Just two years ago, J. Cole was a rap hopeful with just a dollar and a dream. A deal with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation helped put him on the map, while several mixtapes paved the way for his chart-topping debut. Now, the Fayetteville, NC native has the game on lock, proving why it’s a Cole world after all.
by Steven J. Horowitz
Photography by Nitin Vadukul, Styling by Darius Baptist
Grooming by Jackie Sanchez/Dermalogica
For the past few years, J. Cole has been a little nervous. The Fayetteville, North Carolina native, who first cracked the game with his breakout mixtape, The Warm Up, in 2009, has since amassed a fiendish following, selling out shows around the globe and rewarding fans with a few free album-quality mixtapes. But when it came time to drop his debut, Cole World: The Sideline Story, released via Roc Nation in September 2011, he wasn’t sure what to expect. Was his fan base extensive to the point where his album would succeed on a mainstream level? The uncertainty alone was enough to break the otherwise stoic rapper’s confidence.
“I didn’t have a clear definition of success. I didn’t have a clear-cut sales number,” explains the 26-year-old of his trepidation. “Like, ‘If I do this number, then I’ll be successful.’ Because it was so vague, the success was so vague. I wasn’t sure if it would sell and how well it would sell, you know what I’m saying?”
Lucky for Cole, the numbers were in his favor. After years of relentless grinding and several album delays, the underdog swiftly became the overlord when Cole World bowed atop the Billboard chart with 218,000 copies sold in its first week. All of this without so much as a Top 40 single or direct co-sign from his Roc Nation boss, Jay-Z, who publicly forced Cole to stretch his LP’s deadline to include their collaboration, “Mr. Nice Watch.”
But in an era where hashtag rap reigns supreme, Cole’s success isn’t just a testament to his grind. For the self-proclaimed 2Pac aficionado, lodging his debut at the top of the charts – and wildly exceeding sales projections – was more a victory for rappers with something to say. With his second official mixtape, The Warm Up, and last year’s Friday Night Lights, Cole proved to be a double threat: not only was he capable of mining experiences from his personal life and dissecting them in rhyme, but he set them to self-helmed, soul-infused production. Cole considers the LP’s success not just a triumph for himself, but for the culture – and its future.
“I feel like because this album wins, then hip-hop and the future win. And all these other artists who are coming out now and are actually talking about real things and got musical substance will win, too,” says Cole. He raps from the perspective of both a man and woman arguing over an abortion on album standout “Lost Ones,” one of his realest – and most heralded – moments on wax to date. “Nobody knew that that type of music could be successful, commercially. I feel like if you can balance being successful and remaining yourself, you’ll be the artist that you want to be.”
Cole’s insistence on digging deeper than his peers makes for an album that’s equal parts flash and reflection. Cole World, largely produced by Cole with additional assistance from No I.D., L&X Music and Brian Kidd, features marquee guest appearances from Trey Songz on second single “Can’t Get Enough,” Missy Elliott on third single “Nobody’s Perfect” and Drake on “In the Morning.” But for every collaborative cut, there’s emotional excavation, like on “Dollar and a Dream III” and “Daddy’s Little Girl,” where he describes a grown woman on the wrong path.