“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”.
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.