I don’t have a problem with 2014 Forest Hills Drive. 2014 Forest Hills Drive is a fine album. It dropped in December of 2014 (an underwhelming year in hip-hop) and made its way onto plenty of year-end lists, in part because of J. Cole’s name and its distinctly North Carolinan agreeability. It’s one part drum-machine-driven southern hip-hop and four parts plain white-tees that you wear for their old-school indifference but still iron once a week. Forest Hills Drive is like an early Cole mixtape simultaneously dressed up and watered down. But it’s fine. Much like his 2016 4 Your Eyez Only and a little like his previous project Born Sinner, Forest Hills Drive has just enough bright spots to make the surrounding mediocrity maximally frustrating. At this point, J. Cole albums are received something like a Harambe joke in a room full of white dudes. They have their fans, and boy are those fans are loyal (obligatory), but most do a quick eye-roll and forget about it. Like those who used to really love Harambe jokes but watched them become bastardized until even a clever one couldn’t get a laugh, fans of Mixtape Cole (though I will not otherwise equate or attempt a value judgment the two groups) just wish these lazy parodies of his early stuff never existed.
Again, though it may sound like I have a problem with 2014 Forest Hills Drive, I really don’t. What I do have a problem with is the “J. Cole Went Double Platinum with no Features” joke, not only because it wasn’t funny (it was, as soon as it became about making fun of Cole stans) or because it was played out (still shocked there doesn't exist a BuzzFeed article filled with screenshots of the ‘25 best “J. Cole Went Double Platinum with no Features” Tweets’) but because I hate that this is viewed as a genuine accomplishment. I say this not just out of J. Cole-now-sucks-bitterness, but because it reflects a certain mentality that’s dangerous to any art form, but is especially insidious in rap.
Sure, we can and should allow an artist to have their own singular vision, and no one ever told Virginia Woolf she should have let Vita Sackville-West hop on Mrs. Dalloway for a few paragraphs, but collaboration will always have a place in a genre born in New York City parks and incubated at block parties. Not to mention that any vision which produced the song “G.O.M.D.” was probably not too sacred to allow for a feature or two. The album is caught up in its own autobiographical nature, but even that doesn’t feel like an excuse. Especially generic and predictable tracks like “Fire Squad” and “St. Tropez” beg for a guest verse. The former already sounds like every post-1999 Joey Bada$$ song and “St. Tropez” could use a verse from just about anyone to break up the monotony of Cole. Throw CyHi on there and I wouldn’t even be mad at it. But Cole is so oddly protective over the album that he won’t even invite an R&B singer on to do a chorus, and instead we have to listen to him sing (see “Intro”, “Apparently”, and by ‘see’ I mean don’t).
So J. Cole’s one-man-show on 2014 Forest Hills Drive is misguided and ineffective, but what’s the right amount of vocal collaboration for a rap album? The answer is definitely some collaboration, but there’s certainly such a thing as too much. We’ve seen many examples of it. Most major label releases probably average six to eight guest verses and about half that many outsourced choruses, though both numbers will vary widely by rapper. A certain Compton rapper is individually responsible for bringing those statistics up a good 10% or so.
Jayceon Taylor is just about the perfect cliché. The Game (first “The Game”, then “Game”, now ostensibly “The Game” again) is one in a long line of once-beloved, once-revered rappers who turn 30 and hang around making mediocre music and finding themselves in odd lawsuits. He would fit the bill even better if he had not made a bit of a return to form with 2015’s The Documentary 2 and The Documentary 2.5. Released in consecutive weeks like Future and Hndrxx, they essentially constitute a two-and-a-half hour sequel to his acclaimed debut. Separately, both sit above 75/100 on Metacritic. They are inoffensive and solid products that likely would have made a bigger splash if trimmed down to one more concentrated effort. To be fair though, if you’re going to make room for 53 features from over 40 different artists, you need a pretty long tracklist. And that’s precisely what The Game did on his pseudo double-album.
As my takeplug colleague Colin Finn put it to me when I tried hard to defend these albums in a group chat: it’s not The Game, it’s ‘The Game and Friends’. Rap’s most notorious name dropper got as many names as he possibly could: from Future to Fergie, Dej Loaf to Dr. Dre. The album feels like a party that the host sent way too many frantic and random invites for, thinking nobody would come. But then everybody comes and not only are there way too many people, it’s just a weird group, and nobody really wants E-40 there.
And, as good as many of the guest verses on Doc 2 and 2.5 are (see especially Q-Tip on “Circles”, Ab-Soul on “Dollar and a Dream” and Scarface on “Last Time you Seen”), the artists hopping on track after track with Jayceon feel more like substitutes than collaborators. At times it feels like The Game barely gets a word in on his own album, especially when beats feel tailor-made for his guests. “Dedicated” is a Future song with an appearance from The Game, and Kendrick and his sound similarly dominate “On Me”.
It’s a shame, because lost in the mess are some of the best songs The Game has ever produced. “100” finds Jayceon as comfortable as ever, and a vintage “I’m moody and I’m the man and I don’t fuck with anyone” Drakes chorus matches the vet’s long-time brand of unbothered arrogance. Game re-enlists Busta for the sequel to “Like Father, Like Son”, the most heartfelt song on his debut, and does it justice. Because everyone gets a verse on these albums, twelve year-old Harlem Taylor spits a cute four bars. The Game (still not used to the switch back, I like “Game” sans article a lot better) closes 2.5 with “Life”, a corny but tight manifesto highlighted by the line: “don’t nobody father kids like me.” The final track also serves as a reminder that The Game can still rap, that he can carry a song start to finish and that he very well could have put out a strong album without so much help. ”Life” is also disappointing because it’s not until here, at the album’s end, that the man takes center stage and owns it. His voice ultimately appears too little, and too late.
So ultimately, Doc 2 and 2.5 serve better as audio evidence that Jayceon has a lot of cool friends in music than as a comeback album. At this point, he may care more about the latter than the former anyway, but the fact remains that he made a worse product because of his insistence on getting so many damn people in the studio. On 2014 Forest Hills Drive, the artist sees a similar result for the opposite decision. As is often the case, both poles could a use a bit of balance on future projects. Cole to change pace a bit and let an outside influence keep him from making the same lazily sentimental album a fourth time in a row, Game to let his work reflect a definite voice and to assert himself as the Compton King he claims to be. I certainly don’t have the formula myself, but as a fan, I hope the two of them get closer to it.
- Cole Steiger