J. Cole: Portrait of a Rap Superhero

J. Cole: Portrait of a Rap Superhero

J. Cole returned with his Dollar and a Dream Tour, proving that rappers can move units and make a difference.

Published June 25, 2015

In J. Cole’s early days, he used a lot of basketball metaphors to describe how he broke into the rap game. The Come Up. The Warm Up. Friday Night Lights. The Sideline Story.

More on that later.

When Cole announced the third installment of his Dollar and a Dream Tour — the title of which stems from a song about chasing a better future throughout the struggle — you could almost feel the energy of his fans through their Twitter and Instagram accounts. Like previous editions, the tour was impromptu — where things like a random flyer to fans are currency for a coveted wristband. Oh yes, and a dollar must be paid as well. This time around, the news swept like wildfire, despite once again arriving at a moment's notice.

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Keeping his tradition of playing back old material in full, the 30-year-old rapper revisited Friday Night Lights, nearing its five-year anniversary on November 12. However, all superstardom aside, not a lot has changed. Nearly five years later, the 25-year-old Cole versus the 30-year-old Cole of today is practically the same. Both are extremely appreciative of their fans and have produced top-notch projects in a climate where rappers are constantly proving their worth. Both also wanted to create a moment to remember — Friday Night Lights was an OG surprise release, while 2014 Forest Hills Drive sold 354,000 copies in its first week and debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.

Cole is almost done with his Dollar and a Dream Tour. He’s hit Dallas, New York City and Atlanta already. His last stop is tomorrow in Los Angeles.

Each stop was pandemonium. Once again, if you don’t know the logistics behind getting in, here they are: he announces the location, time and day of the show, it costs $1 to get in, and it’s a first come, first serve for a chance to see him. To keep it real, this whole idea is brilliant. In contemporary hip hop, it’s rare that someone is so invested in pleasing their fanbase — specifically, day one fans who have been there throughout your whole career. It's that same fan who can rap every word to “Villlematic” and not lose their breath. The fan who buys “Dollar and a Dream” gear and rocks it throughout the whole concert. The fan who sticks around after it’s over to get an autograph. The fan who can watch their favorite rapper rock a stage in a sold-out venue, yet also march for injustice. That's a balance few have struck; a balance few care to. 

The point is that Cole is the quintessential rapper of 2015. And it’s not just the quality of music or his dedication to his fans; it’s the efforts outside of music that also make him so great and vital to the current rap landscape. It's a time where it truly is bigger than hip hop.

I attended J. Cole’s show at Irving Plaza strictly as a fan. During my college years, I played Friday Night Lights a lot among my rotation of Curren$y’s This Ain’t No Mixtape and Drake’s So Far Gone. My inner stan was jumping inside at the thought of hearing my favorites like “Higher,” “Premeditated Murder” and “The Autograph.” After his Dreamville boys (Omen, Cozz and Bas) warmed up the excited crowd, the chants for J. Cole were deafening. Inside an intimate venue like Irving — where fans packed the bottom floor and huddled up against the balconies upstairs — the atmosphere was different from any regular shows there. This was for us, the fans, and he was well aware of that. “Close to five years ago…we dropped this bomb on the world called Friday Night Lights,”  he would say later that night. “We came to do this s**t tonight. I really wanna know who know this word for word.”

Everyone did, because the thing about Cole is that he’s always giving back, so we return with his lyrics in gratitude. From his earliest days as a native of small town Fayetteville (Cole’s humble beginnings) to laying the foundation for his Dreamville brand in NYC to finally landing that Roc Nation deal and getting a Jay Z co-sign, Cole's is a narrative we can all relate to. His past isn’t littered with stories of struggling in the streets, but rather a passion to create a better life and spread his Nas-inspired raps to the world. As his voice gets louder, we continue to value his messages, no matter how big or small the gesture is.

Just in the past year alone, Cole has visited the protests in Ferguson over the death of Michael Brown and performed his moving tribute “Be Free” on Late Night With David Letterman. His childhood home, which is also the title of his latest album 2014 Forest Hills Drivehouses single mothers rent-free. “My goal is to have that be a haven for families,” he said in an interview with Combat Jack. “Every two years a new family will come in, they live rent-free.”

If that wasn’t enough, during his promotional run of 2014 Forest Hills Drive, he hosted private listenings at his home to give fans a personal experience because he really wanted to connect with them. Some even received one-on-one time, where Cole went to their home and hung out. He keeps his promises, too, recently attending a fan’s high school graduation after becoming inspired by her open letter about academic hardships. All he asked was for her to get into a four-year university. She delivered and he came through with the most life-changing gift ever.

The thing about Cole is that his basketball metaphors meant something more than a cool merger of rap and sports. He’s like a Russell Westbrook or a Chris Paul — an MVP who gets nothing but love from his community and is constantly reciprocating that support. And all it took was a dollar and a dream. We hope 10 years from now Cole is still rapping and still giving back to the people who made him who he is today.

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(Photo: Emmerson / Splash News)

Written by Eric Diep

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