There are 16 songs and three bonus tracks of tightly wound rhymes and sinewy beats on J. Cole's debut album, Cole World: The Sideline Story, but the 26-year-old rapper says that the true nature of the album lies in the material that didn't make the final cut.
"To me [the album] represents all the songs that actually aren't even on this album, whether it be mixtape stuff [or] stuff I'm saving for the next album," Jermaine "J." Cole says two weeks before Cole World hits shelves Sept. 27 through Roc Nation/Columbia.
Even the album's first song, "Dolla and a Dream III," he says, is proof that his back story is just as important as Sideline Story. "Just to be able to start the album with the third [song] in a series does a lot, because it's an instant connection with the fans who have been there for a while," Cole says of the track, which builds on songs that had appeared on his earlier mixtapes, The Come Up and The Warm Up. "And [it prompts] the new people to go back and do their homework."
Those arriving late to the J. Cole train have a lot to catch up on. Since releasing The Come Up and signing with Sony/Jive in 2007, Cole has released a collection of acclaimed mixtapes; made the shift to Roc Nation in 2009, after Jay-Z heard The Warm Up's "Lights Please"; appeared on Jay-Z's chart-topping 2009 album, The Blueprint 3; played arenas in support of Rihanna; and received coaching (and a guest verse) from Roc Nation label head Jay-Z.
He's also produced the bulk of his own music, including many songs on his mixtapes and 13 of his album's 16 tracks, including the single "Work Out," which came out in June and has sold 118,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. "Work Out" will appear on Cole World as a bonus track.
"The value in him is not just with the pen and the pad, but [that] he's creating these records and concepts from scratch," says Bystorm Entertainment president Wayne Barrow, who manages Cole.
Cole World has been a long time coming. The single "Who Dat?" and its video were released in the summer of 2010. The song, which Cole co-produced, peaked at No. 32 on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, but recording for Cole World continued. In the meantime, Cole made several guest appearances including one on Miguel's "All I Want Is You," which rose to No. 7 on the same chart, and Cole performed live, spending the spring and fall of 2010 on U.S. college tours.
For Cole, the hardest part of transitioning from 20-track mixtapes to a proper full-length was arriving with a cohesive statement. He credits the tone of Cole World-which features reflective tracks like "Breakdown" as well as uptempo fare like the Brian Kidd-produced "Can't Get Enough," featuring Trey Songz-to RCA Music Group president of urban music and Bystorm CEO Mark Pitts and Jay-Z, who served as mentors and spent hours with the rapper cutting down the track list.
"A lot of things [Jay-Z] said, I was like, 'Are you sure?' And then, of course, it made sense," Cole says. "When I did my mixtapes, I knew there were songs on there that I'd be like, 'Ah, I'll probably skip this one.' On this one, I literally press play and the whole album will flow."
One of Cole World's flashiest tracks is "Mr. Nice Watch," an electro-tinged banger featuring Jay-Z that Cole says came together in the last week of recording. It leaked online on Sept. 14, and within hours "Mr. Nice Watch" was trending on Twitter.
Barrow says that "Mr. Nice Watch" will "wholeheartedly" be released as a single, although a Roc Nation representative, who asked to remain anonymous, says the track wasn't designed to bait Jay-Z fans into noticing Cole. "Obviously with Jay on the record, it's something that gets more eyeballs," the rep says. "But Jay wants J. Cole to be J. Cole, and not 'Jay-Z's artist.'"
Before Cole had a chance to establish himself at retail, Rihanna approached him to join her Loud arena tour, which kicked off in June and also featured Cee Lo Green. Cole spent the months leading up to Cole World's release as support on the pop music trek, which Barrow says gave him an opportunity "to showcase his talent in front of folks that didn't know anything about him." In between dates, Cole played a prime slot at Bonnaroo, where a packed crowd rapped along to mixtape cuts like "Blow Up" and "Before I'm Gone."
On Sept. 14, the rapper appeared on MTV2's "Sucker Free Road to Release," which documented the making of Cole World and offered fans exclusive video footage. On the same day, Cole debuted the music clip for "Can't Get Enough," which was shot in Barbados and features a cameo by Rihanna. Following the album release, Cole will perform at scattered U.S. shows before heading to Europe for a fall headlining tour.
And other partnerships are in the works. "A number of brands have approached him to be front and center for their campaigns," the Roc Nation rep says.
In the meantime, Cole is staying happy and humble. "When I think of this, I think of all the things that I've done, and all the things that I've been through," he says. "To get to this point is a dream come true."