Looking at J. Cole’s Homecoming Through “2014 Forest Hills Drive”
The lights in the building were suddenly turned off, and the fans instantly began to scream out in excitement. Glimpses of bright rays shone throughout the sold out Crown Coliseum as individuals in the audience scrambled to turn on their flash settings on their camera so that they too could keep memorable footage of the artist himself, J. Cole, performing his album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive. Every eye in the coliseum was directed towards Cole–eager to take witness to what would become a monumental moment in North Carolina history. The sound of melodic pianos begins to play across the stadium, initiating the start to Cole’s first song off of his album, “Intro.” Several stage lights had now transcended their focus onto the dread-headed artist, who sat calmly on the decorative wood floor. He was dressed just as any other simple man would dress: black shorts, a black shirt that said “Forest Hills” on the back, white tube socks, and a pair of Air Jordan I’s. The crowd immediately went silent as Cole began to lift the mic to his mouth, and before he even rapped the first line to his opening song, the entire city of Fayetteville could rightfully say this: J. Cole was back.
The city streets of New York–mixed with constant traffic yet admirable lights, is home to the busiest Americans in the world. Amidst all of the ongoing cars and construction is Jermaine Cole, seen weaving through the roads through the neon-focused lens of a C300 Mark II camera–aimlessly exploring the canvas of Queens. “Do you wanna, do you wanna be…happy?” J. Cole continuously asks of both himself and the listener. After selling 297,000 first week copies of his previous album, Born Sinner, surely Cole had found happiness. He had acclamation, fame, money, and even respect from most of the other artists in the rap industry, yet here he was posing the same question over and over: “Do you wanna be happy?”
Cole proceeds to elaborate on his current thought and ask another question, “Do you wanna be free?” Before the listener can begin to even question what freedom Cole is referring to, he specifies himself saying, “Free from free from scars, free to sang, free from bars, free my dawgs, you’re free to go. Block is hot, the streets is cold. Free to love, to each his own. Free from bills, free from pills…” After supposedly achieving all that the world could possibly offer to a once young and impoverished rap fanatic, there still seemed like there was something more for Cole.
It’s 2003 in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Not yet known for his music, Cole still goes by Jermaine, and raps under the pseudonym, “Therapist.” Jermaine Cole has graduated from high school as a star student, but troubled by the issue of poverty, he contemplates what decision he will next make. Being plain and simple, Cole is “broke” and unconfident. “Tie my shoe up, wish they was newer. Damn, need somethin’ newer…” he laments. The desire to chase his dreams of becoming a famous rap artist is there for Cole; however, due to his lack in nice clothes, nice teeth, or even the swag that other guys seem to have, Cole doubts himself and his ability.
It was an ordinary house just like Cole’s. Inside was his friend’s mom, a couple of blunt wraps, and old posters of iconic rap heroes hanging on the walls. Surprised by how lenient his friend’s mom is to the two smoking inside the house, Cole becomes comfortable with the idea of possibly involving himself with drugs. He and his friend kicked it back, just as any 18 and 17 year olds would do and laughed about girls they were trying to get with before Cole eventually asks how he, too, can start to make money off of selling drugs. Not taking him seriously at first, his friend begins to laugh at the idea of Cole selling even marijuana, but as soon as he realizes how intent Cole really is, he instantly lectures him, as Cole writes him saying,
“Listen, you everything I wanna be, that’s why I fucks with you. So how you looking up to me when I look up to you? You bout to go get a degree, I’ma be stuck with two choices: Either graduate to weight or selling number two. For what? A hundred bucks or two a week?”
Both startled and ashamed, Cole realizes that selling drugs isn’t some sort of cherished occupation, and that he has a gift that he shouldn’t waste just because he wants a quick route to wealth.
“He’s on his way, he’s ‘bout to get paid…” the hook sings repeatedly before fading out into the next song. Cole has long left everything he’s known back in North Carolina for the new, Hollywood life, but at the apparent cost of his own happiness. Cole’s released multiple mixtapes including the two highly acclaimed projects, “The Warm Up” and “Friday Night Lights.” He also has two studio albums under his belt, “The Sideline Story”–released in 2011, and “Born Sinner” –released in 2013, both of which were commercial successes. Despite all of his commercial success, the North Carolina native can’t seem to understand why he still feels the need for something more.
Now fully bearded with a newly grown-out hairstyle that consists of twists and natural locs, J. Cole sits back on a beige colored chair on the “Tavis Smiley Show.” Twelve years have passed since the conversation with his friend mentioned in “’03 Adolescence” and Cole is now 30 years old. Cole reflects on the show about how he’s come to realize the most important things in life: love and happiness. Regardless of how cliché and phony it may sound; Cole continues to offer his own deposition as to why these two things hold such value to him. “For what’s money without happiness? Or hard times without the people you love?” Cole asks in “Love Yourz.” It seems to the well-established artist that none of the accolades or praise mean anything if one doesn’t simply appreciate and love their own life.
It was the last show for the long and eventful 2014 Forest Hills Drive Tour and Cole decided to end it back where it all started–Fayetteville. The crowd constantly cheered him on in both tears and smiles as he performed the entire album and then more. Even after finishing his individual performance, Cole didn’t hold back from spoiling his hometown city. He brought out Detroit-native, Big Sean, Hip-Hop icon, Jay-Z, and Toronto emblem, Drake. The night would eventually end, and thousands of fans would get to go home, taking one of the biggest moments in all of Hip-Hop home with them, Jermaine Cole had finally found himself again after years of what seemed like disillusionment, and for the rest of the Hip-Hop fanatics, “The real” was finally back.