Photo: JDotShots for Columbia Records

As J. Cole sat atop the faux roof of 2014 Forest Hills Drive–the childhood home he named his 3rd studio album after–at Madison Square Garden in New York City last night, he began to tell a story many rappers tell when they’ve “made it big,” often signified by achieving something as momentous as selling out MSG after releasing an album with no pop records. However, this story was different from the one say, Jay Z might tell, or Kanye West, or Nicki Minaj. J. Cole, along with Drake, Kid Cudi, and a handful of others, make up a small crop of superstars whose meager beginnings lived on the internet. When Kanye West refers to when he was pumping out “5 beats a day for 3 summers,” we have nothing but our imagination to rely on when attempting to conjure an image of a 24-year old Kanye West, huddled over a small desk in Newark, matching synths with samples. However, there are pictures of Drake and 40 dressed in cringeworthy outfits on Facebook and Myspace, dated 2008 or 2009. Every once in a while, someone digs far back enough to share a tweet J. Cole sent out 6 years ago, celebrating his 502nd follower. He now has in excess of 7 million.

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20,000 of them packed out New York City’s most storied concert venue last night, the same venue the man who signed Cole, Jay Z, sold out in 24 hours for what was expected to be his farewell concert 12 years ago. As Cole took the stage amidst brooding blue LED lights, at one point joking about how unaccustomed he is to such bravado–“I don’t even know what the f*ck LED lights means”–there was nary a dull moment. Despite the fact that he relied on his Dollar & A Dream show formula–pick a project, and perform it from front to back–for a show that, one would imagine, doesn’t call for such a unilateral agenda, he had New York’s attention for the duration. Even when he spent nearly 10 minutes telling a story about the metaphoric nature of his song’s titles–“St. Tropez” in particular–or performed some of the album’s less popular cuts (“Hello”), the energy level rarely dipped below electric, and never strayed from fixated. “January 28th,” “Tale of 2 Citiez,” and “No Role Modelz,” shook the building as expected, and even a revisit of his debut album, “Lights Please,” drew one of the night’s biggest, loudest cheers.


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So, as he began his brief rags to riches monologue atop that stage roof, which would precede 2014FHD‘s closer, “Love Yourz,” the song that has prevented at least one person from committing suicide, the sold-out crowd at MSG interrupted him with chants of “J. Cole, J. Cole,” before eventually erupting into a voracious standing ovation, one that left Cole in disbelief. Whatever he was about to say, this crowd had already witnessed. They saw how he was ridiculed for making “Work Out.” They remember when he was forced to drop what was meant to be his debut album a year early because it lacked a “radio hit.” They’d witnessed the jokes from social media personalities, promising Cole would amount to little more than a standout on the mixtape circuit, and the mercilessly circulated memes poking fun at Cole’s perceived lack of a personal relationship with Shawn Carter, who crowned Cole with a Roc-A-Fella chain at MSG’s smaller venue last year.

Cole’s approach to his 3rd album cycle was passive-aggressive, at least with respect to the critiques that had been held over his head following his first two official releases. He’s been called boring by many, but he’s still yet to let anyone rap on his albums, save Jay Z and Bas. 2014 Forest Hills Drive is the first of his albums to have absolutely no features, be it a guest chorus a verse. He traveled everywhere in sweats, his hair grew relentlessly, and last night it appeared to be an ode to The Weeknd. No records were serviced to radio before the album’s December release, and when “Apparently” was finally pushed, it was the only thing like it on the radio. The entire process, culminating in last night’s triumph, prompts a recall of Andre 3000–someone Cole has compared himself to in the past–in one of his best 2010’s guest verses, on T.I.‘s “Sorry.”

Was young and had to choose between you
And what the rest of the world might offer me, sh*t what would you do
Well I’d probably do it differently if second the chance
Only if some cool ass older man would’ve let me know in advance
There’s this quarry, that is dug so deep in a father’s chest
When he feel that he’s broken up his nest
And he figured shit he was just doing the best that he could
Which end up being the worst that he could
And all some p***y n***a on the internet can say is that verse ain’t good
It’s boring? Boring? Really?

I wonder which one of these 20,000 people were bored last night.

-Khari Nixon (@khari92)