J. Cole gets off sidelines with album, Grammy nomination

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Rapper J. Cole’s ‘The Sideline Story’ is at No. 1 and he’s been nominated for a new artist Grammy. Quite a change after earlier rejection.

J. Cole was signed to Jay-Z’s RocNation in 2009, then sat on the sidelines for more than two years until taking fate into his own hands. The North Carolina rapper released his own mixtapes from 2007 to 2010 and toured like mad to support them. Today, he has a No. 1 album with RocNation/Columbia — “Cole World: The Sideline Story” — and a Grammy nomination for new artist.

Cole chatted with The Times about getting off the sidelines and becoming one of rap’s most valuable players.

Learning you were nominated for best new artist must have been surreal.


I wasn’t thinking people had seen what I had done, so I had already kind of prepared myself for the letdown. But it caught me off guard.

When you first submitted a beat tape to Jay-Z for “American Gangster,” it was rejected.

I’m that type of person, luckily, where it didn’t shake my confidence. The first initial blow was disappointment. But I learned from it and added it to the story. It added to the motivation like, “OK, I’ll show you.” I’ll show whoever.

Is there one particular strategy that you think lead to the commercial success of the album?

I don’t think it was one thing. I think it was a combination of putting out quality projects like mixtapes that sounded like albums. We only call them mixtapes because they are free. And I’ve been touring for two and a half years straight. I just put the album out two months ago. I already had a strong foundation of fans, I just wasn’t sure that they would buy the album.

The album is a departure from a lot of rap’s classic through lines. You skipped rhymes about cars and women for emotional vignettes of abortion and growing up fatherless. Was that always your style?

I started as a braggadocios’ “I’m better than you” battle rapper. But I really found my own lane with telling stories. Even when I don’t try, it just spills out. I like to diversify, I’m not a one-trick pony. I like to think I’m good at a lot of things, but I’m trying to be great at a lot of things.

Jay recently said in an interview whether or not you take the gold home in February you’ve already won. Does it take the pressure off?

It would be incredible to win. That’s an understatement … since I didn’t even expect to get nominated. But I’m not walking in there with the attitude that I’m the guy [to beat]. But if I won, I’d know why. And if I didn’t win, I’d understand.


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-- Gerrick D. Kennedy