Rapper J. Cole didn’t attract much attention during a recent photo shoot at an upscale Beverly Hills hotel. He had no entourage (a rarity by hip-hop standards) and appeared unassuming in a plain T-shirt and jeans. The only clear spoil of fame? A striking diamond pendant in the image of Jesus hanging from his neck.
Cole’s invisibility was ironic given that the 28-year-old was soon to be co-headlining alongside Beyoncé, R. Kelly and Snoop Dogg at one of the summer’s most high-profile music festivals. This weekend Cole will perform at Staples Center as part of the inaugural BET Experience — a three-day festival sponsored by the cable network that will take over the L.A. Live complex downtown and most of its venues.
But in Beverly Hills, the hotel guests were none the wiser. When someone finally approached Cole, it was hardly with the gaze of a star-struck fan. “Is it real?,” asked the guest referring to the pendant. “Who designed it?” And, “Are you a rapper, or something?”
“No, I’m a doctor,” Cole deadpanned before catching himself and softening his tone. “Just messing … I’m a rapper.”
“Born Sinner,” his new album, which debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 this week, is a compelling mix of Cole’s low-key self grappling with the pressures and temptations that come with high-profile rap success.
In “Chaining Day” he raps: “Look at me, pathetic. This chain that I bought, you mix greed, pain and fame, this is heinous result.”
“I had a lot of resistance, and not just to fame,” he said later over cocktails. “I was always conscious of not changing. I just started to embrace the fact that things will be different. Writing this album helped me do that.”
“Born Sinner” proves the rapper, born Jermaine Cole, can meet the weighty expectations that come with being a Jay-Z protégé.
Cole’s story is one of rap’s best Cinderella tales. Born in Frankfurt, Germany, and raised in Fayetteville, N.C., he waited until after he graduated college with a degree in communications (with magna cum laude honors at that) to chase his music dreams.
He worked up the courage to wait outside Jay-Z’s New York office and hand him a CD of beats he produced in hopes of the hip-hop mogul using them for his own album. Cole was quickly shot down, but their paths eventually crossed and Jay finally took notice, eventually signing him to his Roc Nation imprint in 2009.
But Cole sat on the sidelines as the label struggled to find a single to launch him. He took matters in his own hands and issued a set of mix tapes, 2009’s “The Warm Up” and 2010’s “Friday Night Lights,” which amassed an underground following and critical kudos. He then toured extensively, building his own buzz and a dedicated fan base from the ground up.
His debut finally came out in 2011. “Cole World: The Sideline Story” landed at No. 1 without a radio hit — taking him from underground rapper to a Grammy-nominated superstar.
Cole’s new album, released last week, is built around sinewy, self-produced beats and clever rhymes about everyday life. The highly anticipated album has already sold 297,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Originally slated for a January release, the admitted perfectionist delayed “Born Sinner” for six months as he fine-tuned the album. To tide fans over, he released a pair of free EPs in the interim.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself,” he acknowledged. “I think something’s not good enough and I won’t stop until I feel like I’ve made it. I’m never satisfied.”
Cole also raised the stakes by moving up the album’s release date to compete with Kanye West’s “Yeezus.” “It was a quick, split-second decision,” he said. “You’re never going to get another opportunity to compete on this level.”
The move, aside from showing his competitive spirit, is proof of a hard-won confidence. And that newfound swagger will be on full display Saturday when Cole will headline a bill that includes Snoop, Schoolboy Q and two of Cole’s collaborators, Miguel and Kendrick Lamar.
“Born Sinner’s” lead single, “Power Trip,” features R&B artist Miguel and has been a mainstay on radio since its release in February. L.A. rapper Lamar appears on the album as well as does TLC’s T-Boz and Chili. The last two contribute vocals to the second single, “Crooked Smile,” a summer jam packed with a powerful message of self-acceptance and the potential to be a crossover, singalong hit.
But one of the album’s deeper tracks is “Let Nas Down.” Here he documents the struggle to find his voice between the underground world that championed him and the mainstream he’s now part of. The song centers on his reaction to learning his idol, the uber-respected Nas, hated the commercial leanings of Cole’s earlier singles. Nas has since jumped on the song’s remix and assured Cole that he made him “proud.”
“We just knew what we expected of [Cole] from his skill level, and what he represents to the new generation,” said No I.D., the Def Jam vice president who Cole considers a mentor. “He grew and rounded out. He’s definitely going to be in the conversation of classic hip-hop artists. Cole, as well as Kanye, Jay, everybody, is looking for those challenges to prove their greatness. He’s just going to keep getting better.”
As for what Cole thinks of the success that his new work has garnered?
“I don’t know, man,” he said, shaking his head, then pausing to think. “The hits that came, came from me and they are even bigger and better this time and even more ‘me.’ I don’t know what statement that makes. I just told my story, my way.”