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From Competing With Kanye to Finding His Own Success, J. Cole Has Come A Long Way Since 'Born Sinner'

(For Your Eyez Only Tour, The Fourm - Los Angles, GA 2017)
It's been three years since J. Cole released his sophomore LP Born Sinner, which competed for the #1 spot on the charts against Kanye West's Yeezus. A lot has happened to J. Cole's career since his ambitious and competitive decision to challenge Kanye West for the top spot. In 2013, Cole was on the edge of reaching his pinnacle in less than five years of him rapping these bars on "Forbidden Fruit;"

"When I say that I'm the greatest I ain't talking about later
I'm a drop the album the same day as Kanye
Just to show the boys the man now like Wanyá
And I don't mean no disrespect, I praise legends
But this what's next the boy sick, can't disinfect..."
Unfortunately for Cole, he fell short of the top spot in the first week to Ye. At the time of Born Sinner's release,  he developed a strong fan base, but the industry still questioned J. Cole's future commercial success. While Kanye's Yeezus album is still highly debated by Hip-Hop as either one of West's top 5 best albums or his top worst, Born Sinner eventually did fine on its own. In the third week of the album's release, Born Sinner jumped from #2 to #1 on Billboard 200 eventually selling more cumulatively than Yeezus with two successful radio singles. 
"But I finally put my Momma in that E class, 
And I told her quit her job, but hold your horses
If my next album flops it's back to the post office, both of us, shit
They're saying that's a real possibility
The thought alone is killing me" Cole Summer, Truly Yours 2
J. Cole's career has been the story of the underdog. As one of Roc Nation's earliest signees by Jay-Z, pressure and expectation was high. The public had initial reservations of success from not only J. Cole but his peers Big Sean, Drake, Wale, and early peaks of Kendrick Lamar. These artists were at the forefront of a new era of Hip-Hop culture and individually created their own avenues of affluence. After Born Sinner, J. Cole abandoned his quest of industry acceptance, as well as mainstream success, and inherited a new life perspective. 

J. Cole's personal and artistic evolution drew him further from the industry as the industry drew closer to him following 2014 Forest Hills Drive. It appeared that J. Cole finally found the success he dreamt of and received the accolades he once hoped for. People were captivated in his newfound lifestyle of manhood that included having substance, growth, happiness, redemption, freedom and family. 

2014 Forest Hills Drive became Cole's first "platinum with no features" album. Two years later it was followed up with 4 Your Eyez Only. Similarly to FHD4YEO didn't have much of a marketing rollout to its release. Cole did release two teaser tracks not featured on the album, "False Prophets"(people allude may have referenced Kanye West) and "Everybody Dies." 4 Your Eyez Only is one of J. Cole's most personal, yet mysterious pieces of work. He narrated the album through the voice of the unspoken, while we assume creating parallels to his personal life. 

Currently he's embarking on the "For Your Eyez Only Tour," that takes fans on an intimate-feel journey through the album. The second portion of the tour is underway in major cities across the US. During his Los Angeles stop, he performed at The Fourm with two back to back sold out shows. The stage set resembles a prison yard, as he is escorted to the middle of the arena by correctional officers. Throughout the show he wears an orange prison jumpsuit with "Property Of" embroidered on the back. 

Cole opens the performance with"From Whom The Bell Tolls," and proceeds to perform the remainder of the album in its chronological order. Of course he takes break to turn up the crowd with a series of his classic fan favorites. J. Cole makes sure no matter the size of the venue he performs in, to create an intimate setting with his fans and inserts transparency time to speak from his heart. 

Cole transitions into a throwback he doesn't perform often, "Forbidden Fruit."As the song approaches the end, Cole interjects and calls for the beat to be reversed.  Turns out, its "Neighbors" from 4YEO. Many of his fans already discovered this gem through social media, but that didn't stop the crowd from roaring in total surprise. After performing "Neighbors" he plays real footage of his North Carolina studio "The Sheltuh" being raided by S.W.A.T while he was away. The footage was publicly released on his "For Your Eyez Only" documentary that premiered on HBO earlier this year. Cole stands center stage explaining the incident. 

At that moment the message of the tour is clear.  J. Cole parallelled the anecdotes of the album and visually transformed its symbolism of being a black man in this country. The set design, costume selection, J. Cole's messages in between songs all align with his story still dealing with systematic oppression and racism, despite fame and wealth. 

Four albums in, J. Cole has cultivated his career into something unique. He sells out major venues as a solo artist, runs his own label imprint Dreamville, has more than one platinum album under his belt, and has added producing documentaries to his repertoire. Cole has been put in conversations with the Hip-Hop greats, as the lyricist, writer and producer of much of his catalog. If we're speaking on greats, his acclaim now is amongst one of the names that outsold him in the first week in 2013. From Born Sinner to 4 Your Eyez Only, truthfully much hasn't changed about the messages in his music from 3 years ago. The tie he made from "Forbidden Fruit" to "Neighbors" is a direct link to his progression and the origins of his career. 

   (Photos: Farrin Hymon)

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