This summer is going to be a busy one for rapper J Cole. Just yesterday, he hit the Summer Jam to perform hit “Power Trip” alongside crooner Miguel. Today, he released the second single from his upcoming album Born Sinner. This week he’s also appearing on the cover of Billboard. And in just a few days, Cole will hit the road for his Dollar And A Dream tour. As the name might suggest, the tickets cost only a dollar. They’re sold the day of the show on a first come- first serve basis. It’s pretty exclusive in that even the location of the venues will be kept secret until the day of the show. Perhaps it’s a way to honor the fans who helped him establish himself as Hip Hop’s up and coming.
In this week’s issue, of Billboard Cole discusses how his fans helped him hit number 1, how he managed to get signed to Jay-Z’ Roc Nation and why he’s going up against Hip Hop legend Kanye West with his album release date. Check out some highlights from the interview as well as the new track, “Crooked Smile” on the next page.
On getting Jay-Z’ attention
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? F**k 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.
The support of his fans
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 Fawk 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.)
Going up against Kanye
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.”
Check out Cole’s new single “Crooked Smile,” featuring TLC, on the next page.