Hip-hop fandom is something of an enigma, and if you are a J. Cole fan, people probably hate you. As you jam to “Wet Dreamz” or “Cost Me A lot” while walking down the street, best believe someone is looking to trip you. Why is this so? Because the Internet. While Jermaine Lamarr Cole has been wowing critics since his mixtape days, his third album 2014 Forest Hills Drive turned him into the King Arthur of the rap game after he famously sold two million copies without any features on the project—the first hip-hop act to do so in 25 years.
Lovers of the Dreamville star used this to their advantage on social media, where praise about Cole’s wordplay and relatability spread like wildfire. Bloggers and music journalists were agitated by the fandom, while op-eds sprouted like fungus as Cole was called an “everyman” artist. Fans weren’t safe as their musical intellect was tested if they consider his work to fall among the ranks of Jay Z, Tupac or Rakim. It was no surprise the conversation went to another level after the release of 4 Your Eyez Only, when the album unexpectedly dropped towards the end of a bleak year that was 2016.
These were just some of the topics touched on at VIBE’s first #VMeetup, where we chatted with hip-hop lovers who have grown close to Cole’s discography. They didn’t mirror the memes or videos mocking the rapper’s fan base. Instead, we got to experience pleasant souls who weren’t defensive of those who didn’t like the “Deja Vu” artist.
While enjoying bakery treats at the cozy and quaint Bushwick Public House on a rainy Sunday, we talked about moments connected to Cole’s music, what the rapper means to them and, of course, 4 Your Eyez Only with not one ‘platinum with no features’ joke in sight. “I would understand the content of [rap music] being that I was from the inner city, but I just couldn’t relate to them because I didn’t live that lifestyle,” Frank from Brooklyn said. “I felt like he came from the [same] background as me and his ambition was similar to mine.”
“Listening to J.Cole’s music kind of inspired me to be who I wanted to be,” Bria Alexandria added. “He’s being who he is and if he can still stand in the midst of this crazy world, I can too.”
Alexandria’s sentiments are heard loud and clear by the rapper. After the release of 2014 Forest Hills Drive, Cole spoke with ESPN for their music issue (sharing the cover with Dale Earnhardt Jr., wink, wink) and talked about his ability to inspire. “I know what it’s like to come up with no one to look at, and have it not feel real because it’s so far away from everything that’s happening. So when you have big dreams to become anything that seems unrealistic, I know what it’s like to not have anybody to look at that’s done it. So for me, I’m glad to be able to go back home and inspire kids.”
And inspire he has. After the release of 4 Your Eyez Only, listeners were tested as underlying themes of black mortality, love and hardships of misguided youth flowed through tracks like “Deja Vu,” “Ville Mentality” and the title track, “4 Your Eyez Only.” As critics were distracted by the superfans, John Williams, a student from St. John’s University, figured out the backstory to the album in a post that went viral. “When 4 Your Eyez Only came out, I obviously stayed up until midnight to hear it as soon as it dropped. On the first listen, I [took] in the musical aspects of the album,” he said. “On the second and third listen, I was more paying attention to the lyrics. That’s when I picked up on a lot of lyrics that sounded off to me. J. Cole is talking about dealing drugs, going to prison, and dying because of his street life. It quickly dawned on me that J. Cole did not do these things in his life. So I listened again with this in mind and figured out that this album is not all about J. Cole. It’s about an old friend who went down a different path but also went through a lot of similar things Cole went through himself.”
Like many of Cole’s fans, Williams has been drawn to the rapper for his relatability. By no means is Cole the only artist that has perfected this element, but he is one of the few in today’s modern rap game to own it. From breaking out into streams of consciousness during concerts, marching with protestors in Ferguson or showing up at a fan’s graduation, it’s the moments of normality that provide the icing on top to his fans. “The best thing about J. Cole is his personality,” Williams said. “I’ve been listening to his music for about seven years now, and every time he drops it feels like you’re catching up with an old friend you haven’t talked to in a while. We all have moments in our lives when we are lonely and depressed, and Cole is always someone I can listen to when those times come.”
As the artist celebrates his 30-something earthstrong, check out the video above where his fans deliver sweet birthday messages and more to their favorite rapper.
Video Credit: Azure Rouet | IG: @azurerue