poses this question on the “Intro” of his third album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, and throughout the project it becomes apparent that, as he approaches 30, the Roc Nation rapper is still working hard to prioritize his career, family, and relationships in a way that would bring real fulfillment.
After an appearance at the Grammys earlier this year, where he left empty-handed once again, Cole was noticeably absent from the spotlight. Then we saw him reappear in the thick of Ferguson protests in August.
On “January 28th,” (his birth date), Cole seems to be addressing both music industry politics -- “Don’t give ‘em too much you, don’t let ‘em take control/ If there’s one thing you do, don’t let ‘em taint your soul” -- and also the broader and inherently flawed political system that has been more apparent than usual this year.
It’s difficult not to think about the protests erupting over Michael Brown and Eric Garner’s deaths, as he raps, “What’s the price for a black man life?/ I check the toe tag, not one zero in sight/ I turn the TV on, not one hero in sight/ Unless he dribble or he fiddle with mics.”
There are some moments of lighthearted and relatable nostalgia, like on “Wet Dreamz,” for example, where he delivers an entertaining play-by-play of losing his virginity -- but in general, the picture is a bit starker and full of self-reflection.
On “'03 Adolescence,” he dives into teenage insecurities and recounts a conversation with a neighborhood hustler who shamed him for considering a life in the streets, and emphasized the importance of getting a degree.
The urgency to escape from his hometown Fayetteville and chase his “Hollywood dreams” is front and center on “A Tale Of 2 Citiez,” but later Cole realizes that the higher he climbs, the murkier things can get at the top.
“Apparently” is dripping with guilt, as he apologizes to his mother for being “selfish” and leaving her to deal with foreclosure at his childhood home, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, in North Carolina, while he was having fun in New York.
Earlier this year, Cole returned to that address and purchased the house so he could give other low-income families a chance to have a better life. It’s obvious that this was as important to him as any big career milestone. Maybe bringing the kind of satisfaction that awards shows just can’t promise.
Over a '90s-tinged beat from producer Vinylz on “Fire Squad,” Cole ponders his place in the rap game and seems to both acknowledge and let go of his need for acceptance from the critics, as he raps, “This year I probably go to the awards dapper down/ Watch Iggy win a Grammy as I try to crack a smile/ I’m just playin/ But all good jokes contain true sh–/ Same rope you climb up on they hang you with.”
On the piano-driven “Love Yourz,” he sings on the hook, and openly admits that those dreams he was chasing, full speed ahead, weren’t necessarily as fulfilling as he’d hoped. “Don’t be sleeping on your level because there’s beauty in the struggle n---a,” he raps. “Beauty in the struggle/ Ugliness in the success.”
“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,” he continues. “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.”
On this project, Cole opened himself up to collaborate with a few select producers, including Vinylz and DJ Dahi, instead of entirely self-producing, and there are no features, save for a few vocal assists from background singers. The project is still very much representative of his sound and his journey.