“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.