From Hometown Hero to Superstar Status: How High Can J. Cole Climb?

Among the countless hip-hop viral memes that took off in 2016, one of the best e-jokes came after J. Cole earned his first platinum-selling album with 2014 Forest Hills Drive last September, as fans incessantly shared reminders that the MC went “platinum with no features.” Since his debut mixtape, 2007’s The Come Up, Cole has proven on more than one occasion that his name should be considered among hip-hop’s top-tier acts. After all, this was the same rapper who moved up the release date of Born Sinner to compete with Kanye West’s Yeezus because he believed his music was just as great, if not better.

Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive follow-up, 4 Your Eyez Only, makes another case that he’s creating new rules for hip-hop, regardless of who lies within his fanbase. This week, the 31-year-old rapper earned his fourth No. 1 album, selling 492,000 units (363,000 in traditional album sales), a feat that placed Eyez behind only Drake’s Views and Beyoncé’s Lemonade for the third-best first-week sales of 2016. By comparison, of his total album sales in the U.S., first album, Cole World: The Sideline Story sold 855,000; his sophomore set Born Sinner totaled 796,000; and his third, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, moved 1.24 million, according to Nielsen Music through Dec. 15.

Now more than ever, hip-hop fans have been debating just how big J. Cole really is, and why he’s become so polarizing. From the announcement of 4 Your Eyez Only (his first album in two years) to his first-week sales numbers, there were just as many supporters who celebrated his return as there were detractors who couldn’t wait to fire off quips about his technical skills. As J. Cole has become more successful, he's turned into an Internet punching bag in the hip-hop community; the ultimate divider in debates, where his catalog is compared (usually unfavorably) to legends like Nas and Jay Z, and his lyrics broken down ad nauseam to determine if he’s even a good rapper.

J. Cole’s case for hip-hop’s throne was questioned when 4 Your Eyez Only officially hit streaming services and retail on Dec. 9. It followed a documentary called Eyez, a personalized look at the recording process of the album, that also included two preview songs, “Everybody Dies” and “False Prophets,” calling out rappers from all generations and checking his peers to do better (Kanye West, Drake and Wale were among his perceived targets), though Cole himself -- who doesn’t use social media -- neither confirmed nor denied the rumors about his subject matter.

Interscope Records' president of urban music, Joie Manda, applauds Cole for sticking to his own strategy. "It was important for Cole to have the music speak [for itself]," he says. "The album that he made definitely has a point of view ... He never does things the cookie cutter way." Manda adds that the residual success of his previous efforts set up huge first-week numbers for 4 Your Eyez Only. "It’s a testament to what Cole and his team have built and what he means as an artist. I think [4 Your Eyez Only] is an accumulation of the connection that his previous three albums had with fans. If you look at Forest Hills Drive, it’s still having an effect, and people are still consuming it in great numbers. And it came out two years ago... His fans were just waiting for another album."

The North Carolina rapper has adopted the new trend of a surprise album rollout, and no promotional single. He did it first two years ago with 2014 Forest Hills Drive, and again in 2016 with 4 Your Eyez Only, teasing just an iTunes pre-order link on Dec. 1 with no song titles. In one scene in the Eyez doc, Cole and his manager Ibrahim “Ib” Hamad talk release strategy, discussing how leading with a single ends up making it the automatic standout. “So basically, every song on the last album [Forest Hills] was even playing field. You get a chance to get one song, almost something that they can cling on to, that you can work around,” Ib says in the Scott Lazer-directed clip. “I feel like it could go multiple directions.” Fans ended up with “Everybody Dies,” which didn’t appear on the album, as well as “False Prophets.”

In the past, Cole has promoted singles like “Who Dat,” “Work Out,” “Power Trip” and “Crooked Smile” to land radio airplay, but his unconventional strategy -- releasing material on his own terms, at his own pace -- is clearly working for him, as every song from 4 Your Eyez Only has entered the Billboard Hot 100 at various points in the chart ending Dec. 31, with “Deja Vu” landing at No. 7, his first top 10 on the chart.

Additionally, Cole is the type of rapper who shares his experiences in life so intimately that his fans admire his honesty. Cole’s biggest selling point is his everyman persona, and delivering relatable material -- whether it’s becoming the first artist signed to Roc Nation or expressing his emotional pain in songs such as his Michael Brown tribute “Be Free.” If there’s one thing you can take away from the arc of Cole’s career, it's that his fans are dedicated to reliving these moments with him. They want to attend his private listening sessions in his childhood home in Fayetteville, North Carolina. They want to pay $1 for a ticket into his Dollar and Dream tour. They are genuinely invested in the rapper's journey, and want to see their idol live out his dreams, perhaps even inspire them to pursue their own.

Cole is a main attraction, as evidenced by his Forest Hills Drive tour, his highest selling tour to date. With 63 stops in America and Europe beginning in March of 2015, and split into three acts (Hometown, The Journey, and Hollywood), it boasted a line-up of Big Sean, Jhené Aiko, YG, Jeremih, and Dreamville artists Bas, Cozz, and Omen. Cole partnered with Live Nation for Cole’s Act 3: Hollywood dates, which ran between July 12 to late August -- a total of 28 shows, predominantly in amphitheaters though he played Madison Square Garden, Staples Center, even including a sold-out gig at Chicago’s Tinsley Park on the trek.

Omar Al-Joulani, the senior vice president of North American Touring at Live Nation, tells Billboard that the outing moved just under half a million tickets, and grossed in the neighborhood of $17 million. “The intention is for him to be in arenas next time, across the board,” Al-Joulani says. “J. Cole is the biggest rapper that nobody talks about when you talk about the big three or four.”

Joulani is referring to rappers like Eminem, Jay Z, and Kanye West, who have reached a level that many aspiring young acts want to hit in their lifetime. Cole seems on track to live among those greats very soon, according to Joulani. “I think his audience connects to him in a different way,” he says. “While he has commercial success at radio, his audience is connected to him on more of an album basis. He did the whole album front to back on his last tour, which very few artists have the balls to do on a new record. I think he’s well on his way to being one of the biggest entertainers in the space.”

As much ridicule as Cole receives in some corners for his catalog, a hefty mix of mainstream rap hits and anecdotal deep cuts, his early mixtapes helped build the foundation for the unfathomable level of stardom we see from him today. The Come Up Vol. 1, The Warm Up, and Friday Night Lights, all filled with sample-based production and evocative lyrics, embodied the industry standard of announcing a mixtape and dropping it on a promised date, with all of them racking up astonishing streaming and six-digit download numbers on free mixtape sites like DatPiff and LiveMixtapes.

Cole notoriously maintains a private life, much like one of hip-hope's most respected MCs, Kendrick Lamar, who was also heavily discussed when he broke his recent silence with the Untitled Unmastered album back in March. But even as he remains in the shadows, paricularly as relates to his personal life, Cole still manages to spark a loud conversation online, which often spills over into real life. According to a Twitter rep, there were 2.7 million tweets mentioning J. Cole or 4 Your Eyez Only between Dec. 7 to Dec. 19. Some tweets were sent by high-profile fans like Coldplay and G-Eazy.

Cole is no longer the guy wishing to get off the sidelines, or apologizing to Nas for letting him down. He’s reached the pinnacle of his career through a steady grind and artistic growth, speaking to young adults that they can do the same. Cole had this vision of legendary acclaim early on when he rapped on Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Fridays cut “Looking for Trouble,” a throwback from six years ago: “Never say I’m better than Hov, but I’m the closest one.” It’s about time he gets his credit.