Forest Hills Compositions | Fleshing out J. Cole’s Third Album


Forest Hills Compositions | A seasoned veteran to the rap game, Jermaine Cole’s third major label album offers up the perspective of a self-aware, well-versed “B-List Celebrity” who has honed his craft. He’s not worried about the crown this time though. Cole’s coming back for what’s his, regardless of the fact that it isn’t necessarily bigger… To him, it’s better.

I’ve got a theory on why major label LPs are released on Tuesdays. The music industry realizes for the rest of the working world that Tuesdays are the absolute WORST day of the week. Sure, Mondays are always tough, but Tuesdays are essentially just continuation of the norm. To me, new music has always been the saving grace of Tuesdays, and Tuesday December 9th was no different. Roc-Nation/Columbia emcee Jermaine Cole, better known by the pop culture masses as J. Cole, released his third major label album titled 2014 Forest Hills Drive. The title is a nod to the address of his childhood home that he shared with his mother and older brother as an adolescent in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Coincidentally, the 29-year-old artist purchased the home in the southern military city. He has plans to develop a program with his Dreamville Foundation that allows low-income families to live in the house rent-free for a period of time until they’re able to financially support themselves. And while he obviously has other aspirations for the house, it’s quite clear from this album that Cole not only soaked up a lot of memories whilst staying at 2014 Forest Hills Drive, but he’s also got a lot to say now that he’s been around the globe as an artist most synonymously associated with arguably one of the greatest rappers of all time in Jay Z.

To the general observer, this album might not seem like any deviation from the J. Cole norm, and I’m here to tell you that if you’re one of those people, you’re only half right. At his core, Cole is a skilled wordsmith with the ability to develop deeply detailed and often clever, ironic stories. He’s a well-spoken college graduate with the streets smarts, swagger, and skills to leave a lasting impression on tracks — and he’s proven with a musical catalog that stretches all the way back to 2007 that he deserves a respected spot in hip-hop’s top circle of heavyweights if we’re talking about sheer skills on the mic. Over the course of his past two albums, however, it can be noted that Cole has visibly and audibly adopted some of the values and sounds of the glamorous Hollywood lifestyle into his music. While I’m not completely lambasting mainstream music (who am I kidding, I AM), Cole has never struck me as an artist that had the potential to undergo the full-blown transformation into a radio slave like that of some of his current peers. It’s with this album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, that backpacking J. Cole fans can rejoice. Jermaine’s returned to Fayetteville both figuratively and literally, and the sound and “feel” of the album is reminiscent to that of some of his earlier offerings prior to the release of his first Columbia release titled Cole World: The Sideline Story.

On December 9, 2014, J. Cole dropped his third major label album titled 2014 Forest Hills Drive
On December 9, 2014, J. Cole dropped his third major label album titled 2014 Forest Hills Drive.

As any devout music fan will tell you, the industry has undergone major reconstructive surgery over the course of the past century or so, and we all have the Internet to thank because of it (You were spot on, @DonaldGlover). New age artists don’t hit the come up the same way as their older musical colleagues, yet still the road to relevance requires an extreme workload and an equally extreme sense of dedication and direction. While J. Cole’s initial big break occurred when he slipped Jay Z a beat CD after camping out and running into him outside of an NYC studio, much of Cole’s come up has been a result of the new age music push with the existence of programs and companies like iTunes, YouTube, Spotify, SoundCloud, Vimeo, and countless others. It wasn’t too long ago when Cole released his acclaimed mixtape Friday Nights Lights that he commented that he enjoyed putting out mixtapes because the feedback upon finishing a tape is instantaneous, as tapes are almost always shared digitally. After finishing an album, it’s typically shelved by the music label for a few months, maybe sometimes even a year(s) in order for the label to properly promote the project.

One of the first deviations from Cole’s normal album approach this time was his decision to minimally advertise the album, and more specifically, announce the release of the album relatively close to when the project was actually coming out! Any modern day music fan will tell you, and probably some of you older listeners/readers (if you’re even out there) as well, that an album being pushed back is comparable sometimes to Christmas being pushed back. Artists often build their fans’ hopes up with a lofty album release date, and the majority of the time said album will get pushed back once, twice, and even three times. It doesn’t take a genius to deduce that today’s wild wild west called the Internet has been a tremendous boost to the success of the music industry, and I do believe that artists are starting to cash in on the “surprise” factor that has become dropping an album. Look at Beyonce and her success with her 2013 self-titled, five times platinum album. Not to mention there’s a certain someone who’s on the verge of dropping an album any day now that could be thinking of doing the same. On November 17 of last year, Cole announced via his Instagram that he would be releasing his third major label album. He captioned:

My new album. 2014 Forest Hills Drive. 12/9.

Apparently Cole learned a thing or two from his boss’ old lady, and only time will tell whether or not his decision to minimally advertise the album will pay off. As of its release Cole has reached the top of the hip-hop charts for his third consecutive album, selling 361,000 copies in his first week, and selling a total of 800,997 copies to date. So far so good for the Roc-Nation rhymer, but let’s take a closer look at the album to specify just what it is that has driven it’s initial success.

The Album | 

Cole’s album leaked a few days before its actual release, but as always, I did my best to refrain from listening. Luckily, one of the songs that he did choose to release prior to the actual drop date of December 9 was the introduction track to the story that is Forest Hills Drive. The introduction, rightfully titled “Intro,” sets the tone for the entire album, with a soft piano bringing the song into focus, and Cole half mumbling, half-moaning the ongoing question “Do you wanna be happy?” That’s what this album’s all about, honestly. Cole has reached a peak, not necessarily the peak in his career, and he’s finally realizing what it’s all about. It of course in this case is his career, and as you continue to listen throughout the album, that it changes from Cole’s career to Cole’s life in general. The intro track is merely a foreshadowing of what’s to come in the twelve no-feature tracks that follow it. Sonically, it’s very pleasing, as the piano softly plays throughout the song — but it’s also accompanied by spotty, spaced out tones, a fading guitar riff, and a soft jazz horn as well. Cole muses on and on, asking the same question “Do you wanna, do you wanna be… Happy?” Initially the audience might think he’s asking the listener, however you’ll quickly realize that this intro is actually somewhat of an introspective, inner monologue speaking directly to Cole himself. The one verse on the song lists the problems and conflicts that plague Cole, and many others just like him, only to look back at those problems in hindsight to realize that all pain and suffering is worth it if you do indeed reach your goals. Overall, I enjoyed the intro track, and it reminded me in a way of a better version of the intro track on his previously released mixtape Friday Night Lights.

Track number two on the album is titled “January 28th,” which right off the bat is an ode to Jay Z. The title of the song is representative of Cole’s birthday, as is Jigga’s birthday titled song “December 4th” that appeared on The Black Album, and coincidentally-yet-not-coincidentally, Cole’s version of the track is also the second song on his respective album. Coincidences aside, let’s get back to the jams… The beat flows perfectly in from the intro, as the same guitar riff plays throughout the song. January 28th is Cole at his best, as he’s displays his ever-improving skills on the mic. Lines like:

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prove that Cole’s word play is top notch (or “on fleek” as the kids say), and he’s still got the storytelling skills to boot. And while he does his fair share of boasting on the track, he also proves he’s got the conscious rap game up his sleeve as well with:

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“January 28th” continues the theme of Cole vocally voicing his goals for both himself and his countrymen, with the notable mantra on the chorus of “If you ain’t aim too high, then you aim too low.” Overall, “January 28th” is probably one of the top 5 records on the album, solely off of rhymes alone. It’s got a pre-major-label-album J. Cole feel to it. He’s doing what he’s best at, and he’s not overpowered or directed too much by the beat, a la what I deem a “non-Cole” track like “Mr. Nice Watch.” The song fades down slowly, with a baby Cole crying in the background, and the audience is ushered more than a decade into the future to the adolescent life of a high school Jermaine on the next coming of age track titled “Wet Dreamz.”

Cole's "January 28th" is an obvious nod to Jay Z's "December 4th"
Cole’s “January 28th” is an obvious nod to Jay Z’s “December 4th”

“Wet Dreamz” continues Cole’s storytelling ways as he greets the listener by saying “Lemme take y’all back, man… As I do so well.” Instantly we’re transported into a narrative of a high school J. Cole involved in a lustful relationship with a chick in his math class. As the two pass notes back and forth during class, they negotiate a hook-up opportunity. Cole brings the dreaded irony into the narrative, however, with the chorus repeating, “I ain’t never did this before.” The story Cole depicts, while uniquely his own, is one that is relatable to a wide demographic of listeners, and that’s where the story finds its niche. It’s clever in some ways, vivid in others, and point blank absurd. Overall, it’s a great track that proves that Cole truly did return to his roots with this album. He’s not overpowering what brought on his initial success, which is refreshing to see, both as a fan and as a critic of his music.

The next track on the project, “03’ Adolescence” is a continuance of Cole’s life in the ‘Ville. A movie score is the first thing the listener hears, and slowly but surely the score dissolves into the track itself. From the first verse of the song Cole begins to paint his story. While “Wet Dreamz” was the coming-of-age narrative of the album, “03’ Adolescence” is ironic in the sense that Cole’s perspective is flipped on him. The first verse runs with Cole detailing his shortcomings, ranging from his beat kicks to his non-existent girl, to finally his non-existent father. He claims that he’s just trying to make it out of the city alive with something to live for. The chorus is one of the only negative points on the album, with Cole singing:

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The next verse is one of the most vivid of the entire album, with Cole gaining perspective from a surprising source. He tells the story of an insightful meeting with a childhood friend of his that was equipped with his own laundry list of problems. Needless to say, Cole’s list pales in comparison, and it’s at this point in the album that we see the thought being planted in his head to keep your life in perspective, and make the most of your given situation. With a newly adopted mindset, Cole leads us into the next track of the album titled “A Tale of 2 Citiez.”

“A Tale of 2 Citiez,” a clear allusion to Dickens’ canonical novel, is one of the most aggressive tracks of the album, and while the beat turns it up a notch in comparison to those that preceded it, its lyrical content is equally stunning. Cole vividly describes his younger self, stricken with naivety, and infatuated by the underachievement of his surroundings in Fayetteville as a youngster. This track is a primo example of the mantra “the grass isn’t always greener,” as Cole continues to show remorse for almost completely assimilating into main stream music and pop culture, lamenting:

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While it’s easy to get wrapped up in the heightened intensity of this song, it’s important to realize where it fits in the grand scheme of the album. “2 Citiez” is a track that pits Cole face to face with the problems of his hometown vs. the problems of show business. It’s at this crossroads that we can see Cole begin to make the transformation from stargazer to jaded performer, a mindset that drives the entire formation of this project.

“Fire Squad,” the next track on the album, picks up right where ”2 Citiez” left off, with Cole keeping his foot on the gas as me mows over the rest of his hip-hop comrades, and even some unsuspecting others. Overall, this is Cole’s most impressive track on the album from a lyrical standpoint, and it doesn’t take more than one listen to realize why. It does, however, take more than one listen to truly gather the full ramifications of Cole’s words, both spoken and unspoken. Now, it could just be that I’ve listened to this album entirely too much, and that my mind is running wild deconstructing each song, but I think I may have somewhat of an accurate theory about Cole’ blueprint to this track. Allow me to explain…

Throughout the album Cole pays particular attention to three other talented, established MC’s. I would brand them as “new schoolers,” but I think it’s about time we revere Drake, Kendrick, and Wale as well entrenched soldiers of the rap game (even though one of these “soldiers” has countless memes of him crying littered across all corners of the internet). Cole first mentions Drizzy and K. Dot on the earlier discussed track “January 28th,” and he then again tips his cap to all three rappers on the outro track titled “Note to Self.” He acknowledges the triple-threat as his equivalent peers in this oversaturated-yet-equally-revolutionary Internet era of the rap game. What does all of this have to do with “Fire Squad” though? It’s all in how Cole decides to structure the song, and in turn the flow in which he chooses to deliver each verse.

The first verse of the song is braggadocios, mixing a raspy singing Cole with a Cole that spits with ruthless abandon about his greatness. While Drake’s voice isn’t nearly as harsh as Cole’s, I don’t think it should be ignored that Cole made a legitimate effort to sing on this album, while in the past he has relied on R&B stars like Miguel, and Trey Songz. Maybe he realized that if you want a job done right, you do it yourself. Cole deciding to shoulder essentially 99% of the singing load on this album proves that he’s attempting to keep up with the times with the other hip-hop heavyweights, and who better but to emulate and signify on the first verse than Drizzy Drake?

With an eerie sense of Drake in the air on the first verse, take a look at the second and third verses of “Fire Squad” to uncover another coincidental gem. Both verses cement this song as the true battle rap song of the album. Maybe Cole wasn’t lying when he always used to preach that he was a fan of 90s rapper Canibus. Cole brags about his futuristic rhyming skills, and strings together a ridiculously impressive guest list of talents to fully describe the extent of his own skills.

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Verse three is arguably the most talked about verse on the album, and rightfully so. Cole keeps it real in the third verse, acknowledging the true fact that over the course of the past 60+ years with a heightened attention paid to the music industry, whites have refashioned African American musical art forms into their own products. Cole points out the obvious perpetrators, a list that includes Elvis, Eminem, Justin Timberlake, Macklemore, and Iggy Azalea. While Cole does his best to make light of the situation, the fact remains that he is merely highlighting a clear trend in pop culture. It’s easier to advertise a white face to a white audience, and over the course of the iTunes generation especially, white artists have slowly but surely squeezed more and more into the hip-hop spectrum. At its roots, hip-hop is the product of African-American oppression, so in a time of such tense race relations in our country, Cole makes a statement by stating the obvious on this track.

Verses two and three on this track are what truly bring meaning to the track’s title, “Fire Squad.” After endless listening sessions in which I’ve played this song, I’m continuously struck with the thought that these are Cole’s reply verses to Kendrick’s hip-hop cripplingControl” verse that dropped in the summer of 2013. Similar to Kendrick’s legendary verse, Cole has no shame in calling out his competition, lining them up, and subsequently firing them down at point blank range. Cole truly used his words as his weapons in verses two and three of this song, but the final verse is what cements the theory that he’s lining up Kendrick, Drake, and one more rapper in line with the rest of em on this jam.

At it’s creative core, rap and hip-hop are sheer poetry. While it may be easy to lose sight of that in the midst of a “dope ass beat” or a chic video, there are a number of artists that continue to bring life back to the basics of the hip-hop art form. One of those notable artists is a J. Cole peer, Mr. Wale “Ralph” Folarin. Spoken word poetry has existed since long before I was born, but no rapper has done it justice in recent memory more than Mr. Folarin. Sure, Jaden Smith did his best spoken word on Bino’s latest Kauai project, but Wale’s got a long list of spoken word tracks, and he’s made it absolutely clear to his competition that he’s not to be messed with on that front. Well, Cole took his best shot on the last verse of “Fire Squad,” finishing out his trio of competitors in admirable fashion. After close consideration with a couple of others, it’s arguable that Cole’s spoken word outro verse on “Fire Squad” is the best overall verse on the album.

Cole references the all important “crown” of the hip-hop genre in his spoken word effort, and eventually he renders it trivial in the grand scheme of life. He makes his best philosophical effort on the track, saying:

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Cole’s last verse on “Fire Squad” oozes a sentiment that echoes throughout the entire album, and that is to focus on being the ruler of your life, and not to let others interfere with your respective dreams and aspirations. All things being considered, including my conspiracy theory about the track, “Fire Squad” rings up as one of the top three jams on the entire album. Cole really out did himself, but likely he didn’t fire off his entire clip before finishing the project.

The next track on the project is “St. Tropez,” a song that transports the audience to a dreamy state in which Cole travels the high road to Hollywood. Ever since I heard N.E.R.D.’s album Seeing Sounds I’ve done my best to register songs with colors, and if that’s the case, Cole’s “St. Tropez” certainly needs to be considered as fools gold. A trip to St. Tropez in the south of France might be what Cole wants after a trip to Hollywood, but the listener soon realizes that Cole isn’t too fond of the glitz and glam after getting a taste of it. The second verse of the song has Cole addressing a past lady friend, with him asking for forgiveness and one more chance. This track strikes me as an interlude track more than anything, and it’s beautifully nestled between two heavy hitters, as Cole goes back home with his next track titled “G.O.M.D.”

If you’ve already listened to the album, then you obviously know what the aforementioned acronym stands for. If you haven’t listened yet, then I’ll let your mind wander to this link that I have conveniently provided (You’re welcome). With “G.O.M.D.” Cole truly takes it back to the south, and it starts with the beat. If you’re anything like me (I sincerely pray some of you are), whenever you hear a sample in a hip-hop song, you instantly want to find out where it came from. Such was the case with this Cole track. I did some snooping, and I was able to uncover that Cole chose to sample the song “Berta, Berta” by Branford Marsalis. Instantly upon listening to the Marsalis track, I came to the realization that it was a slave song. The track is haunting, as you can hear a number of men singing in unison as they walk, chains clanking against the ground. “Might not want ya when I go free,” the men chant, even as their master administers a savage whipping. Like I said, it’s a disturbing track, but it’s no doubt that Cole chose it for that exact reason. As it relates to “G.O.M.D.,” the sample “might not want ya” that loops over and over is an obvious nod to the high level music execs that chained him up for the first portion of his major label music career. Not only did Cole find a dope sample to loop throughout the track, but he continued the pipeline of African-American oral traditions, a decision that definitely adds to this album’s credibility. Cole saw the writing on the wall with his enslavers prior to the release of his third album, as is evident by this particular track.

Cole took it back to the south for the fan favorite "G.O.M.D."
Cole took it back to the south for the fan favorite “G.O.M.D.”

The theme of “G.O.M.D.” is clearly Cole stunting on his haters, with him spitting about about putting his hometown of Fayetteville, North Carolina on the map, and unrightfully receiving flack from some of the community back in the ‘Ville. He speaks of coming back to his hometown and not telling anyone purely off of the fact that he doesn’t want to appear as the star that didn’t make it, because truth be told, he’s still got himself sitting pretty in comparison to the majority of his hometown crowd. The song’s crowning achievement, however, is when Cole brings in yet another reference to the south with the Lil Jon interpolation, whilst simultaneously pointing out the flaws of commercial hip-hop music. With the beat switching up at the end, Jermaine’s provided with a perfect platform for a quick cypher, and he leaves one last message for the naysayers before the track fades out into yet another glistening track on the album.

“No Role Modelz” comes up next in the tape deck, and what a track it is. Cole starts the song off by saying:

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He makes an obvious reference to the late actor James Avery who played Uncle Phil on Will Smith’s 90s hit television show “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” stating that Avery was the only father figure he had growing up in the ‘Ville. Considering that a portion of this album is dedicated to Cole’s life as a young man growing up in the Tar Heel state, including a line like this was imperative considering what the rest of the track deals with. “No Role Modelz” is a documentation of Cole’s efforts courting girls out in Hollywood, with him ultimately realizing that his intended targets are all a bunch of flops. “Don’t save her, she don’t wanna be saved,” he repeats throughout the track, referencing the countless thirsty video and Vine vixens that seem to have skyrocketed to stardom due to today’s social media and reality television show obsessions. Of course, this is all after Cole performed the dirty deed on a number of these ditzes, but he incorporates a priceless President Bush sample to explain his missteps. As the song reaches its end, Cole complains that the crop of Hollywood starlets is no comparison to the dames he drooled over as an adolescent, saying:

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Experiencing somewhat of an epiphany on “No Role Modelz,” Cole takes his audience to the other side of the relationship spectrum with the next track titled “Hello.” “Hello” is Cole’s record to his girl essentially asking for her to take him back after his wrongdoing and unfaithfulness out in showbiz. It’s an intimate track, and a prime example that Cole had absolutely no shame when it came to conveying his specific vision on the album. Just like on various other tracks, Cole does his best to sing, and while it’s gritty and not too pleasant vocally, it’s obvious that there’s an extreme amount of passion behind his words. A number of people that I’ve talked with didn’t particularly enjoy this track specifically because Cole isn’t the best singer, but I get the feeling that leaving a song like this off the tracklist would’ve been a disservice to the overall message of the album, so I’m cool with it if he is.

The next track on the project, “Apparently,” is my overall favorite song on the entire album. While I admit that a song like “Fire Squad” is lyrically untouchable, or “G.O.M.D.” has a wild beat, “Apparently” is the J. Cole that I know and love. The song starts with a piano playing rapidly and Cole chanting the chorus of the song, saying:

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The chorus is mesmerizing, as Cole sings it with a profound passion. The song’s placed perfectly on the tracklist, as Cole has realized his direction in life, returned from Hollywood, and rekindled the flame with his old chick. “Apparently” is Cole’s triumph track as he reviews his life’s route up until his current point of happiness and revival. He dedicates the first verse of the track to his mother, a rock in his life that he has credited with getting his rap career started in the first place. He laments that he couldn’t spend more time with her during his younger years, as he explains that he was merely chasing his goals to get to his current point. Before ending the first verse Cole vows to better himself, dismissing his unfaithfulness and chalking it up as his support system and his higher power believing that he is due for greatness. After he lets the hook and beat ride for a little, he gives the hip-hop heads what they’re craving with a word-play-riddled second verse, which then leads into another replaying of the chorus and a smooth jazz inspired outro. Overall, the song is everything you could want out of a J. Cole track if you’re a long time listener.

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After “Apparently” is another positive record titled “Love Yourz” where Cole instills the lesson on perspective that he learned throughout the course of the album, starting at “03′ Adolescence.” Cole puts his spin on Exodus 20:17, stressing to his audience that its not what you want that’s important, but rather finding solace in the people and possessions that you do have. Linearly, this song acts as the capstone to the entire project, as it has Cole arriving at his final thesis having undergone the perils of showbiz. It’s a capstone that I was extremely happy to see as a fan, especially considering how dark in nature Born Sinner, Cole’s second album, was. After spending eleven years building his career up in the Big Apple, and then continuing on to the main stage of stardom, Cole’s coming back for what’s his, regardless of the fact that it isn’t necessarily bigger… To him, it’s better.

The album’s outro track titled “Note to Self” ties up Cole’s loose ends on the album. Once again he drills home the point that true love is what brought him to the point in his career that he is currently, and thankfully, at. After some quick, meaningful musing with a few back up singers supporting him in the shadows, Cole addresses the audience one last time, deciding to continue “Note to Self” for a total of nearly 15 minutes as an audible “Thank You” note. He shouts out a number of notable people, including God, his Dreamville team, his mother, his girl, Jigga, and a slew of others. It’s humorous as Cole rambles on, and he even ad-libs “I’M BORED!” in the background at one point to break up the monotonous shout outs. He compares the track to the ending credits of a movie, stating “This is roll credits, n*gga. If you don’t wanna sit through the credits get your ass up and walk out of the movie theatre.” It’s an impractical move to end a major label album, but quite honestly it works considering Cole did his best to buck the trend with the entire project to begin it. Essentially, “Note to Self” is a direct example of what he spit on “Apparently” when he said “There is no right or wrong, only a song.” The long spew of thank you’s ends with a completely random and hilarious Dale Earnhardt Jr. reference that Cole back tracks on, but apparently it worked. It’s the perfect end to the album, and Cole fades out by saying “Until the next time… I don’t know when that’s gon’ be but… ONE LOVE!”

Overall, Cole’s album turned out to be one of the best hip-hop albums of 2014. It was refreshing to see Cole return to his roots, literally and figuratively, and though it’s only been a little more than a month since the release of 2014 Forest Hills Drive I can’t help but wonder when that “next time” will be. I’m sure this third album will hold me over for quite some time, as it contains countless goodies scattered throughout each track. The album acts as a cohesive unit that paints a linear, coming-of-age story, a feat that is relatively unparalleled in today’s hip-hop genre. It’s obvious that Cole was aware of his competition with this album, but it’s also obvious that he’s focused his future on the life that he feels comfortable living, rather than the life that he is expected to live.

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