It’s good to come home when you’re J. Cole.
The rapper returned to his New York City roots with a special homecoming performance at his alma mater, St. John’s University in Queens, on April 9. Billed “The Real Is Back,” the sold-out show was presented by Haraya, the Pan-African Students’ Coalition — Cole was, incidentally, the president of the org back in 2007 — for current students and alumni. “It’s crazy. A full-circle moment,” Cole explained to the Village Voice from inside Carnesecca Arena.
He was at ease in his old stomping grounds, on- and offstage. Dressed in comfy gray sweatpants, black tube socks, and a black jersey, the rap star couldn’t have seemed more down-to-earth, easily passing for a rising senior if he wanted to. He performed several tracks from his latest album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, including “A Tale of 2 Citiez,” “Fire Squad,” and, unsurprisingly, the popular virginity-buster “Wet Dreamz.” He ended with a string of his more mainstream offerings, including “Can’t Get Enough,” “Power Trip,” and “In the Morning.”
Cole is enjoying a career high with the commercial success of 2014 Forest Hills Drive and sold-out shows around the nation (including Madison Square Garden on August 8). Still, the North Carolina native was nostalgic and remembered penning many songs that ultimately made 2009’s The Warm Up mixtape on campus.
“There were a few moments onstage when I literally had to remember, like, ‘Oh snap,’ ” he said. “I literally realized onstage that I wrote [‘Lights Please’]. I remembered the apartment that I was in when I wrote it. I remembered the night I wrote it. I definitely probably had class the next day. I just remember that era of making music and still going to class. It’s just crazy.”
But the craziest part of the night was something the crowd didn’t see. Several faculty members who knew the rapper (then Jermaine Cole) stopped by the ad hoc green room to congratulate him, and one in particular brought with her a fitting gift. Dr. Julia Upton — former provost and the professor of Cole’s “Discover New York” class (a required course for incoming freshmen) — bestowed him with his official college diploma. Majoring in communications and minoring in business, Cole graduated summa cum laude in 2007 (with a GPA of 3.82) but never received his sheepskin because of a missing library book.
“I owed money for a library book that I didn’t turn in,” he admitted sheepishly. He has “no clue” what title it was, but apparently even one vanishing book cost him his degree. “If you have any outstanding fee, that translates to money. There’s a price associated with it. I never paid. That’s why I don’t have my degree.”
Luckily, the school waived the fee for its star pupil. “Tonight, I guess they let me slide,” he laughed. Nearly a decade after the fact, Cole already knows exactly what he’s going to do with his long-awaited piece of paper. “I’m gonna send it to my mom.”
On the next page: J. Cole’s return to St. John’s, in photos