Just two weeks after J. Cole announced and released his fourth studio effort 4 Your Eyez Only, J. Cole has topped the Billboard 200 for the fourth time while all 10 tracks have hit the Hot 100. He also landed the third-highest debut of 2016 on the heels of Drake‘s Views and Beyonce‘s Lemonade, earning 492,000 equivalent album units (363,000 of which were traditional album sales) in the week ending Dec. 15.
On his latest offering, the Fayetteville, North Carolina, rapper (born Jermaine Cole) stretches his range, singing on songs like the emotional opener “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” while weaving together bars based on personal experiences mixed with tales from a drug dealer who dies at the hands of the streets. On “Change,” Cole also tributes his fallen friend, James McMillan Jr., who passed away at 22 and is believed to have inspired the record.
While Cole has let the music speak for itself by shying away from interviews, Billboard called his manager and Dreamville Records president Ibrahim “Ib” Hamad to discuss the rollout strategy for 4 Your Eyez Only, the viral joke that has become “going platinum with no features” and why grinding at a slow pace leads to success well worth the wait.
What do you think helped make 4 Your Eyez Only the No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 in just a week?
I think it’s really just seven, eight, however many years of work that’s been put in already. I don’t think there’s any secret to this. There is no marketing plan with that. Cole has built his fan base. They trust him, and they trust his product. At the same time, he kind of just goes away after he puts out the music and people want to hear from him. He’s not on social media. He’s not in the news, he’s not in the press, he’s just in his own world, so when he decides to come out and say something, it holds weight. And people care to hear what he has to say. He’s built that over seven years of just doing right by people, doing right by his fans, and putting in the work. Once you put in that work, you kind of have the freedom to be able to do things your way, at your own pace and on your own time.
Who is the J. Cole fan in your mind?
To me, it’s people that connect with him emotionally because he says things they feel or want to say but they don’t know how to say it. He puts it in a way for them to be like, “Oh my God, he’s talking about me” or “He’s talking about my life.” I feel that’s what he does better than anybody — he connects with people emotionally. So if you don’t feel that way or that’s not something you’re going through, you’re not going to necessarily get it. But that’s why his fans hold him so high up and that’s why they love him so much, because he’s speaking to something that a majority of people are going through. He’s not speaking about something that’s so outrageous that nobody understands. He’s talking about things that the average person, whether it’s me, his friends or his fans, understand. It makes them feel like, “Damn, I guess if I could write, rap, and I knew a way to say it, I would say it that way.” I’m his manager, but as a fan, that’s how I feel.
Do you think his songs transcend race, class and gender?
Oh, for sure. I think the more people are getting to hear his music, the more people are coming in and being like, “Oh my God. I can relate to this. I understand this” from different classes, different genders, different races because you see that in the numbers — it just grows. He’s growing numbers-wise because many people are coming in like, “I know that feeling” or “Oh man, I can’t believe he just said that.” Because it’s not like he’s throwing out these smash singles and that’s why he’s growing. He’s growing because whenever he gets people’s ears, they feel a certain connection and that’s his gift. He can put into words an emotional feeling — it’s not like a little story, or a visual thing. It’s a feeling that he gives off.
2014 Forest Hills Drive became Cole’s first million-selling album and debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 as well. I’m sure you saw the running joke on Twitter that it went platinum with no features. Was there any pressure to follow that same formula?
Not at all. I think, at the end of the day, Cole’s never gonna force anything. He’s not the guy that’s out, hanging out with rappers or in the studio with rappers all day. He’s really in the studio with his team and making music with his producers and his artists. He’s done songs with other people involved but it might not make the album. [His artist] Ari [Lennox’s] voice made the album on “Change” because she came in, added something to it and it worked. If it doesn’t work, Cole’s not gonna put it on there because it’s a name. He’s never gonna put it on there just to say he got a feature.
He also didn’t go into it like, “I’m gonna have no features on this album.” He didn’t go into Forest Hills Drive initially saying he was gonna have no features. That’s just how it ended up. At the end of the day, the most important thing to him and to all of us is how do we get this point that we’re trying to get through and how do we make the best version of a song? This album wasn’t made like how are we gonna impress people? That’s why we ended up taking out “Everybody Dies” and “False Prophets.” It was a great song. It was an album-worthy song, but it just didn’t make sense in the story that we were trying to tell. And that’s just how it is. That’s the process. You have to stick to what you believe in and what you want to get out there.
You mentioned “False Prophets” and “Everybody Dies,” which are also on the Hot 100 but it made me think of the conversation you and Cole had in the Eyez documentary where you both were talking about putting out that one song that becomes the stand-out for whatever project follows. What made you both decide to have “False Prophets” and “Everybody Dies” in this behind the scenes documentary instead of having it on the record?
Well, [the songs were] initially on the album. The album was initially like 13, 14 songs and then just at the last second, we kind of were like, “Look, if we’re trying to tell a story, let’s just make it as clear as possible and cut it down to that.” So when we cut out “False Prophets” and “Everybody Dies,” it really hurt because “False Prophets” was on the album the whole time and it was one of our favorites but we had the documentary piece already in the works. We did that piece where Cole’s talking in the studio, which is really like a two-hour conversation, and we had already had shot the video [for “False Prophets”] like four or five months ago. Then we were like, “It would be dope if we could put “False Prophets” [in the documentary]” as long as it fits the whole vibe of the documentary because the documentary had a vibe to it. It was just this fly on the wall aspect where nobody’s ever talking to the camera. You feel like you’re looking at these still shots, a real peek into Cole’s life. [“False Prophets”] was added a few days before we put out the documentary. We really wanted “False Prophets” and “Everybody Dies” on the album and it was like we still wanted people to hear it but we didn’t want to put the music out because we knew it wasn’t a real representation of the album. We just thought in the documentary, it would be a cool extra thing but then the documentary just took off and grew a life of its own. It was great to see.
Cole worked with Scott Lazer on the HBO special earlier this year. Was it always the plan to put out a behind-the-scenes documentary first before putting the album out?
Scott’s a part of our team. He does a lot of great things for the team he’s working with — he’s worked on Bas videos, Cozz videos, he’s working on some stuff with Ari and Omen. We were working on the album and just told Scott, “Come through and catch footage.” He just started shooting it in weird ways like he would just put the camera in one spot and just let it record, and he wouldn’t move around with the camera. And then after the first week he was with us, he was like, “I have this idea. I want to do these longer shots, like a minute-and-a-half shots, maybe 45-second shots and really just have the viewer feel like they’re there.” So once he said that, we were like, “We love the idea, let’s try it out.” And as we were finishing up the album, we knew we wanted to put that out to kind of announce and give a glimpse of the album. And Scott’s just incredible. He’s always thinking forward and we just allow him to have these ideas and then work together to ensure whatever message we’re trying to get across, gets across.
This year, many artists were releasing their albums exclusively via different streaming service but J. Cole, a founding artist of Tidal, just released it on all platforms. What was the reasoning behind that?
I think it was just important to us to get our music out to everybody at once. People look at the numbers and they’re like people will find the music anyway but we were thinking about giving everybody the same chance to get the music at the same time. That’s just something that’s important to Cole. But we also knew that with his relationship with Tidal and Jay [Z], he wasn’t just gonna [release the album exclusively on Tidal], you know? It was a conversation we had and shout out to Jay for being very understanding. [Tidal’s team is] all very cool people and they just give us the chance to bring our ideas to life. We gave them the documentary which ended up being huge for them. I don’t want to say it necessarily evened out but it felt right that Tidal had the opportunity to hold the documentary and have the exclusive, and then we had the opportunity to give everybody the music at the same time. We knew that was important to us.
“Déjà Vu” became Cole’s first ever Hot 100 Top 10 debut at No. 7. But there is a likeness to Bryson Tiller’s “Exchange” because of the song that it samples on the beat. How long ago was “Déjà Vu” made and was there any hesitation to put that out?
I wouldn’t say there was any hesitation because I felt like it’s just two totally different songs. We had already made “Deja Vu,” like that song was literally made for his last album [2014 Forest Hills Drive] and we just knew it would fit better because of the story he wanted to tell on the album. Cole had already made the song, so when Bryson’s album came out and we heard it, it was a feeling like, “Damn, he used the same sample.” But to Cole, it don’t matter. He’s not competing with Bryson. What Bryson’s song did was incredible, and to Cole, it was like, “It’s a part of the story I want to tell, so I’m gonna use [the beat].” We didn’t really know the backstory at the time of what happened with Vinylz and Boi1da and [ForeignTeck] who made the beat. That was none of our concern. We just knew that Bryson had a really dope song that was out that used the same sample, basically the same beat, and that we had a totally different song. It’s like 10 years from now, nobody’s gonna be like, “Oh, Cole and Bryson used the same beat.” They’re gonna enjoy those songs, you know? Those songs are gonna age, and people will connect to it differently. You know, people might connect to “Exchange” in a totally different way than they’re gonna connect to “Déjà Vu” so it’s not really a big deal to us.
How do you think streaming has helped all 10 songs on the album chart?
I think it’s because we’re seeing that hip-hop is the biggest genre when it comes to streaming. A lot of people may not necessarily buy hip-hop coming up but if they have a chance to listen to it, then maybe they would. So for the people who enjoy listening to hip hop but wouldn’t necessarily buy it, streaming is perfect because now we can deliver the album without necessarily paying $9.99 just for that album. At the end of the day, nobody needs to buy an album anymore in a sense. People buy the album because they support the artist and they love the artist, you know? Some people just want [an album] on their phone, some people want it show love to someone who’s put in work and show respect to someone who’s getting them through something in life. Everyone can stream it if they wanted to — it’s that easy — but I think that just opens it up to more people to give it a chance. Like if you see an artist and you hear people talking about an artist, you might not go and pay $9.99 to get the album but if you see the artist everybody is talking about and you already have Spotify or Tidal or Apple Music, you might be like, “Alright, let me check this album out.” It makes it better for discovery.
What’s your response to critics who say music doesn’t sell anymore after seeing Cole’s first-week numbers?
I think that the only way music sells is if you put in the work. I think there’s a lot of back work that people aren’t seeing that Cole put in for seven years, and just assume that he’s putting out music and it’s just selling when realistically he’s been on the road for seven years, doing Dollar and A Dream shows, he’s been talking to people. When he has the time, he’ll have like a conversation with everybody that stops him. We literally had to stop doing meet and greets on tour because he would literally sit there and talk for five minutes with everybody and it just started to get to the point where he would be done with his meet and greet right before the show. It was just too taxing. He’s that kind of person. But all that stuff adds up, all those years of talking to people, all those years of doing Dollar and A Dream shows, all those years of going on tour that people weren’t seeing. Not every show coming up was sold out, not every show coming up were people who knew all his words. You need to go through that, you have to put in the work to get to the point where music can sell. If your music is streaming, there’s not much for your music to sell because people can just hear it for free or if they have a membership.
If you’re someone who puts in the work, people are going to support. And it’s not just artists like Cole or Drake or Kendrick [Lamar] that have been around since before streaming, even new artists that’s coming up. I buy a lot of albums even though I listen to them on streaming. I remember watching an Anderson .Paak interview and I was just getting into the story, and it made me want to buy his album instead of just streaming it. Once you connect with people and you see the work they put in, you want to support them. In this day and age, even though the sales are down, the people who put in that work get rewarded.
In his Meadows Festival performance this past October, Cole said it was going to be his “last show for a long time.” Are there any plans to promote this album from a performance standpoint after this year?
It’s funny because at the time, it was our last show like we didn’t have any more shows for the year. We didn’t know what we were going to do in 2017 so he was just saying like, “Yeah, this is my last show for a while” and people just blew it out of proportion. But as far as touring or shows, I’m not sure yet. I think Cole’s taking his time. He’s just been wrapping his mind around putting out this album so we haven’t really decided if he’s going to tour this album or not. Like that’s something that when he wants to talk about that, he’ll talk about that. Right now, it’s just more so enjoying the holidays and everybody trying to get with their families and spend some downtime. So we haven’t really spoken about it but once we figure something out, his fans will be the first ones to know.
You and Cole have been building this Dreamville empire for many years. How has the definition of Dreamville changed since you both started this musical journey?
We just got more clear on who we are as a brand. I think that what Bas has been doing is an example of who we are as a brand, which is a brand that goes out there and really touches the people. Using Bas as an example, the numbers and the support that he’s getting are not necessarily reflected by the chatter online or who’s cool according to critics and Twitter. It’s kind of like we passed that, we understood that that was just a very small amount of people, and that our job is not to make news for the critics, but to make music and news for the people and go directly to the people. That’s something Cole put his mindset on and we all followed suit after that — that’s where we are now as a label. With all these people like Cozz, Omen or Ari are coming in and Lute who’s about to drop a project as well, everybody is in tune with us and what we believe, which is just making sure it’s about the people and not impressing critics or people on Twitter who are really fickle and just want to give an opinion. So once we got away from that and just started focusing on the people, that’s when our brand first took off, and Cole’s career started flourishing even more.
It’s fun to be out there and go to Bas’ sold-out shows to see people reacting the way they were to Cole when he was first starting. You start to see that it’s a really slow grind and the payoff might take longer but it’s a way more gratifying and satisfying journey. You appreciate things, and when you get things too quick, nothing is new to you. With Cole, the reason why he can be so private and still be the same guy we all know from college is because nothing ever came to him right away. It was all in little doses, and at that point, you can adapt to anything that comes your way. Everything comes at a pace that’s good for us to make sure that, “Ok, we did this right, we did this wrong.” Things don’t go from zero to 100, no pun intended, when you do something the right way and don’t conform to what everyone is doing.