'J. Cole Forest Hills Drive: Homecoming' director Scott Lazer opens up about filming the star rapper.
Credit: Vlad Sepetov

J. Cole dropped his surprise album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, on Dec. 9, 2014. Despite its late release date, the collection became the best-selling hip-hop album of the year and entered Cole into an elite class of rappers; he’s one of just six artists in the genre to reach No. 1 on the Billboard charts with their first three full-length albums.

This month, HBO premiered J. Cole Forest Hills Drive: Homecoming, a hybrid concert film and tour documentary, which was the final piece in a five-part mini docuseries about the rapper. It’s entertaining, affecting, and a rare glimpse behind the curtain at a star who has kept his distance from press.

EW caught up with the film’s director, Scott Lazer to discuss collaborating with Cole.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your main goal in putting together Homecoming?

Scott Lazer: What we really wanted to do was give context to the album — to corroborate Cole’s testimony of his hometown, Fayetteville, North Carolina. I’m a big Amy Whinehouse fan and I always knew her songs were hyper-personal, but it wasn’t until I saw Amy that I understood just how intensely personal they are. You can’t really understand until you see the whole picture.

J. Cole is a very private artist. It seems like you had full access here — how he interacts with his team, an interview with his mother, even moments when he is sharing apprehensions about the scale of this arena tour are all included. As a viewer, I found all of those very valuable, what was it like to shoot those moments?

Even times where I may have been pushing it a little bit, Cole never made me feel like I was going too far. He was very, very open with me — he’s an incredible collaborator and he didn’t editorialize me at all. Like right after the first big show of the tour when he is talking about sort of missing playing the smaller clubs and shows, I was worried he might not want that in there, but it was a great moment.

What was the greatest challenge you faced?

Cole is surrounded by an amazing team; he’s got really smart, enjoyable people around him. I was so drawn to them and wanted to go into their stories as well but on one level I was like, “I wonder if Cole is going to feel some type of way about me spending so much time not on him.” I knew he was a humble guy, but he is still a celebrity. But he loved it!

What do you think is the film’s greatest accomplishment?

The way it shows what Cole is describing in “A Tale of 2 Citiez”: the dualism of cities in the South — where there are literally white neighborhoods and black neighborhoods on opposite sides of the tracks. I’m obviously not glad that these things exist, but I am glad to have made that point.

J. Cole Forest Hills Drive: Homecoming is currently available on demand on HBO.