How "2014 Forest Hills Drive" Changed J. Cole | Finer Notes

J. Cole (2018). Photo by: Tabatha Fireman / Stringer, Getty Images.

J. Cole's impressive music career can be divided into two categories: Before 2014 Forest Hills Drive and After 2014 Forest Hills Drive.

Before the release of his third studio album, the North Carolina lyricist was a relative newcomer to the music scene dabbling in R&B love songs ("Power Trip"), reimagining pop hits ("Work Out"), and relentless lyricism ("Dollar and a Dream III") while establishing his unique sound. After 2014 Forest Hills Drive, Cole's releases are rarer and more valuable with each centered around grand concepts like societal addictions (K.O.D.) and cinematic retelling of dead father's album to his child (4 Your Eyez Only).

One of the main people responsible for that shift is Juro "Mez" Davis, Cole's engineer for more than 13 years, and he intimately knows what makes 2014 Forest Hills Drive special. "We were more certain on the sound we wanted. We were more seasoned and conscious of what we wanted out of every song," Mez says.

Speaking with Reverb, the multi-platinum engineer discusses how 2014 Forest Hills Drive changed the way Cole makes music and the tricks he used to make Cole's grand sonic vision palatable to listeners.

Spot Mez in the studio in J. Cole's new Off Season documentary.

Cole and Mez recorded most of 2014 Forest Hills Drive at Perfect Sound Studios, an all-inclusive artistic retreat at a home overlooking L.A. in the decadent Hollywood Hills with a studio in the back. The vocal chain used to bring Cole's thoughts to life was a Neumann U 87 microphone into a Neve 1073 preamp and Universal Audio 1176 compressor. The speakers used to meticulously develop these songs were Genelec and Yamaha NS-10s, because, Mez says, they "zoom in on the midrange—the parts that would be harsh—so if it sounds good on there you're OK."

As far as mixing, the expansion of Cole's sound on 2014 Forest Hill Drive was no easy feat. Take the track "January 28th," an introspective track whose confessional vibe is anchored by an enchanting vocal sample, thudding drums, and sickening bassline. The prevalence of both the bassline and the 808 drums on the track made it difficult to mix and maintain the bass of both. Part of how Mez made it work was using the live bass as a midrange bass with the 808s as the sub. For Cole's vocals, Waves CLA-76 and CLA-2A plugins were in heavy use. "With the CLA-76, I'd use it to compress the transients to get the big burst of sound leveled out. The CLA-2A after would be used to go in harder on the vibe of the vocals and smooth it out."

More than cleaning up vocals and maintaining a sonic harmony of all the disparate sounds in Cole's songs, Mez is instrumental to one of the album's signature sounds. "On most of the pianos on that album we put Auto-Tune on them. I think it was an accident. Something was out of tune and I was like, 'Oh, just slap Auto-Tune on it.' At first, it warped the sound where it would make certain notes bend weird. Ron [Gilmore Jr] and Cole loved it, so we started doing it on all the pianos to see what happens."

Accidents turning into multi-platinum selling music is further evidence of 2014 Forest Hills Drive being an opus of an artist finally comfortable enough in their sound to grow it. That experimentation extended to the manner in which Cole recorded, as well.

While most of the vocals were recorded in the palatial Hollywood Hills studio, MSR Studios in gritty New York City is where the live recording was done, and where the way Cole recorded music changed forever. Normally, Cole would record his parts separately from the musicians working on the songs. At MSR Studio, where songs like "Note To Self" and "Outro" were created, there was no barrier between Cole and his creative constituents.

"Everybody was in the booth at the same time. It was the two background singers, Ron, Cole, a drummer, and maybe Dave Linaburg, the guitarist. We set them all up so they could have a jam session and it would record a really long time. Even on the 'Outro' where the beat goes on for a really long time. Some of that may be looped, [but] it was mostly just them rocking."

Even though the album was recorded in roughly a little over a year, some of the songs on it were more than five years in the making. Cole's ode to sexual overnight fantasies, "Wet Dreamz," was actually recorded before Cole's The Warm Up mixtape in 2009, according to Mez, more than five years before it was released to the world on 2014 Forest Hills Drive. A 2009 song working on an album released in 2014 is a testament to both Cole's penchant for tapping into immutable human experiences that persevere over time and a bit of technical wizardry from Mez.

Forest Hills-Style Gear

"There are these filters in Wet Dreamz that filter out the drums of the whole beat for a few seconds, but they filter them out and then back in. That's something we added after to spruce it up a bit," he said. "It was probably done with the [Waves Renaissance] EQ. They're all different, none of it is copied. So, sometimes it would automate out the high-end and bring it back. We automate out the low-end and then bring it back, or automate out both. Each one isn't a generic copy."

A plugin he uses a lot now that he didn't use before was the Oeksound Soothe plugin, which takes out the harshness of a vocal recording. 2014 Forest Hill Drive may not have had the benefit of the Soothe plugin, but Mez's creativity more than made up for anything they lacked. It's Mez nimble mixing that prevented the beautifully piano-driven "Apparently" from sounding like a cacophony of sounds to, instead, a meticulously arranged constellation of instruments.

"'Apparently' is a lot of layers and I remember we kept layering instruments. We replayed the sample and blended in different pianos, which I panned out. It might be two pianos that are different sounds of pianos, so they're panned out and make a really cool space," Mez says. "I distorted all the drums and tucked them under. I distorted his vocals the same way, even though they don't sound distorted. I tucked both of those under the drums and vocals, so it created a cool vibe that sounds gritty."

In the end, 2014 Forest Hill Drive changed Cole's career. It's his only album to be certified triple platinum, win the Billboard Music Award for Top Rap Album, and it produced five songs to be certified multi-platinum. The album cemented Cole's status as one of the leaders of the new generation of hip-hop along with his chart-topping peers Drake and Kendrick Lamar. The change in Cole's music career not easily charted on Billboard or heard on songs is in the very way he records music. Every album since 2014 Forest Hill Drive has benefited from that album introducing J. Cole to a more immersive way of bringing music to the world.

"Since then, he did start doing more sessions where he is in a big booth with all the players, jamming a bit. Before that, it was 'Alright, go play the piano. Now we're going to record this or that piece.' After that, we made setups in the booth where he could sit there and hit record and everybody plays stuff and you'd take pieces from there."

Finer Notes is a new series that looks into the equipment, techniques, and untold stories that went into shaping classic albums, where engineers and producers discuss how they used the equipment of the time to make a body of work that’s timeless.

About the author: Keith Nelson Jr is a seasoned music journalist who followed his innate passion for knowledge to interview some of the most influential figures in the music industry. He's a journalist who connects the dot to see the bigger picture.

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