Clash heads to the rapper's homecoming...

“You've come all the way here for J. Cole?” It's difficult to tell whether the US customs officer is excited or trying to catch me out. “You have this?” he asks, holding up his phone to reveal the North Carolina rapper’s second studio album ‘Born Sinner’ in his iTunes library. “The mixtapes are better, right?”

We’re en route to Fayetteville, aka Fayettenam, the small Southern town best known for its connection to military base Fort Bragg, to visit 2014 Forest Hills Drive, the address that shares its name with Jermaine Cole’s latest album. The humble three-bedroom house contains many of his fondest adolescent memories, and it’s for this reason that he’s returned to his old neighbourhood to purchase his first property, buying back the house that was foreclosed when his mother’s relationship with his then stepfather broke down. In Cole’s own words, he bought it back “on some justice shit”.

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Locals waiting to welcome Cole back into the neighbourhood.

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Like the mixtapes that are treasured, both in his native town and also by long-time fans around the globe, Cole has chosen to drop ‘2014 Forest Hills Drive’ as a full body of work – no attempts to deliver a single for the clubs and radio. Such commercial engagement has proven detrimental for him in the past, leading to ‘Work Out’ from his debut album, ‘Cole World: The Sideline Story’ – the song that famously ‘Let Nas Down’.

Instead of following that road again, Cole is dedicating the weeks leading to release to creating real life fan experiences. This is what brings us all the way to Forest Hills Drive: Jermaine is back for the weekend and inviting fans to drop by his house, to listen to the album in the environment that inspired it. The first half of the record talks about his time here, and many of the locals already know the stories: “Cole made the basketball team here,” a resident tells us excitedly. In contrast, the second half plunges Cole into the middle of the Hollywood environment in which he now resides, demonstrating the value of the home.

Looking for a taxi to our hotel, we approach a policeman, who unexpectedly calls one for us. As we wait, he enquires what brings us to Fayetteville – it feels like a place that doesn’t attract many tourists. We mention that J. Cole is doing a listening event at his house. “He sure is,” responds the officer. “We’ve got 15 officers working that all weekend. It’s going to be pretty big out here.” The officer admits that he isn’t personally a fan of Cole’s music, but he does speak about the rapper with respect, as if he is an important figure in the community. It feels as though the strong police presence for the weekend is out of not having much better to do in such a quaint town, rather than necessity.

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Super fans head into 2014 Forest Hills Drive.

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“It’s colder than a witch’s titty out there!” exclaims our taxi driver when he arrives. He fiddles with the dial jumping between radio stations as he complains: “This new music is f*cking bullshit. It insults people’s intelligence. I’m no expert but I know I got goddamn taste.” Once he gets settled he asks why we’re in town. “J. Cole’s from Fayetteville!” he declares – in case we didn’t realise. “You guys call that a job, coming out here, listening to good music?” It appears that Cole is one of the few who earns his seal of approval.

The following morning, as we approach 2014 Forest Hills Drive, Cole’s status as a local hero becomes even more apparent. The news of his return to the neighbourhood has inspired signs declaring ‘Welcome Back’ and ‘Proud of you for giving back’ (when we return a day later, even his childhood bus stop has been made into a monument of sorts). A chat with a local reveals that this kind of support is normal for Cole, that whenever he puts on an event the people of Fayetteville will be there. The ’Ville is not a city that has spawned many idols, so Cole’s constant references to the area – not to mention the name of his label, DreamVille – have clearly paid off, and the residents of the small town are appreciative of music that they can really relate to.

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A fan getting immersed in the J. Cole experience.

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Forest Hills Drive has been closed off and fans – who have travelled from such distant cities as New York City and Las Vegas – are escorted to the house, where they get to listen to the album on headphones while making themselves comfortable. Those who get fully immersed can be seen lying down on Cole’s bed, sat at the ASR-X Pro sampler that he crafted his first beats on, or, in a few cases, rolling around on the rug that covers his floor. The walls are plastered with promo posters of late 1990s releases from Def Jam, Cash Money and Rawkus, as well as for local rap group Bomm Sheltuh, who actually show up to have a look around. It’s an unusual mix, but one that makes sense given the contradictory exploration of money, happiness, bitches and sisters that characterises Cole’s discography.

It feels like it’s only with ‘2014 Forest Hills Drive’ that Cole is finally making sense of the melting pot, or the solution to the problem: realising that there is more to life than the materialism of the Hollywood that he now exists in, but yearned for when slept in this bed as a teenager, looking up at these portraits of chain-wearing rappers who appeared to be living the American dream.

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Cole’s poster-plastered bedroom wall.

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Cole shows up for a few hours, surprising fans by waiting on the bus that they are dragging themselves towards. As he approaches the house, he is surprised by his mother, Kay – known as Miss Kay to those in attendance – who has shown up unannounced. The scene in the yard is one of a celebratory family gathering, rather than an event created by a label to market a new product. Everything about Cole comes across very genuine, including all interactions with the assembled admirers – even with the most overbearing of super-fans who want more than just a handshake and a photo. He stands and listens attentively to all who approach him, and always responds humbly, his answers never forced.

Jermaine’s brother Zach has driven five hours from South Carolina in the black Honda Civic that J drove when he lived in the house. Apparently the wheels were almost square before he set off, but he’s had them replaced and now it drives “like a Cadillac”. “Wow, so many memories in this car!” says Cole on seeing it. His friends discuss the various scratches and battle scars on the vehicle, reminiscing about the adventures that caused them, including rides up north to New York for college and regular trips to Miami.

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Jermaine’s brother, Zach, and the trusty Honda Civic.

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Later, Zach offers to take us on a quick tour of the neighbourhood, pointing out the tiny two-bedroom house, which could be confused for a large shed, on Lewis Street that the brothers shared a bedroom in prior to moving to Forest Hills Drive. Standing here brings to mind a young Cole cruising around to OutKast’s ‘Aquemini’, as immortalised on ‘Land Of The Snakes’, where he shares the excitement of making it out: “No more sleeping in my brother’s room / Like, man, I might as well be sleeping in my mother’s room / ‘Cause how I’m supposed to sneak hoes with my bro here?” The song is almost a prelude to ‘2014 Forest Hills Drive’, sharing his initial excitement of moving into the new address, and getting the privacy to move into adolescence.

Whenever we approach a group of Cole’s fans, they instantly recognise Zach and request photos with him. It’s clear he feels awkward about it, but he usually obliges. “I don’t get this back in South Carolina,” he says, relieved. “Even if I do tell someone, they don’t believe me.” A bespectacled white guy with blonde hair, it’s not likely that anyone would associate him with his brother, his DreamVille beanie being the only giveaway that there is any kind of connection.

Despite the hundreds of kids who will hear the album at the house in the next couple of days, Zach wants to wait for the release date. He’s already pre-ordered the album on multiple platforms in both its clean and explicit forms, but plans to go to his local record store on December 9th and pick up a physical copy before he ingests his brother’s latest work. While he explains this to us, his mother has a pair of headphones glued to her ears as she has her first listen. At points she exclaims and laughs loudly, unconscious of her noise-cancelling headphones, reacting to the memories reflected in her son’s lyrics.

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Jermaine and his mother, Kay, open the first post.

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Kay notices the tiled ‘2014’ door number and it brings memories flooding back to her, “Do you remember when I made that?” she asks her sons, pleased that it has remained. “You know what’s crazy?” responds Jermaine. “That’s on the actual CD.” Cole is one of the rare artists who still sells more physical product than digital, so these details are of particular importance to him. “I remember I used to deliver mail to this house, after we lived here,” says Kay, who used to work at the post office, recalling a tougher time. The mother and son look at the mailbox and notice something poking out. “Probably a CD!” Kay guesses, as Cole pulls the envelope out. To his surprise it’s not some demo of a crafty rap wannabe taking advantage of his now public address, but a welcome card from a neighbour.

An elderly lady named Janet is a particularly colourful character who continually shows up throughout the weekend. An old family friend, she is tall and thin and wears a skinny denim suit adorned with diamante patterns. She informs us in her high-pitched squawk that her voice was featured in a commercial for the album after someone came around to her house to record her saying, “They said ‘Jermaine is coming back.’ I said ‘Fo’ reeeal?’” When she heard that she’d made the advert, she had a friend bring over a computer so that she could see it, and it’s warming to see how proud she is of her accolade.

When she ventures into the house, she shares her insight into some of the photos framed upon the walls, explaining where they were taken and what they symbolise – a picture of a pit bull, for example, was taken in a neighbour’s yard and represents the dogs that Cole’s stepfather kept out back. Unfortunately, most of her knowledge falls on deaf ears due to the majority of her audience being immersed in their headphones.

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Cole with neighbour Janet (right).

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“We’ve been having fun on this street all day,” says another lady approaching the house. The sun is starting to fall in the sky, washing the house with a warm orange. Since the street has been blocked off for the weekend, only the neighbours have the freedom to come and go as they please. “Everybody’s like, ‘J. Cole this, J. Cole that’. I’m like, ‘That’s just Jermaine!’” She’s come down to enquire about a rumoured roller-skating party that is said to be happening that evening.

The party will take place at Round-A-Bout Skating Center, where Jermaine used to work while he lived here. It’s a surprising scene on arrival, like a youth centre that was painted 10 years ago ready for a kid’s party and hasn’t changed since, other than the odd foil banner from Disney’s Frozen hung here and there. Cole’s manager Ibrahim Hamad, a Queens native who met him at St. John's University in New York, is just as confused by the tradition as we are, but tells us that whenever they’re in town they end up here. It’s a regular Saturday nightspot for the youth of Fayetteville, who skate around at a high speed attempting tricks and dance moves as aggressive trap music – a startling juxtaposition to the decor – blasts over the speakers. At times it looks a bit sketchy, and we can’t help thinking that health and safety precautions would never allow this to happen back home. Tonight is particularly busy due to the snowballing rumour that Cole will be making an appearance. A queue forms around the block and the rink is already pretty full by our estimations. Zach’s arrival fuels rumours even further, and as he ties on his skates, fans’ radars are on overdrive.

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Fans wait to catch a glimpse of Cole at the skating rink.

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When Cole eventually makes an entrance through the seemingly discreet back door it’s like his fans have sensed him, and he is immediately swamped by a crowd of 200 screaming youngsters. He can be seen from a distance slapping hands with fans and talking to them even as his bodyguard Elijah drags him back outside. For take two, the birthday party area is secured off and fans are allowed in to queue to meet and greet Cole. Similar to the scene at his house, he is gracious and genuine with everyone. Even when a young man carrying a portable speaker lurks at the back of the line waiting to go last, Cole obliges, listening to the track for its duration and offering feedback to the aspiring artist.

In a genre that always talks about returning to its roots, and giving back to the community, it’s inspiring to see a figure who truly is respected and revered in his hometown. Like many others who make it out of difficult places, Cole has helped out formally by setting up the DreamVille Foundation. However, that isn’t the side of Cole that we are witnessing this weekend – it’s above that. By remaining humble and being true to himself, Jermaine has inspired his neighbours and the people around him. When they look up at him, it’s not a chain-clad rapper from a poster that’s looking back, but just another kid from Fayetteville who dared to dream.

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Words: Grant Brydon
Photos: Samuel Bradley

‘2014 Forest Hills Drive’ is out now on RCA. J. Cole online. A further, exclusive interview with the rapper will run in Clash in 2015.

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