The drive to Fayetteville, N.C., is an hour-and-a-half straight shot from the Raleigh-Durham International airport. The small city, with a population of 204,408 people, is rarely talked about on the national stage. To most, it’s a military town, home to one of the nation’s largest army bases, Fort Bragg. To a nice older woman working at the airport’s Avis car rental office, it’s not a place you should be when the sun goes down. “If I were y’all, I would eat somewhere around here,” she warns. “Fayetteville is not the safest place to be at night.”
To Jermaine Lamarr Cole, Fayetteville is home. It’s where his mother brought him shortly after his birth on a U.S. Army base in Frankfurt, Germany. It’s where he learned to play basketball. It’s where he made a number of friends with whom he still rocks today. It’s where he moved from house to house as his mother tried to make ends meet. It’s where he feels comfortable. Most important, though, it’s where the soon-to-be-30-year-old rapper and producer known as J. Cole learned how to rap and make beats.
Those talents powered Cole’s dream to move from the city dubbed “Fayettenam”—a portmanteau of his hometown and Vietnam; similar to the way kids call Chicago “Chiraq”—to New York City, where he attended St. John’s University, honed his craft, and became the first signee to Jay Z’s Roc Nation label. From there he released two gold-selling albums—2011’s Cole World: The Sideline Story and 2013’s Born Sinner—both backed by platinum-selling singles, “Work Out” and “Power Trip,” respectively. By all measures, it seems Cole accomplished his dream. Some rap fans lampoon his career—they call him boring, note the fact that he doesn’t sell like Drake, and crack wise that Jay Z doesn’t know who he is. But when compared to his peers, he’s doing better than OK.
Cole’s success has allowed him to start the Dreamville Foundation, an organization that helps disadvantaged youth in Fayetteville by providing them with school supplies and taking them on field trips to fun places like Carowinds amusement park. He’s teamed up with Interscope to launch Dreamville Records, an imprint that has already released two strong projects from rappers Bas and Cozz. He’s done so well, in fact, that Hov, the guy who people joked couldn’t tell Cole from one of the Migos, bestowed upon him one of the greatest honors in rap: During a concert in NYC this past summer, Jay gave Cole his Roc-A-Fella chain. But, if you ask Cole, his greatest accomplishment is buying his favorite childhood home, a charming split-level house located at 2014 Forest Hills Drive. It’s the nicest house he lived in as a kid, and the one where he formed his fondest memories. It’s where he wanted to do the photo shoot for this story.
The address also serves as the title of J. Cole’s third album, his most ambitious project to date: 2014 Forest Hills Drive tells the story of a young man leaving home, much like Cole did back in 2003, to find success in Hollywood. It shows the progression from starry-eyed newbie to jaded star. The arc describes his life. While previewing the album at a Midtown Manhattan recording studio a week after the photo shoot, Cole is repeatedly interrupted to handle non-music-related business. Reps from a popular, storied European shoe company stop by in hopes of getting Cole to attend a store opening in October. In a black T-shirt, Nike sweats, and black Nike Huaraches, he tells the brand’s communications team about the album he’s working on and asks pointed questions. The attention is flattering, he says, but it’s his least favorite part of the business. He’d rather work on the music, create new experiences for his fans. It’s a balancing act, for sure, and one he’s determined to master, so he’ll always feel at home.