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J. Cole's <i>Forest Hills Drive</i> Film Tells the Story of a Hometown Hero

Every town needs a hero; a beacon of hope, a manifestation of the American dream. For Fayetteville, North Carolina, that hero is Jermaine LaMarr Cole.
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Every town needs a hero; a beacon of hope, a manifestation of the American dream. For Fayetteville, North Carolina, that hero is Jermaine LaMarr Cole. In a city where the consensus amongst the residents is that things are usually monotonous, the 30-year-old rapper, professionally known as "J. Cole," broke the mold --even if it was for one night-- in his concert film J. Cole Forest Hills Drive: Homecoming, which premiered on HBO Saturday (1/9/16).

The 90-minute documentary (which is the final installment in a five-part mini-series) centers around Cole's homecoming concert at The Crown Complex in Fayetteville, NC where he performs his avant-garde album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, in its entirety. The native son managed to do something that no other artist since Elton John has done -- sell out the Coliseum. As a hip-hop artist, Cole made history. One concertgoer echoed these sentiments after the show:

"What people don't know is, black performers don't get to perform in the Crown," she said. "I think the last person that performed at the Crown was Tyler Perry. It's either hockey or it's nothing for us."

That's a huge feat for a kid that came from humble beginnings. One that earned him acclamation from fellow hip-hop heavyweights Drake and Jay Z, who were both special guest performers at the concert. Through all his success, Jermaine still exudes humility. He makes sure he reciprocates the love and support he receives from his fans. Last year he revealed his plans to house single mothers -- rent-free-- in his childhood home of 2014 Forest Hills Dr, Fayetteville, NC. Every two years the emcee plans to bring a new family in. In November of 2015, Cole paid a visit to a fellow Fayettevillian and fan of his, Tae Stackhouse, who is currently battling cancer. The Dreamville boss feels like he hasn't done enough.

"The things that we have done have been real dope, like, I'm proud of those things." Cole says. "But, sometimes I get frustrated 'cause I wish I had more time--or more passion to do it."

Things could've turned out very differently for J. Cole. On the other side of the city's monotony is Fayettenam; a portmanteau of Fayetteville and Vietnam. The moniker is originated from the city being a military-town; more specifically during the Vietnam Era a lot of soldiers were being rotated through the Fort Bragg military installation that borders the city. But, the name has taken up another meaning: a description of Fayetteville's war on drugs and crime. Mid-way through the doc', while shooting around in a gymnasium, the viewers are introduced to a friend of Cole's named Craig (who is mentioned on the song "Roll Call" off of Any Given Sunday vol. 2). Craig was arrested for drug-trafficking and at 14-years-old took a plea bargain to serve 19 years in prison. Jermaine feels like his friend was a prisoner of circumstance. Craig spent most of his adolescence in the inner-city, attending E.E. Smith High School, while Cole went to the suburban, predominantly white, Terry Sanford High School. The social dichotomy between the two friends seems like it leaves Cole feeling a bit of survivor's guilt. At this moment, I begin to realize that the ominous overtones of his sophomore album, Born Sinner, resurface as subtleties throughout the film. The majority of the footage-- outside of the concert-- is captured at night with Cole driving in all black attire.

Towards the end of Forest Hills , J. Cole reveals a conversation he once had with his mentor and label-boss Jay Z about his state of being. Despite all of his success, Cole wasn't happy. He says it was Jay Z who helped him realize one of the most important things he was overlooking: appreciation.

Back in the fall of 2009, my brother and I attended a Jay Z concert in Baltimore. The Roc Nation CEO was on tour promoting his album, The Blueprint 3, and he brought out J. Cole to perform his verse on their collaboration off of the album; "A Star Is Born." A young Cole stood in the spotlight and began his verse with two questions that would set the tone for his career:

"And could I be a star/Does fame in this game have to change who you are?"

Over six years, five Grammy-nominations and several platinum plaques later, he's answered his own question by remaining true to himself. J. Cole has an illustrious career ahead of him. Although, he admits to thinking about one day maybe turning in his mic for a seat at the political table-- Mayor or City Council. For now, the hometown hero is looking to maintain the ultimate level of success--peace of mind. Will he be able to continue to balance that with commercial success? Only time will tell. After all, his story is still being written.