J. Cole flips through pairs of camouflage cargo pants at a sunny photo studio steps away from Manhattan’s elevated High Line park. 2Pac’s 1995 opus “Me Against the World” blasts from his iPod, and he knows every word. The wardrobe and soundtrack befit a young man about to go to war.
“It’s like Michael Jordan in the fourth quarter: A switch goes off,” Cole says, finally settling on a dark green pattern that complements his black suede sneakers (Air Jordans, naturally). “I’m locked in.”
Cole’s second album, “Born Sinner” — due June 18 on Roc Nation/Columbia — is less than a month away, and some big adversaries loom in the distance: massive expectations, fostered by the No. 1 debut of Cole’s first album, “Cole World: The Sideline Story,” on the Billboard 200 two years ago; a still rigid record industry, caught up in the old ways of doing things; and even Cole himself, who seems to court an uphill battle where he can find one.
J. COLE + BILLBOARD
“Every album I sold wasn’t because of a hit song. The single didn’t do the work. My fan base did.”
Case in point: In May, the 28-year-old rapper, born Jermaine Cole, announced he was moving the release date of Born Sinner, up a week from June 25 to June 18. The new date brings Cole head-to-head with his newest, biggest adversary of all: Kanye West. Shortly before Cole made his announcement, a tweet from West sparked speculation that his sixth album, “Yeezus,” was dropping on the 18th. Cole describes hearing the rumors as being “like a light bulb going off in my head. I made one phone call to somebody who would know, and [they] confirmed the date,” Cole says. “Right away it was clear in my mind that I needed to see Kanye on that day. It wasn’t even a question. How many opportunities do you get to compete with one of the greatest?”
It’s a showdown loaded with patriarchal portent: West, the Jay-Z producer who arrived as a rapper nine years ago, wrestling with his own internal contradictions and self-doubt on “The College Dropout” before blossoming into one of hip-hop’s most expansive talents; and Cole, the Jay-Z protege who was the first artist signed to his Roc Nation label, and who repaid that vote of confidence with a No. 1 debut album, which, like West’s, featured a rapper/producer balancing stardom and everyman struggles with remarkable honesty. (As if all that isn’t enough of a challenge, “Born Sinner” will contend with the follow-up from Mac Miller — whose debut launched at No. 1 in 2011 — which also arrives June 18.)
Tall and lanky, Cole’s an avid basketball player with a penchant for sports metaphors that cast him as hip-hop’s Jordan or LeBron James. But when it comes to his jump-ball with West, he’s decidedly more humble: He knows another No. 1 debut is unlikely. “I am not half as big of an artist,” he admits. “He’s legendary. He’s one of the greatest artists of this generation. But I just have that competitive spirit about me.”
Roc Nation VP of product marketing Liz Hausle says the label was surprised when Cole moved up his release date, but supportive. “We’re doing everything we can to make this happen logistically,” she says. “But at the end of the day, he has a phenomenal album and we think it can stand up to anybody in the marketplace.”
And that’s all Cole wants: for the music to do its own marketing. “I know it’s going to leak,” Cole says of “Born Sinner.” “Once you master it, once you send it to the plant, it’s out of your hands. If anything, it’s better promotion. No promotion beats the music itself. Fans won’t say, ‘Did you see the poster for J. Cole’s album?’ They’ll be like, ‘Did you hear his album?’ So a leak is a good thing in some ways. And Born Sinner is the real thing; it’s the proof.”
Cole’s trajectory is one of rap’s most unlikely: Born in Frankfurt, Germany, to an interracial couple serving in the U.S. Army; raised modestly by his white mother, a postal worker, in Fayetteville, N.C., a state that’s a nonentity in rap’s still fiercely regional landscape (Petey Pablo, anyone?); attended New York’s St. John’s University on an academic scholarship, where he majored in communications, just missed making the basketball team and graduated magna cum laude in 2007.
“I’ve always been an underdog,” Cole says. “I feel like I beat the odds.”
Shortly after graduating, trying to make good on childhood rap dreams in between working “an $8-an-hour job selling ads for some newspaper in Queens,” Cole camped outside of Jay-Z’s Roc the Mic studios in Manhattan, aiming to hand his idol a beat CD. “We were standing in the rain for hours, drinking a bottle of E&J for courage,” Cole recalls the day after the shoot, in between rehearsals with the Roots for a May 21 performance on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.” “Finally a [Rolls-Royce] Phantom rolled up, and sure enough, Jay got out. But he was real short with me: ‘I don’t want that.’ I was crushed, like, ‘Did that really just happen? Fuck him.'”
But things began to turn around when Cole caught the attention of Bystorm Entertainment, the management/production firm founded by former Notorious B.I.G. managers Mark Pitts and Wayne Barrow, who had an ironic, but ultimately spot-on choice in terms of finding Cole a label home: Jay-Z’s then newly founded Roc Nation. “Mark felt that Jay-Z would be the perfect person for Cole, and they had a great relationship,” Barrow says, noting that he and Pitts have known Jay-Z, a close associate of the late B.I.G., since the ’90s. “J. Cole represents everything that Jay-Z did: It’s genuine, it’s from the heart. We took Cole’s music to Jay and he fell in love with it.”
Cole became the first artist signed to Roc Nation’s label wing in early 2009. Unlike many rappers who’ve signed deals since the early 2000s, Cole didn’t have pre-deal buzz — just talent. “A lot of people need hype for someone to endorse them,” Barrow says. “Cole is just about the music.”
Cole made his commercial debut with a guest verse on Jay-Z’s “The Blueprint 3” in 2009, on “A Star Is Born” (no pressure there), where Cole wondered in advance of his own renown, “Does fame in this game have to change who you are?” Then he had to set about answering that question, spending the better parts of 2009 through 2011 touring relentlessly and releasing two mixtapes.
Despite the groundwork, first single “Who Dat?” (2010) fizzled, peaking at No. 32 on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. Follow-up “Work Out,” released the following summer in the lead-up to his debut album’s fall release, didn’t fare much better at first, languishing at No. 98 on the Billboard Hot 100 when the album arrived Sept. 27, 2011. So, when “Cole World” bowed at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, with 217,000 first-week copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, industry prognosticators were shocked — as was Cole himself.
“I remember praying at the time, ‘Please, Lord, let me do 100 the first week,'” Cole recalls. “The label was predicting 60,0000-70,000. But when the charts came in, all these top execs were calling Mark Pitts, calling Jay-Z, like, ‘Yo, how the fuck did you do it?’ I worked my fan base and put out free music and toured for two years, that’s how. Every album I sold wasn’t because of a hit song. The single didn’t do the work; my fan base did.” (“Work Out” later rose to a peak of No. 13 on the Hot 100 on Jan. 8, 2012, helping the album sell 684,000 units to date.)
Cole’s from-the-ground-up coup despite radio’s initial resistance was the first of a wave of hip-hop success built through the combination of hard touring and mixtapes, and converting ticket buyers into album buyers. Six weeks later, Miller’s “Blue Slide Park” became the first independently released debut to bow at No. 1 in 16 years, selling 144,000 units without a hit single. Kendrick Lamar’s “good kid, m.A.A.d. city” bowed at No. 2 with 241,000 copies the following year. A$AP Rocky’s “Long.Live.A$AP” opened at No. 1 with 139,000 sold in January. Like Cole, all three focused on building and servicing a loyal, core fan base through live shows and free music, threading a fine line between underground acclaim and crossover appeal, before releasing their debuts.
“So much on my mind, wonder how it fits in my brain,” Cole said on “Cole World’s” opening track, “Dollar and a Dream III.” His rhymes announced a new generation of hip-hop artists, one that weighed the consequences of the rap lifestyle. If Jay-Z worried about the price to be paid for the street hustle, Cole worried about the consequences of the hip-hop hustle. (Later in the same song, Cole wrestles with his own hedonistic exploits: “Getting brain from a bitch and thinking, ‘Goddamn, what’s her name?’/Sometimes I just shake my head and tell myself, ‘This is a shame’/And then my other side kick in, like, ‘Bitch, don’t be so fucking lame.'”) Lamar and singer Frank Ocean would follow with major-label debuts that brought a different dimension to what can be thought of as hip-hop’s new moral center.
And they did it on their own terms — which Cole feels he helped make possible. “It took me a while to see it, but my album changed the business model. It showed the world that a radio single is great, but it’s only a bonus when you already have a fan base and music that people will die for. It showed record execs, who’d been doing things in a very old-school way, that there’s a new way-and J. Cole just did it. Kendrick never had to do that Lady Gaga ‘Partynauseous’ song,” Cole says, referring to a duet that was reportedly pulled from Lamar’s album before release. “I’m sure Interscope was shoving that down his throat, like, ‘You got to work with Gaga.’ But he could say, ‘Yo, Cole did all those numbers with no singles, so we’re on the right track.’ Kendrick Lamar is making songs that are anthems for people’s lives, songs that change people’s lives, whether or not he had a radio single.”
“It definitely was a story of good old grass-roots marketing,” Hausle says. “Certain artists, they need a hit on the radio to sell albums. But Cole built this incredible core base and stayed connected to it, even when he wasn’t actually on the marketplace. He speaks to a certain demographic. When we go to his in-stores, everybody on line looks like J. Cole.”
This is an excerpt. For the complete story, buy this week’s issue of Billboard.