J. Cole is a talented rapper. Of all the MCs littering the mainstream pop charts, he’s one of the most concerned with the quality of his lyrics, often weaving long narratives over entire verses, songs, and albums. He’s also a talented producer; he produced much of his latest LP, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, and has produced for other artists. He cares intensely about the quality and message of his art. But more than anything else, he cares what you think. He cares about his legacy.
This has never been more evident than in Forest Hills Drive: Homecoming, a documentary concert film that premiered on HBO this past Saturday, January 9. Based around a hometown concert at the Crown Coliseum in Fayetteville, North Carolina, the film celebrates the town and people he grew up with, but mostly, Cole himself. The album 2014 Forest Hills Drive is named after the address of the home he grew up in, and the record tells tales of his youth in chronological order, inviting the listener to follow along in the origin story of a mixed-race rapper trying to escape his backwater military town.
And his fans love it; in a climate that sees most ascendant rappers packing their albums full of guest appearances from the hottest names in the business, looking to anchor sales with a hit single featuring the rapper du jour, Cole’s fans took 2014 Forest Hills Drive platinum (1 million copies sold) without a single feature. The film is full of testimonials from fans, taking selfies in front of his old house, holding back tears in the parking lot of his show, or just hanging out in Fayetteville, beaming with pride that someone has put their town on the map. It all feels familiar, the nostalgia tour of the gifted artist, looking back to see the people, places, and things he grew up with.
But here’s the rub: J. Cole is not dead. He’s not old, or retired, or even that accomplished. 2014 Forest Hills Drive is an achievement, but it just came out last year, and it’s only his third proper LP. And yet he’s so obsessed with his legacy that he’s trying to write his own history as it happens.
Much of this is tied in to contemporary American culture: Obsessed with self-documentation, we don’t just live our lives, we chronicle them on social media, “checking in” to places, “tagging” people, snapping selfies to prove we were there. We rip through nostalgia cycles so quickly that we “Throwback Thursday” to last week, and the unwritten 20-year rule of decade fetishism is rapidly eroding (Doesn’t ’90s nostalgia already feel ancient?) For someone who cares as much as J. Cole (“I know he’s probably gonna cry on stage,” predicts one of his fans before the show), it’s impossible not to get caught up in this. He says he fantasizes about coming back to Fayetteville to run for “Mayor, or City Council” one day. This is a guy who so craves validation that he begged Nas for forgiveness on record, desperately worried that he had disappointed his idol by being too commercial — after only one album.
So what’s the point of Homecoming? The record has been out for a year, and while it might move a few more copies, it’s unlikely to recoup its expenses in album sales. For superfans, the film — along with the four behind-the-scenes episodes that preceded it — is a glimpse into Cole’s life as he wrapped up his album, took it on the road, and brought the show home to Fayetteville. But it’s mostly a J. Cole scrapbook, a big-budget home video for his mother to show the grandkids, on some “here’s the time Daddy tore down the Crown with Drake & Jay-Z.” It’s hard to fault him — or HBO — for producing it, since the fanbase is there, and people come to expect this type of intimate access to their stars. But while the tone is celebratory (“Dreamville won tonight, my nigga!” he proclaims near the film’s close), it feels overwrought, a forced historical gravitas that has yet to be solidified by time and distance. When it comes time to actually celebrate the achievements of J. Cole’s career, there may not be much left to say; he’s already beaten us to the punch.