Rapper J. Cole was so moved by the Robin Williams movie 'What Dreams May Come' that he based his album on the concept. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images)
Chart-topping rapper J. Cole turned to an unlikely source of inspiration for his latest tour: the 1998 Robin Williams weepie “What Dreams May Come.”
The film follows Williams as he navigates the afterlife, attempting to rescue his wife’s soul from the depths of hell by bringing her to heaven. The fantastical film struck a chord with Cole, who loosely based his new album “Born Sinner” on its trajectory.
“I always loved that movie,” says Cole, on the phone last week from a tour stop in Baltimore. “I watched it with my mom when I was a kid, and I never forgot that concept and how amazing that movie was.”
Once was a time when “Scarface” was the chief reference point for rap’s cognoscenti. But times have changed, and J. Cole is helping lead a hip-hop scene that’s pushing aside gangsta cliches and embracing a different reality — one that watches “What Dreams May Come,” and isn’t embarrassed to say so.
Cole’s current outing, which also borrows its name from “What Dreams May Come,” is a concept piece that unfolds in three acts. It opens with news reports that the rapper was killed in a car accident and subsequently follows his soul’s journey from hell to heaven. The show plays Detroit’s Masonic Temple tonight.
“I didn’t just want to do another tour where you just do the songs,” says Cole, whose real name is Jermaine Cole. “I wanted to apply some type of theatrics to it, and not in terms of just lights, but in terms of storyline. I wanted it to feel like you could watch this show sitting down if you wanted to.”
Cole has always understood the importance of live performance. He took what he learned rapping with friends in middle school cafeterias and at high school football games and applied it to his stage presence. He was 14 years old the first time he jumped in front of a live audience, in his hometown of Fayetteville, N.C., at a concert by local rap duo Bomm Sheltuh.
“All I knew was just go hard, and show passion, and put your all into it,” says Cole, now 28. “And over the years, that progressed into really learning why performing was so important. Learning way more tricks of the trade and ways to draw people in. And I’m only getting better. Every night I’m learning something.”
Part of that learning process has been properly scaling his concerts. While he’s acted as support on major tours from Rihanna and Drake, Cole has taken a methodical approach to his own solo career, booking shows in clubs and small theaters rather than pushing for large rooms he might not be able to fill. Cole has two No. 1 albums to his credit, but knows he’s not ready for a full scale arena outing.
“You’ve gotta earn an arena tour,” he says. “Can I do arenas? Yeah, in some markets, I can do arenas. But that’s not my true natural level of where I’m at. I don’t want to lie and cheat it. I want to know my natural level, and I want to earn it. When I do arenas, I want to have that arena full of real fans that love me and don’t just love the single of the moment. And in order to get that, it’s a slow burn up. Unless you’ve got Drake hits. And I’ve got some hits, thank God, but right now I’m just following the progression of my career. I want to do this the right way.”
So far, so good. Cole’s 2011 debut album “Cole World: The Sideline Story,” debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top 200 albums chart, selling 218,000 copies its first week. Its follow-up, “Born Sinner,” also hit No. 1 and has sold 609,000 copies to date, even outselling Kanye West’s “Yeezus,” which was released the same day.
But despite his triumphs, Cole is still looked at as an underdog — which, the rapper says, is fine by him.
“I’m treated like an underdog — not by my fans, but by non-fans, non-believers,” he says. “But I guess that’s a good thing. It’s always been something that pushed me. It’s like my engine — being the underdog and constantly proving people wrong.”
A Robin Williams movie couldn’t have said it better if it tried.
8 p.m. Thursday
500 Temple St., Detroit
‘Crooked Smile’ video turns eye on Detroit story
J. Cole wasn’t happy with his initial video for “Crooked Smile.”
He shot it at a time when he was stressed out from promoting his album, and he felt the run-of-the-mill clip didn’t have the impact he wanted it to have.
“I always felt like the ‘Crooked Smile’ video needed to be important,” Cole says.
He scrapped the first video, and after seeing this summer’s “Fruitvale Station,” he took a different approach with the clip. He decided to tell two interweaving stories — one of a low-level drug dealer, one of a DEA agent — that intersect at a raid of the drug dealer’s home. Gunfire ensues, and a little girl is caught in the crossfire and dies. Cole dedicated the video to Aiyana Stanley-Jones, the 7-year-old who was killed in a raid of a Detroit home in 2010.
Cole was aware of the Stanley-Jones story when it happened, and he always kept it in the back of his head. After watching and weeping through “Fruitvale,” he was reminded of the story and thought “Crooked Smile,” which talks about insecurities and imperfection through several different lenses, could be a place to tell a story partially inspired by Stanley-Jones.
Before releasing the clip, Cole reached out to Stanley-Jones’ family to get their blessing. He spoke to her mother, Dominika, on the phone. “I was nervous, because I didn’t know how she was going to feel,” Cole says. “But she was relieved. She didn’t want people to forget about her daughter.”
The “Crooked Smile” clip premiered last month and has been viewed more than 3 million times. It has been praised for its stirring content, and Cole is pleased to be able to use his platform as an artist to raise awareness of Stanley-Jones’ story.
“I couldn’t believe how good it came out,” says Cole. “I couldn’t believe how it made me feel. And I couldn’t believe that it made me feel how I wanted it to make people feel.”