“And could I be a star?
Does fame in this game have to change who you are?
Or could I be the same one who came from a faraway life,
Just to make it in these Broadway lights?”
It's 2009 and a 24-year-old Jermaine Lamarr Cole is only three months into his deal with Roc Nation. Somehow, he's found himself sat in the studio with Jay Z and Beyonce, faced with the unenviable pressure of crafting a verse under their expectant gaze. As his nerves recovered, he waited the whole summer to find out whether or not it would make the final cut of Jay Z’s "A Star Is Born". Producer No I.D. had hinted that Jay was considering spitting all three verses himself. The moment of truth came when he, like everyone else around the world, saw the tracklist for Jay’s Blueprint 3 posted online: "A Star Is Born" by Jay Z ft. J Cole.
Right now, as I sit across from him, J Cole is having a moment of realisation. “The whole topic of that verse is just saying can I blow up and still be Jermaine? I don’t know, we’re going to see." But it was that verse that made him blow up. "Yeah it’s like holy shit! See what I’m talking about? That was a crazy moment. That’s fucking nuts! I don’t think that I appreciated it the way I should have. Now that I look back it’s like: Holy shit, I was on the Jay Z album. And I shouted out the Ville on my first feature verse. I predicted the whole shit on that verse. The whole trajectory of my career.”
"The Ville" is Fayetteville, the small town in North Carolina where Cole grew up after spending his first eight months on a military base in Frankfurt, Germany. It's a town as crucial to Cole's music as Compton is to Dre's or Brooklyn is to Biggie's. If I was going to understand Cole, I had to meet him on his home ground. Boarding a plane to Fayetteville, it’s already obvious that the city has major military links, with Fort Bragg attracting plenty of camouflaged patriots to the small planes that fly down from the Capital. As Cole puts it, the base is the city’s "bread and butter". Upon landing you’ll find a small airport covered with paintings of soldiers, alsatians, machine guns, helicopters, eagles, stars and stripes, and you're likely to be driven into town by an ex-War Veteran. It’s pretty easy to see where the nickname Fayettenam came from.
“In the state of North Carolina we’re looked at as the worst city, the most crime ridden city, dangerous city. To go outside of the city and tell someone you’re from Fayetteville, it’s like ‘Oh shit, uh oh.’ That’s the reputation.” Cole explains. He says of the city that is known as Fayettenam. "We’ve had that name for years, Chiraq just started happening, this shit’s been Fayettenam my whole life." On cruising through the Ville in a cab it’s hard to miss the pattern of closed down strip clubs, pawn shops and parking lots that Cole warned me about. “In the middle of downtown is a place called the Market House,” he says. “They used to sell slaves right in that spot. But it’s the only landmark we really have in Fayetteville, so when you Google it, that’s what comes up.”
Unlike most kids growing up with parents in the army, Cole didn’t end up travelling around a lot. His mother separated from his father and left the military, juggling multiple jobs to make life as easy as possible for Jermaine and his brother, Zach. Until Cole turned 11, they lived in a number of small houses in neighbourhoods and trailer parks, places that Cole would describe as “super hood.” Zach drives me by one of the houses on Lewis Street, which is little more than a shed. The tiny two-bedroom had the brothers holed up living practically on top of one another.
This all changed when Cole’s mother remarried, and the family moved into a much nicer property on Forest Hills Drive - the address that would become the title of his third album, which took Best Rap Album at 2015's Billboard Awards. “We were able to get the house, because there was another income,” explains Cole. “My stepfather was in the army, she had a job at the post office. Two $30,000 incomes combined, now we could move up.” The first thing that hits you upon approaching 2014, Forest Hills Drive is the space around it, it has a huge front lawn and back garden surrounding it. Walking through the three bedroom house, you can see why any kid would be ecstatic upon moving in.
“I lived in that house for like seven good years of my life from age eleven to eighteen. So that’s the house I started rapping in, made my first beat, wrote my first song, had my first girlfriend, my first late night conversations, got my first job, I made the basketball team there; you know it’s like so many great memories associated with that house.”
Looking out of the kitchen window at the back garden, a pincushion of gigantic trees, it’s easy to imagine his stepfather’s pitbulls chained up, viciously warning off unwanted intruders. Cole and his brother looked up to him. He was a rap fan - they thought that was cool. Later, after Cole had left to go to University, his mother’s marriage broke down. She was unable to afford staying in the house and it was foreclosed.
That night we head to the nearby Round-A-Bout Skating Center, another important part of life at Forest Hills Drive. The bright yellow room with red highlights and a disco ball looks somewhere between a youth club and a children's birthday party; kids roller-skate around a circuit, while a DJ plays the latest drill and trap tracks. Cole would hang out here so much growing up that he’d eventually get offered a job, and after some strategic planning to break up the crowds of fans, he shows off his skills, casually gliding around flanked by young devotees.
Speaking to Cole is unlike most interviews with most artists who are casually selling out the O2. Almost immediately you feel very comfortable talking to him, there’s no pressure. He’s a very sincere, normal guy and you leave feeling like you’ve actually had a conversation with substance rather than just a reel of promo schtick. It’s clear that - to answer the question in his "A Star Is Born" verse - fame doesn’t have to change who you are. But for J.Cole it almost did.
Though his initial 2007 mixtape The Come Up had been largely slept on, 2009's The Warm Up dropped right around his Jay Z feature, and was followed by the acclaimed Friday Night Lights. Between the two tapes, which were untampered with by major label A&R’s, Cole became rap blog royalty. Comment sections were rife with proclamations of Cole as ‘the truth’, a leader of the new school, placing him on a pedestal alongside Kendrick Lamar - for whom he’d produced ‘HiiiPoWeR’, and was planning to drop a collaborative mixtape with - building anticipation for his major label debut.
While Cole World: The Sideline Story comprised some solid tracks, it was hindered by the major label tick boxes that had never been a consideration with his previous output. Radio single, Jay Z feature, songs for the club, check check check. Although it was a success commercially, it wasn’t what fans had come to expect from him. By the second album, Born Sinner, Cole was carrying a weight of industry frustration on his shoulders: “Henny don’t really kill the pain no more, now I’m Cobain with a shotgun aimed at my brain cos I can’t maintain no more,” he spits on "Rich Niggaz". He also details the feeling of disappointing one of his personal idols on "Let Nas Down", where he talks about receiving the news that the Queensbridge rapper hated his single "Work Out". He explains the pressure from his label to come with a radio hit in order to give his album the go ahead, and that a friend had told him to “Play the game to change the game.” Nas would later respond with a remix telling Cole “It’s just part of the game, becoming a rap king, my nigga you ain’t let Nas down.”
While recording the second album, Cole still felt lost in the struggle of fame and trying to maintain his own identity. The bright lights, the money and the girls were getting to him, but not in your typical way. “Obviously you can hear from the songs I was more conscious of it, I was aware of it,” he admits. “I see the danger, I’m partaking in the danger at the same time. Walking the line. And that was it, but all of that was a symbol too though, for losing your way. On Born Sinner I didn’t know the fix. I was only conscious of the problem. I was aware of the danger of losing myself. 2014 Forest Hills Drive is like, I’ve figured it out, I have an answer.”
So what changed? "It took me running away from home to learn that ultimately, home is where it’s at. Now I see my whole life from an aerial view and it’s absolutely necessary that everything in my career happened; every step was necessary for me to come to the understanding that I’m at now, which is way more centred around love and appreciation.”
With only two weeks warning and no singles, the record dropped as a complete project that fans would experience from start to finish. It would top his previous first week sales, with 371,000 copies sold, beat One Direction’s streaming best, with 15.7 million users listening to the album via Spotify over Simon Cowell’s crew’s 11.5 million, and ultimately became the first hip-hop album to go platinum with no features since Vanilla Ice’s To The Extreme in 1989.
Just before the album dropped, Cole discovered that the house was back on the market. With the money he'd made from that Jay Z verse and earlier records, he was ready to make his first property purchase, and he just couldn't resist.
“It was justice, me buying the house back on some justice shit, because I never liked the way that they took the house from us. It’s a symbol for home and understanding your life better; what truly brings happiness. I’ve never been a materialistic person but I was caught up in career and consumed with success. My happiness being based on my success level as opposed to just appreciating what I have, the relationships and family that I have. So it’s a symbol for reconnecting with that shit.”
He's redecorated his old bedroom as though it was fifteen years ago and he was still the resident. The walls are plastered with posters from the late 90’s hip-hop releases that influenced his style; 2 Pac, DMX, Foxy Brown and Black Star, as well as Fayetteville’s own Bomm Sheltuh, a local group that J. Cole would join under the alias Therapist.
That little house is now a monument to the part of his past that he now understands, has reconciled with, and grows stronger from, but it wouldn't make sense for him to actually live their anymore. Five months ago, Cole announced his plans for the property to a Brooklyn rap podcast called The Combat Jack Show; it would become a haven for any single mothers in the area with multiple children in unsuitable housing to live rent-free for up to 2 years at a time. “I want her kids to feel how I felt when we got to the house,” he told the podcast. Those four walls shaped the rapper we see today, and now the comfort and love that radiates from 2014 Forest Hills Drive will channel through those that need it more than J Cole.
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