In front of a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night (Aug. 4), J. Cole is treating the stage as his personal stoop. Offering hilarious, personal anecdotes like a Kevin Hart stand-in, the tall, lanky rapper is sporting a wild Weeknd-esque hairstyle for what could be considered his homecoming show on the 2014 Forest Hills Drive tour.
One borough away lies St. John’s University’s Queens campus where the New York-by-way-of-North Carolina rep graduated Magna Cum Laude in 2007, duking it out with Sallie Mae and stressing over bank overdrafts. Nearly eight years later, he’s doing way better than good enough. As the founder of Dreamville Records and one of the most revered wordsmiths in the millennial age, Cole is living out the very fantasies he would dream about as a broke undergrad.
But for his New York City tour stop, Cole blessed his second home with a good time, great songs and the best version of himself. Here are some takeaways from our recent trip to Cole World.
1. J. Cole could be a stand-up comic. While running through his full-length masterpiece that shares the tour’s namesake, he manages to squeeze in emoji-worthy narratives that set the scene for his deep and not-so-deep cuts. Before launching into his anti-ho anthem, “No Role Modelz,” Cole relays the lessons he’s learned from Hollywood. He warns of “phony n***as” and signs of a chick who may be “f**ked up.” “She has a artificial a**, that’s my first clue,” he said, as creepy Michael Myers sounds play in the background. “Sh*t feel like a bag of wet cement mixed with some SuperGlue rubber adhesive type sh*t. It’s f**kin’ weird. I don’t even know if I like it. [Pauses.] No, I hate it. It’s disgusting.” Second clue was revealing Instagram thirst traps with Deepak Chopra-esque captions “that ain’t got sh*t to do with the picture I just got done looking at.” Cole even calls out one dude in the audience, dubbing him a “zoomer,” or a fellow who zooms into a woman’s sexy Instagram flick.
2. Jeremih needs to stop playing and drop this Late Nights: The Album A.S.A.P. With a slew of hits in the stash like his breakout single “Birthday Sex” to his DJ Mustard-produced jam “Don’t Tell ‘Em,” the timing couldn’t be riper for the Ratchet&B crooner. He also re-appears for a live rendition of his elevated love song, “Planes” alongside Cole. [Insert praise hands emojis here.]
3. YG hosted a gangsta party with cuts from his should-have-been-Grammy-nominated LP My Krazy Life. With W’s in the air and a special cameo from Harlemite, A$AP Ferg, for “Work,” Bompton’s very own made the Empire State a welcome West Coast affair.
4. Big Sean packed his aspirational mantras and middle fingers for the warm-up set before Cole. In front of a makeshift bar called “Paradise Liquor,” Sean Don cycled through his recent release Dark Sky Paradise, capping off with the overt F.U. single, “IDFWU.” Peak moment: shouting out his late grandmama before orchestrating an iPhone light show for “One Man Can Change The World.”
5. J. Cole knows why he’s here. For his headlining gig at the “world’s most famous arena,” Cole appears in his usual low-profile uniform of a black tee, black shorts, black socks, white sneaks and zero bling. It could have easily been the same ‘fit at a show for his Dollar & A Dream tour (the gig where he charged fans one George Washington bill for admission to his more intimate shows) but even at MSG, Cole genuinely suits up like a college student ready to shoot hoops with a swag that doesn’t come off corny but rather, real.
6. Despite sing-rapping about dreams of fame and fortune on “St. Tropez,” Cole admitted he never hit up the French Riviera hot spot. He reminisces on moving to New York City at 18 years old from his native Fayetteville, North Carolina home and taking a leap of faith:
“The name of the song is “St. Tropez” but New York, if I’m being honest with y’all, then the truth is I don’t actually even know where the f*ck St. Tropez is at on a map. I don’t know where it’s at. If you paid me a million dollars right now, I couldn’t point to it on a map. I don’t give a f*ck, honestly. I don’t care. What I do know is St. Tropez seems like the type of place that really rich people go to when they have a lot of bread, they wanna get photographed on yachts in bikinis, holding champagne glasses and sh*t so therefore, it seems like the type of place I want to go to one day but when I talk about St. Tropez on this song, it’s just a metaphor. This song about is when you come from a small city like me … a lot of times you suffer from a small town mentality. That means you grew up your whole life, seeing sh*t on TV and on the movies, places like St. Tropez, places like Paris, France; London, England; Los Angeles, California, f**kin’ New York city. We see places like this and you tell yourself when you a little kid like, ‘Yo, one day when I get older, I’ma go there. I gotta go there.’ But what ends up happening? As you get older, because you suffer from a small town mentality, you become comfortable in your safe zone, safe area and you’re too afraid to leave. … This song is actually about how I had to overcome that small town mentality and say f*ck it.”
7. While songs like “G.O.M.D.” and “Wet Dreamz” would be nails-to-chalkboard for a concerned mother, Cole’s high-energy jams have even the most timid on their feet. Lines like “Get off my d*ck” and “I ain’t even did this before” are automatic crowd chants and cues for any haters to proceed to the nearest exit. Despite flourishing off album no. 3, Cole consistently addresses the Average Joes and Janes who are still figuring out their own come-up.
8. With J. Cole’s name illuminated on the MSG marquee, no big-name features hailing from New York appeared for his set (Where ya at, Hov?). Yet, day-one loyalists left satisfied. Tracks from his first two albums, Cole World: The Sideline Story and Born Sinner don’t make the set list, except his usual trifecta of radio hits for the closer including “Can’t Get Enough,” “Crooked Smile” and “Power Trip.”
9. Cole leaves his fears on the stage. While performing a project in its entirety isn’t the norm for hip-hop concerts, Cole treats 2014 Forest Hills Drive as proof he is still the same Cole from Fayettenam. “I been touring for five or six years, and I can tell you, n***as don’t come and do this sh*t. They don’t perform their whole albums and I know why. Two reasons: the first reason being they albums f**kin’ suck. [Laughs.] The second reason—which is the real reason—as an artist, it’s the scariest thing in the world to put your heart and soul into this song. You bleeded on this song and then you come do that song at the shows, but because it’s not the radio record or the f**kin’ club song, you come perform it and the crowd is lookin’ at you like… [Puts on disinterested face.] “This n***a.” Why he not doing a song with Rich Homie Quan? I don’t f**kin’ understand.” But I had to say, ‘F**k it and get over that fear because this album mean a lot to me. It is very f**kin’ important that I did it like this.”
He continues with his album’s mission statement like a presidential candidate on a campaign run: “When we young and even when we old, the world is constantly, constantly pumping us with images and messages about what life is supposed to be about and what it takes to make this happen. In the United States, we call it the American Dream. But what does it include all the time? A lot of f**kin’ money, a big a** house, a brand new car and a wife that’s, like, not even genetically possible to have … I’m the same dude on the other side of the fence.”
10. The appropriate tagline for Cole’s shows could be a remix of the old Gatorade slogan: “Anything I can do, you can do better.” Cole raps like he is always on the cusp of success, even if he has far surpassed it. His roots and imperfect past remain the fuel for his progress. He’s also the type of rapper to remind you to call your mom and guilt your a** if you don’t. As a prelude to his performance of “Hello,” he pulls the curtain back on his thought process while dealing with the f**kery of the music biz and missing home sweet home. “You start thinking about sh*t like that, trying to connect with what’s real. You call your mother, start to think of your homeboys back home, start thinking about old relationships…” As long as Cole remembers where he’s been, there’s no telling how much further he can—and will—go.