In just three short years Jermaine Cole has transformed himself from a college student begging for Jay Z’s attention to an established superstar in the hip hop game.

After being a stalwart in the mixtape scene, Cole’s transition to featured studio work proved seamless, accredited to his heady sense of self-worth and ability to mesh the sounds of classic East Coast rap with the edge of Southern-style lyrics.

First and foremost, Cole is a storyteller in the purest form. However, his visions and consistent overarching themes have rendered him mundane by many critics. But it’s important to remember that Cole has flourished in his short career off his vulnerability and sympathetic nature. His beats characterize a flow generated from a dream yet realized, and are maximized through his intelligence and ambition.

It’s what’s made his music so relatable, and it’s what painted him as the transplanted dreamer he is today.

After generating mixed reviews with his first two studio albums, Cole World: The Sideline Story, and 2013’s Born Sinner, the hype surrounding the prospects of his newest project would have been through the roof.

So when Cole opted to wait to announce the release of 2014 Forest Hills Drive until mid-November, it was apparent that this third release was going to be nothing more than a personal statement with no singles and no features. In no time at all it became abundantly clear that North Carolina-native wants you to know that this is what’s born when you give an artist a paper and a pen.

Cole opens his psalm in “Intro” with a melodic piano solo that inspires visions of a burning fire on a cold winters eve, with a desperate voice begging the audience, “Do you wanna be happy?”. We see from the outset that the inconsistencies of Born Sinner and the overall lack of awareness on The Sideline Story had given Cole the necessary motivation we the fans had been yearning for.

2014 Forest Hills Drive instantly became a story about Jermaine Cole’s journey to achieving true happiness as an artist and as a man.

Early cuts like “January 28th”, “Wet Dreamz”, and “03’ Adolescence” reminisce on the tumultuous times growing up in North Carolina. “Wet Dreamz”, a tale about losing his virginity and the front put on to delude a female into believing he is experienced, has the feel of an early-day’s Roc-A-Fella track. While “January 28th” provides an aroma of intimacy and romance, the full-bodied story was interjected by a few of the corny punch lines we genuinely enjoy from Cole.

As the record moves past “03’ Adolescence”, a few bass-heavy tracks like “A Tale of 2 Citiez”, “Fire Squad”, and “No Role Modelz” authenticate Cole’s social awareness.

By a large margin, “Fire Squad” becomes the most Twitter-friendly production, dropping easy quotable’s like “this year I probably go to the awards dappered down, watch Iggy win a Grammy as I try and crack a smile”, and referring to himself as “the new Ice Cube, meets the new Ice-T”.

But as “Fire Squad” and its expected commercial appeal would have been an easy choice for a single (had Cole chosen to have one), the track still felt cheated. While Jermaine recognizes the white appropriation of hip hop today, he finds himself shelling back into one of his biggest flaws; essentially retracting all previous lyrics and adding a “just playin” after his Iggy Azalea diss.

It’s his insecurities that again creep in and hinder him from drawing blood.

Because had Cole left out those two little words after burning Iggy Azalea to a crisp it would have changed the complexity of the entire album. And in this writer’s humble opinion, it’s one of the biggest detractors that kept the record from reaching another level.

After feeling slighted by this missed opportunity, J. Cole methodically slots “St. Tropez”—a mellow, jazzy interlude falling between the aggressiveness of “Fire Squad” and “G.O.M.D.” which quite literally means “Get Off My Dick”.

Though, aside from a heartfelt verse honoring his mother at the beginning of “Apparently”, the concluding tracks of 2014 Forest Hills Drive are a bit underwhelming. The project is concluded by a 14-plus minute Outro titled “Note to Self”, that basically reads like a glorified Grammy speech, as Cole proceeds to thank everyone who’s put him on.

Now, it shouldn’t go unnoticed that the LP doesn’t limp to the finish line like Born Sinner did, but the argument is there that his Kanye West-like poem about reconciliation with his childhood home kept the closing moments of this album afloat.

I can’t say this is Cole’s best work – because to be frank, it’s not. It doesn’t provide the hit-worthy tracks of Born Sinner, despite having a track listing that keeps you interested from the outset. If you’re the one who deals in absolutes than this album fell flat on its’ face. But there was genius in these lines and there is complexity in his stories.

In fact, “Apparently” may be some of the realest shit you’ll hear in hip hop if you can ignore the raspy hook that should have been done by someone else.

Ultimately it’s that arrogance that trips him up on this third effort. Cole’s unwillingness to add any features aids in his ability to carry a story for a full 12 tracks, but it also lends itself to overextending as he attempts to sing every hook and chorus himself; on top of writing, rapping, and producing the entire album.

Critically, 2014 Forest Hills Drive gave us the J. Cole we knew was coming, just not necessarily the one we wanted.

(Featured Image courtesy of J. Cole’s Facebook)