Most successful musicians, rappers especially, will mark their good fortune by buying the biggest, blingiest house they can find and wave goodbye to taste and restraint as they hand over the giant cheque and start picking out polar bear rugs. This summer Jermaine Cole, the 29-year-old behind two US No 1 albums and a third guaranteed chart topper this week, bought a modest suburban home in little Fayetteville, North Carolina.
2014 Forest Hills Drive is the house he lived in with his mother and older brother from the ages of 11 to 18, before it was foreclosed for failing to meet mortgage payments and they were kicked out. It’s also the title of his new album, a gripping, personal work that takes on his life story in bold, ambitious ways.
“That house had everything to do with the course of my life,” he tells me. “Having my own bedroom did a lot for me. I had privacy to listen to music, rap in front of the mirror, write, daydream. Family life wasn’t terrible but there wasn’t a lot of love in the house. It was good to be able to close the door.”
Under the stage name J Cole, the rapper and producer has so far been slightly under the radar in this country next to the noisier success of Kanye West, Drake and Cole’s record label boss, Jay-Z. His second album, Born Sinner, reached the top 10 here in the summer of 2013 but he hasn’t yet had a hit single. Even so, he’s found a niche as the voice of the ordinary Joe. He’s the suburban college graduate who moved to New York and made it with the big beasts of hip hop, before finding awards ceremonies and conspicuous consumption were not his thing. He’s a calm, clear, unshowy rapper, great on internal rhyme schemes and honesty. You don’t come to his songs to escape, you come for the truth.
“A lot of my music wasn’t written for you, ultimately,” he says. “It’s for me. I’m allowing you to hear it. It’s reading my journal, basically. It’s a form of therapy.”
We meet in a large, low-lit room in the London branch of his record company. His new album cover, with him in plain clothes sitting on the roof of the house, is projected onto a big screen. He’s already messed with my preconception of what a big American rapper will be like, asking for me to get there quicker because he’s running early. “Hip hop time” is well known as being at least two hours behind GMT. He’s slouching low in an unbranded sweater and jogging bottoms, watch and jewellery-free, and there’s no sign of an entourage. He looks, well, ordinary.
“Kids from home look at me and think, ‘Whoa, this dude is from right where I’m from and he made it against impossible odds. One of the best rappers in the game is from Fayetteville — that doesn’t happen!’” he says.
The area, which has about the same population as Coventry, is best known as the home of the US Army base Fort Bragg. Cole was born on another Army base in Frankfurt, the son of a white German mother and a black soldier father. His dad didn’t follow when the rest of the family moved into Bragg when Cole was a baby. It was a combination of his mum’s income as a mail carrier and that of a new soldier stepfather that enabled them to move to the bigger house in a nicer part of this not particularly nice city.
The street is impressive, lined by tall trees, near a creek, with well-spaced houses set far back from the road. But the move was about it for good news. “We had this condescending stepfather figure who was really negative. There was no love, no connection there. He was physically abusive to us and verbally abusive too, even more so to my brother.”
They definitely weren’t well-off. “There were days when my mom would have to scrape up nickels and dimes to give me $1.50 lunch money. And I would know she wasn’t eating lunch that day so that I could. I wasn’t fooled, I wasn’t like, ‘We’re rich!’ I was very aware that we were barely here.”
Not long after he left to study computer science and communications at St John’s University in New York, it transpired that his stepfather, who had put himself on an extended assignment in Thailand, had stopped contributing to the mortgage. “My mom was blindsided by this. Not only did she not have the money but she was also realising that her marriage was over.” She had to downsize to an apartment, fell in with a bad boyfriend and, in Cole’s words, “went on a real downward spiral”. He doesn’t want to go into detail but has rapped, on his song Breakdown, about her crack addiction.
Of course, wanting to help her get back on her feet was a motivating factor in his ambitions as a rapper. “Aside from a love of the art form, my dream, from a kid, was always, ‘I can’t wait to get rich and buy my mum a house and make sure she doesn’t have to work any more’.” He chose New York for college because it’s where the most fertile rap scene is. He made CDs of his instrumental beats and waited outside Jay-Z’s company offices. The day their paths crossed for the first time, the rap god walked right past. “He wouldn’t even take it. He just saw this kid and it probably happens to him every day. But it’s funny because one year after that I was in his office because he had heard one of my songs and wanted to meet me. It was a really cool full-circle moment.”
So he made it — but the new album is about how making it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. “It’s about a smalltown kid who has Hollywood dreams, goes there, realises that something’s wrong out there, so rather than being consumed by it and falling into the trap he goes back home.” His new sound is deeper and richer, with jazzy flourishes and the kind of sentiments you rarely hear in hip hop’s bragging, grasping culture. “There’s no such thing as a life that’s better than yours,” he raps.
Cole hasn’t come home for good. He still lives in New York, is settled with a girlfriend but no children yet, and intends for the Fayetteville house to be set up as a “haven”. “It’ll be a place somebody can come and live rent-free, two or three years at a time. I’m imagining a single mother, who can hopefully leave in a better position than when they came.”
That’s a fine idea from someone who already operates the Dreamville Foundation in his hometown, helping young people to be “set up for success”. “We do book clubs, events, let them meet people who do jobs that they might not even have thought about doing. There was nothing like that for me as a kid, nobody famous from here.”
So while he’s less of a braggart than many of his hip hop peers, his job satisfaction seems to be off the scale. “I know that for the rest of my life, what will bring me stability and happiness is focusing on those things that are for ever, and are way more important than shit that means nothing ultimately. It took me 29 years to learn that what’s going to bring me happiness does not come in the form of anything material.”
He may be an ordinary guy but in the rap world he couldn’t be less typical.