J. Cole Is a Fitting Hometown Hero In 'Forest Hills Drive: Homecoming' HBO Special: Review

J. Cole
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J. Cole is a conundrum. On his last release, 2014’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive, the rapper shone the spotlight on his own insecurities while bulking up on bravado. One of the set’s singles "Wet Dreamz" zoomed into the awkwardness of Cole losing his virginity. In his video for "G.O.M.D.," he's acutely self-aware of his mixed-raceness, positioning himself as a house negro who orchestrates an armed slave revolt on a plantation. He tackles race, fame, wealth and even his place in the rap game (see: “Fire Squad”) from a wide-eyed ground-level perspective, never going macro or unrelatable.

He maintains the same “just like us” aura in his documentary/concert film J. Cole Forest Hills Drive: Homecoming, which aired Saturday on HBO.

Watch Episode 1 of J. Cole's 'Road to Homecoming' Miniseries

In the 90-minute doc, it’s clear Cole’s star power comes from his disregard for Instagram likes and hip-hop riches. He eschews interviews, wears no jewelry and prefers cotton tees to designer threads. While Cole places himself at the center of the Scott Lazer-directed production, he's not the star, instead choosing to cede the narrative to his hometown of Fayetteville and its denizens: the white kids who live on the better side of town, the homies on the basketball court, hood superstars, small business owners, the grizzled old-timers, working women eating lunch. At one point, his childhood friend Craig -- who just came home from a 10-year bid for drug trafficking -- provides the stories as Cole drives around in his SUV, talking about being from a small town and reminiscing on childhood memories like copping Krispy Kreme donuts before school. "When I was growing up, It was definitely basketball players that was good enough to go to the league," said Cole. "I knew them; I still know them. They had all the talent in the world, but they suffered from a small-town mentality. … They couldn't see further, and that was hard to do back then. And I think it's easier to do now because they saw that it's possible."

Like all things with J. Cole, his aspirations seem more attainable than cameras show. 2014 Forest Hills Drive -- which he performs in full for the documentary -- is the most unsung success story of recent rap. The 13-track offering sold over 350,000 units in its first week; that's more than Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly or Future's DS2 did in their first weeks out. It's baffling, because Cole's wattage on-stage is blinding. His rap style has always been comfortably conversational and the live renditions here are all straightforward, but the emotion is more poignant than on wax. J. Cole naturally commands the stage, making a guest performance by Drake seem almost unnecessary. Only Jay Z's mega power is able to eclipse Cole in his own playground, but even the impressed reactions to Hov's presence aren’t equal to the erupting swells of pride that Cole receives. One attendee even places the glory on the hometown hero: "Can you imagine somebody like me just saying, 'When I grow up, I'm gonna bring Jay Z to my small-town city of 50,000 people. I'm gonna do that.' J. Cole did that! He did that!"

Watch Wale, Kendrick Lamar & Rihanna Make a Cameo In Episode 3 of J. Cole's 'Road to Homecoming' Miniseries

Cole also gets nostalgic about his homecoming gig. "I never actually wanted to do a proper show in Fayetteville until I was big enough to sell out the Crown Coliseum," he admits, though it's no self-serving milestone. One concertgoer notes, "This is stuff we dreamed about. What people don't know is black performers don't get to perform in the Crown. Black performers never get to come to the Crown, like ever. I think the last black person that performed in the Crown was Tyler Perry. Like, that's all we get -- is either hockey in this motherfucker, or it's nothing for us." Every post-show testimonial echoes a soulful message from the heart. J. Cole may be the most unheralded star in rap, but in Fayetteville, he's bigger than the Beatles.