During his teenage years, a mentor bestowed Cole with his first rap name, “Therapist,” which he proudly wore up until he made the switch while attending St. John’s University in New York City. For Cole, the moniker represented something that wasn’t exactly himself – he always knew he felt more comfortable as his government name.
“You’d be around the city in a corner store and someone would be like, ‘Yo, Therapist!’ And it was a little awkward,” he recalls, laughing. “It feels like someone knew my secret identity or something. I’d be with one friend who knew me as Jermaine and someone would be like, ‘Yo, Therapist!’ and I’d be like ah man, what’s up? So I always knew in high school that I didn’t really love it, but my mentor had given me that name and I felt like if they liked it, then I had to like it. When I got to school, I decided I needed something different. J. Cole was just a name that a couple kids called me in middle school, like one of my homeboys. He’d be like, ‘J. Cole!’ It felt more real, it felt more like my real name. I liked that better.”
While attending St. John’s, Cole honed his craft, applying what he’d learned from listening to Nas, 2Pac and Eminem to his increasingly nimble rhymes. Under his freshly minted name, J. Cole took to the Internet to plant his artistic seeds, releasing his debut mixtape, The Come Up Vol. 1, hosted by DJ OnPoint in 2007. But it was with his 2009 mixtape, The Warm Up, that he accrued a strong enough following to make the collection of tracks one of the buzziest releases of the year. Celebrating the tape with listening parties in the Big Apple and his native Fayetteville, Cole reminisces on the time as a period of purity – one where he was blissfully blind to the hardships of the music industry and stresses that it would bring.
“I remember it being a real innocent time. I didn’t know better. I didn’t know what I know now and shit,” he explains. “I didn’t know what I was up against. I didn’t know it would take me two more years to put out an album. I was just happy to be releasing a mixtape and I felt it was great, and I was hoping the world would like it. I just remember innocence, like I didn’t know nothing about the game.”
After Jay plucked him from the unsigned circuit, he quickly got hip to the game, immediately setting to work on what would become his debut. Cole hit the studio with super producer No I.D. for the album’s first session in October 2009, though he says songs for the project were conceived as far back as 2007. His tendency to think ahead has already played into his sophomore album, for which he’s already recorded a “gang of songs” and recently revealed that he intends to release in June 2012.
He doesn’t want to gab to the press like he was doing in the preceding months to Cole World, and after wrapping up his international tour, he plans on sealing himself off from the public. “It’s so early on. But I could put out a second album right now,” he says. “I have that many songs, but of course, it’s not that simple. You really want to make a body of work. I’m saying all of this to say, I’m staying away from talking it up too early. I’m just really trying to get my direction right now. I’m making beats, I’m writing rhymes. I’m not sure what it’s going to sound like. It could be totally different from this album, or it could be a continuation. I’m not sure. But I’m working and building.”