The slightly somber, almost hypnotic "Intro," begins with Cole singing (to the best of his ability): "Do you wanna be happy? Do you wanna be free?" Free from what exactly? "Free from pain, free from scars, free to sing, free from bars." If the album itself is a journey through his youth, the "Intro" contains the thoughts of an embryonic Cole, outlining his hopes for the future as well as warning himself about the pitfalls that await. The next song "January 28th" is fittingly Cole’s announcement to the world that he’s arrived. It’s named for Cole’s birthday (he turns 30 next year), and it’s the first sign that 2014 Forest Hills Drive isn’t merely a collection of subtle references to his past but a first-hand tour through his early life in modest North Carolina.
Here, Cole touches on Ferguson and issues within the black community: "What’s the price for a black man’s life, I check the toe tag, not one zero in sight." Cole continues, "I turn the TV on, not one hero in sight, unless he dribble or he fiddle with mics." Cole’s addressing the plight of young black men who at most only see their career prospects lying in sports and music. It’s not a groundbreaking acknowledgement by any means, but it’s still welcome and meaningful.
The album’s high points are clustered early on. "Wet Dreamz," Cole’s light-hearted tale of awkward teenage sexcapades, showcases his storytelling chops. Those narrative skills are put to work in a far more dramatic fashion on "03 Adolescence," and ode to the year he moved to New York City to attend college. Cole delves deep into his one-time fascination with the fast cash of the drug trade, recounting a conversation where his dealer-comrade scoffed at Cole’s request to become a mentee of sorts: "So how you look up to me when I look up to you? You about to get a degree I’ma be stuck with two choices." For Cole, who would eventually graduate with honors from New York City’s St. John's University, it’s a harrowing look back at the turn his life could have taken.
"On a Tale of 2 Citiez" Cole channels Charles Dickens’s classic tale, but here Paris and London are swapped out for the more familiar surroundings of New York and Fayetteville, Cole’s hometown. Cole vacillates between the perspective of someone (likely Cole himself) wanting to "make it" living an honest life chasing his dreams in New York and a drug dealer back home who wants to get rich as well, though by more illicit ways. Both characters want to be successful, but while though their end goals may be similar, their paths couldn’t be more different. The track's closest recent analogue may be Kendrick Lamar's "m.A.A.d. City."
Speaking of Lamar: Last year, the L.A. rapper’s now-infamous verse on Big Sean’s "Control" sent shockwaves through the industry when he directly called out some of hip-hop’s biggest stars and goaded them to try to be better than him. Cole, among those called out, didn’t take it lightly. On his new record, he appears more self-assured, as if Lamar’s statements spurred him to play the role of the overly confident artist. Cole does so vociferously, lauding his own skills. "There’s no way around it no more I am the greatest, a lotta n***** sat on the throne I am the latest."