St. John’s University graduate J. Cole first hit the rap scene in 2007 with the mixtape The Come Up. Two additional mixtapes followed: 2009’s The Warm Up and 2010’s Friday Night Lights. While all of these releases were critically acclaimed—the website RollingOut.com said they were “all exceptional pieces of work that solidified [Cole] as a lyricist to be reckoned with”—it took a lot longer than planned for the 26-year-old to get his full-length debut out. But now that album is finally here—and Cole is ready to dominate the genre.
Cole World: The Sideline Story got its proper release via Roc Nation on Sept. 27. “I genuinely do feel there really are universal concepts on this album that people from all walks of life can relate to,” Cole has said about the highly anticipated record. The talented MC also said: “The amount of concepts that are on the album is pretty remarkable, and that balanced with the fun songs.”
Rolling Stone praised Cole World in its three-and-a-half star review of the album. “Cole is brainier than most mainstream MCs but too flashy for the underground; he’s equally home flaunting success and sensitivity,” RS said. “He’s a technically superb rapper, packing these sleek, snappy…tracks with dozens of great punch lines.” The magazine chose the tune “Mr. Nice Watch,” which features Cole’s mentor Jay-Z, as a favorite.
“All the songs on the album just happened naturally and organically,” Cole has stated. “There was never a ‘Oh, we need this kind of song’ [moment].”
The 16-track opus featuring guest appearances from the aforementioned Hova, Drake and Missy Elliott—the bulk of which Cole self-produced—premiered in the No. 1 slot on the Billboard 200, selling 217,000 copies. Additionally, Cole made history as having the first No. 1 debut by a solo artist in 2011 and the best digital album debut of any act since Jan. 2010.
“J. Cole’s success is a testament to amazing artist development and Cole’s hard work,” said Jay-Z, who signed Cole as the first artist for his Roc Nation label. “I want to congratulate him on a No. 1 album and, more importantly, a great body of work.”
The album’s first single, “Work Out,” dropped in June. The hot track contains samples of Kanye West’s “The New Workout Plan” and Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up.” Second single “Can’t Get Enough,” featuring Trey Songz, was released in early September. The sexy video for the song was filmed in Barbados over the summer while Cole was serving as Rihanna’s opening act for her Loud Tour; the Barbadian beauty makes a cameo in the clip.
How did Cole get to the top of the charts? By working hard and persevering.
Jermaine Lamarr Cole was born to parents in the military in Frankfurt, Germany, on Jan. 28, 1985. He grew up in Fayetteville, North Carolina, though and considers the city his hometown. At age 12, he began rapping for fun after seeing his cousin from Louisiana do it. “After he left for the summer, I started to take it way more serious and began studying rappers like Eminem, Nas, Jay-Z, Tupac…,” Cole has said. “The ones I liked and was inspired by were always the ones that were really difficult to emulate.”
Canibus was another favorite of Cole’s as a teenager, especially when he started writing his very own lyrics. “I was drawn to Canibus’ punch lines…. I knew he was rapping on another level,” Cole has explained. “I decided to get wittier with my punch lines and wordplay.” It was around this time that Cole started mapping out his future career as a rap superstar.
After graduating from Fayetteville’s Terry Sanford High School in 2003, Cole headed north to New York where he knew all the major record labels were headquartered. But, instead of just pounding the pavement trying to land a record deal right away, the intelligent Cole took time to perfect his lyrics and beats—all while attending Queens’ St. John’s University where he majored in communication arts and minored in business.
In May 2007, Cole graduated magna cum laude and then got a part-time job selling classified ads for Aspire’s sister publication The Queens Courier. “It was the only job I could find that was real flexible with the hours; so I could go to the recording studio and be up real late and then go in to work at, like, 1p.m.,” Cole revealed to Aspire last year.
Cole also spent quite a lot of time trying to make music biz connections. “I tried it all,” he told Aspire. “If I knew somebody was in the game, I would send them a message.” He would look online for phone numbers of industry insiders and then rap on their answering machines or send them messages via MySpace. “It never worked, but these were the things I was trying out.”
One night, Cole waited at the studio Jay-Z was using to record American Gangster in hopes of handing him a disc upon his arrival featuring two beats he thought would be perfect for the veteran rapper’s album. “I waited outside for three hours,” Cole has described. “His [Rolls-Royce] Phantom finally pulled up. I was super-timid and shy. I had the CD in my hand and I tried to hand it to Jay-Z. He looked at it and said, ‘What is this? I don’t want that.’… It was crushing!”
His persistence eventually paid off though. Cole wound up meeting Mark Pitts, the president of Urban Music at Sony and the CEO of Bystorm Entertainment. “Mark heard my music and loved it,” Cold told Aspire. “He’s the one who ended up playing a song called ‘Lights Please’ for Jay-Z.” (About his discovery, whom he now manages, Pitts says: “J. Cole personifies humility and grace with edge and depth. As an MC, his point of view speaks to and represents me. I’m proud and blessed to be a part of his journey.”)
In early 2009, J. and Jay got together and had a three-hour discussion. “I played my music [for] him,” Cole has said about that initial meeting. “We talked about President Obama and other things. Five weeks later, he offered me a record deal.”
Since then, Cole has become real tight with Jay-Z. Only months after meeting, Jay used Cole’s skills on the song “A Star Is Born” from his album The Blueprint 3. “Whenever I need an opinion or feedback, he’s there for me,” Cole explained to Aspire. “His advice is the best advice. Every time he gives advice, I realize why he is where he is. It wasn’t an accident—he really did study the game and he really knows what he’s talking about.” Currently, Cole is tearing up the charts as the featured rapper on “Party,” the latest single from Jay’s wife Beyoncé.
“I just feel like I’m a renaissance man, like I’m revolutionizing the game,” Cole has recently said about his rap career, which he hopes will continue to be successful for many years to come. He added, “As long as I stay true to my specific sound, my fans won’t leave.”
And it’s not just fans, but the music community as a whole whose loving Cole’s efforts. In October, Friday Night Lights won the award for Best Mixtape at the 2011 BET Hip-Hop Awards. More trophies for his work are sure to follow.
“I’m already thinking about the next [album] and how to make it better,” Cole told a Connecticut radio station in the fall. “I got songs that didn’t make the last album that’s automatically going to make this one.” He said that his sophomore album could drop as early as June 2012.
As you read this, Cole is showing Europe what he’s all about—he’ll be playing concerts across the continent thru mid-December. To find out his next move, log on to JColeMusic.com.
To sum up the last few moths of his life, J. Cole said: “To get to this point is a dream come true!”