J. Cole's college come-up comes full circle at his Dollar & A Dream II show in NY
The flash flood warnings hit up every iPhone in New York without any sign of respect for the city’s plans Tuesday afternoon (July 15). Still, no child of Mother Nature was stopping J. Cole fans from wrapping around 16th Street and 9th Avenue for the second annual Dollar and a Dream tour in the rapper’s second home.
— Ibrahim H. (@KingOfQueenz) July 16, 2014
The show paid homage to Cole’s classic mixtape, The Warm Up, the 22-track opus that validated his selection as Roc Nation's No. 1 draft pick; he'd inked his deal with Jay Z just months earlier. A soaked crowd of teen-looking Stans, covered in Dreamville jerseys (signifying Cole’s label/business venture with Interscope) packed into the Highline Ballroom, which would host two concerts that night (one at 7pm, the other at 10pm) because it was “small.” This coming from the guy who once headlined Hot 97's Who’s Next Series at S.O.B.’s (a venue three times as tiny) four years ago.
Small venue today so 2 shows is a definite.
— J. Cole (@JColeNC) July 15, 2014
Rewind to 2003 when Jermaine Cole, a Fayetteville, North Carolina native, made the upward trek to New York to become a Communications major at St. John’s University. Cole (whose original rap moniker was Therapist) was just scratching the surface of his rap talents with his 2008 debut mixtape The Come Up, which included his first “Dead Presidents” freestyle and the baby cub to “Grown Simba,” simply titled “Simba.” A year later, the SJU grad dropped The Warm Up, which served as audible proof that he was a wordsmith with potential to be a star.
In 2010, I was a sophomore at St. John’s and also Entertainment Editor for the university’s newspaper The Torch. When J. Cole headlined that year’s spring concert, he was like the Danny Zuko of the Queens campus (minus the leather threads, hip swivels and John Travolta’s slicked back hairstyle). Girls wanted to take selfies (before selfies were a thing) with him as familiar faces approached and gave him daps. It was like Cole never graduated.
While seated outside Montgoris Hall, the dorms’ main dining area, I asked him what made him worthy of the attention.
His response, “I have a different story.”
Back at Highline, déjà vu is kicking in. Cole is still spitting on the mic with the same vigor that he possessed in his unsigned days. The words he’s kicking through the speakers aren’t just his personal gospel (cheating on his girl, being broke, following his dreams), they’re real-life stories preserved on wax. Even Cole's set hasn’t changed since his St. John’s homecoming: He’s performing “Grown Simba,” “Dead Presidents II,” the close-to-home “Losing My Balance” and "Dreams," for which he invited a female fan onstage to sing the hook. (Sidebar: Where is Brandon Hines hiding these days?) Manager and Dreamville Prez Ibrahim "Ib" Hamad is also rocking along in the shadows like he and Cole are still undergrads.
The only differences: Cole’s chain is heavy and fans are rapping his tracks as well as, if not better, than he. His artists are also his openers. Fellow Queens transplant Bas (born and raised in Paris) also bagged the audience’s co-sign while Dreamville’s newest addition, Cozz, makes his stage debut. Even Harlem emcee Omen makes a special appearance for a live rendition of “The Badness.”
It’s also a full-circle moment for this reporter. Last time I had a one-on-one with J. Cole, he was three years fresh out of college, trying to prove himself to bossman Hov and coping with the fame of his major label introduction, Cole World: A Sideline Story. I was just a Communications student with a huge question mark next to my future career.
These days, Cole’s doing pop-up shows around the globe and charging his die-hards just four quarters to celebrate his success with him. He’s the rapper whose sophomore LP, Born Sinner, beat his producer-rapper idol, Kanye West’s Yeezus, in the race to gold last summer. These days, J. Cole is that same lanky wordsmith who reached his potential and became a star.
While I continue to balance the checkbook as a scribe for VIBE, it’s refreshing to see an artist, whose come-up once mirrored my own, bask in his own swag. Past J. Cole’s Sallie Mae raps and juggles with temptation, he’s still grubbing on humble pie, which could explain all his good karma on a professional level. Any rapper could run through an hour of his biggest hits; Cole chooses to pay it forward by spotlighting his classics. Watching him perform The Warm Up is just a reminder that the idea of success isn't such a stretch.—Adelle Platon (@adelleplaton)