Less than an hour after leaving the Crown Coliseum in awe, I stood a short drive away at 2014 Forest Hills Drive, looking at the small Fayetteville home that lent its name to rapper J. Cole’s massive album and monumental, continent-spanning tour.
A couple dozen fans posed for pictures in front of the house. Others posted photos of the small neighborhood’s street signs to Snapchat. Two seemingly amused Fayetteville police officers conversed quietly, monitoring the tourist attraction as others on the quiet street slept soundly. When I asked whether or not this happens often, the office assured me the spectacle was an exception.
J. Cole is the unquestionable torchbearer of North Carolina hip-hop, and nothing shy of a local legend. Before moving to New York City as a teenager to bolster a burgeoning rap career, Jermaine Cole grew up in Fayetteville, spending some time as a child at Forest Hills Drive. Cole has since purchased the house with the intent to renovate it and offer affordable housing for Fayetteville families struggling with a poverty he knows far too well.
Cole returned to his hometown on Saturday night with a message of optimism, a stellar bill of support and one hell of a surprise. Throughout the show, Cole preached against a wealth-dependent happiness and small-town pessimism, assuring his fellow Fayettevillians that, like him, they could cast off the shackles of poverty. But Cole wasn’t there to give his hometown crowd life lessons — they were there for a show.
California rapper YG got the Homecoming show started with a bang as the sellout crowd continued to trickle in to the arena. Just a couple of months after he was shot in the hip, YG got Fayetteville bumping, bringing his West Coast flare to the Dirty South. Though the rapper was only on stage for a brief set, he certainly made his impression — most notably when the excited crowd shouted back the words to his 2014 single, “Who Do You Love?”
Jeremih took to the stage next, but did little to rev up the crowd. The Chicago-based artist sang his way through a set that truly exposed the lack of breadth of his canon — Jeremih has not released an album since 2010, and it felt excruciatingly apparent on Saturday night. He lulled the crowd to sleep as he played a piano-driven, stripped-down version of his 2009 breakout hit “Birthday Sex,” seemingly intentionally sabotaging what could have been his highest-octane performance. At many times during the set, Jeremih’s backup dancers were the most entertaining factor of his stage show — at least they seemed like they were trying.
Detroit’s Big Sean got Fayetteville’s blood pumping again, performing a slew of his hit singles (including “Blessings” and “I.D.F.W.U.”) against an elaborate store-front set modeled after the streets of his hometown. The young rapper spoke about his own upbringing in Detroit, and shared yet another message of persistence and the power of dreams. Though in the heart of North Carolina, Sean was sure to show off his Midwestern roots — one of his sets’ many highlights was Sean’s rowdy performance of his verse on “I Don’t Like,” which featured the rapper bouncing around the stage in a Tigers hat as a mascot lion in a Red Wings jersey urged the crowd to chant the words back (for the uninitiated, the Tigers, Lions, and Red Wings are Detroit’s respective MLB, NFL and NHL teams. No love for the Pistons from Sean, apparently).
There was a long break between Big Sean and J. Cole’s sets, but the wait was well worth it — Cole brought the show back to Fayetteville from Michigan, performing against a vivid LED backdrop and standing on a larger-than-life size version of his former home on Forest Hills Drive. The rapper tore through the entirety of 2014 Forest Hills Drive, pausing only briefly to insert a few older songs into the mix before forging on with the album. Standouts “No Role Modelz” and “G.O.M.D.” elicited screams and pleasure from the crowd, who remained unsatisfied after the album closed, the room went dark, and Cole left the stage.
As was inevitable, Cole came out to perform his encore, leading with crowd favorite “Can’t Get Enough” and bringing Jeremih back to the stage for his single, “Planes,” on which Cole is featured. Truly, the night was shaping up to be the Homecoming show Cole deserved and fans craved. Hell, if the show had ended then, I would have gone home with a smile on my face.
Then Drake walked out.
The moment Drake launched into “Energy” off If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, the Coliseum burst into absolute pandemonium. People turned to their friends in shock, assuring each other that arguably the biggest name in rap had in fact just waltzed onto the stage in Fayetteville, North Carolina. To merely glimpse His Drake-ness, those seated on the floor quickly escalated to the tops of their folding seats and didn’t step down for the rest of the show. Some toppled to the floor, only to return with heightened zealousness.
Drake kept the energy at a maximum as he powered through “Know Yourself” before finishing with this summer’s enormous Meek Mill diss track, “Back to Back.” Meek Mill likely felt the burn states away as all of Fayetteville shouted the song’s most brutal quip: “You love her then you gotta give the world to her / Is that a world tour or your girl’s tour?” If the final nail hadn’t been pegged into the Drake-Meek beef months ago, Drake, Cole and nearly 10,000 of Fayetteville’s finest screaming those lyrics would certainly have done the trick.
The Toronto rapper took a moment out of his set to shower Cole with praise in front of his screaming fans, hailing the hometown hero as “one of the realest, greatest, most genuine and talented” artists Drake has ever worked with. Cole looked — beyond all else — grateful, as every compliment was met with thunderous applause.
In six years of consuming as much live music as my wallet and I could handle, I’ve never experienced anything that could plausibly be compared to the frenzy that was Drake’s rapid-fire set.
Then Jay-Z walked out.
If Drake’s performance induced awe, Jay-Z prompted utter shock. Did J. Cole really have the audacity to bring Drake and Hov — fixture in the greatest of all time conversation — North Carolina’s sixth largest city unannounced? And yet, there he stood, in front of thousands of outstretched hands forming his trademark pyramid symbol. At that point, Cole had me ready to believe that Ye and Bey themselves might make an appearance. Sadly, they did not, but it’s important to believe in dreams.
Jay-Z’s quick set ended with an absolute fireworks show, as the three rappers were joined on stage by Big Sean to perform “Clique” (See? Kanye could have been there). The MCs again praised Cole for his success and artistry before leaving him alone on the stage in front of a crowd that was still processing what had just occurred. They were happy to help Cole finish off the night with “Power Trip,” sending the rapper offstage with a bang.
The throngs of fans filtered out of the Crown Coliseum with sustained fervor, defying voices left hoarse from screaming to contact their friends, siblings and anyone who would listen to break the news about the show in little ole’ Fayetteville that had two giant twists. Maybe we shouldn’t have been so surprised. After all, J. Cole spent much of the night declaring with utmost certainty that anything can happen if you work for it. For Cole, that apparently meant assembling the who’s who of rap for an inimitable, generational concert in his own backyard.
As I stood with my equally awestruck friends in front of the simple two-story house on Forest Hills Drive, I thought back on the evening with disbelief. As a diehard Red Wings fan, I could hardly comprehend that Big Sean – the night’s fourth biggest name – dancing next to a lion in a custom Wings jersey was approximately the twelfth most memorable moment of the night. But with Drake and Jay-Z in the building and Cole performing 2014 Forest Hills Drive in its entirety, that top ten becomes rather selective.
Soon after the show, J. Cole tweeted a simple synopsis of his grand return home: “History was made in the Ville.” How could anyone disagree?
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