Once upon a time there was a kid from Fayetteville, North Carolina, who moved to the big city with dreams of becoming a hip-hop star — but J. Cole’s career was far from a fairy tale. A college student at St. John’s University in Queens by day, the rapper, born Jermaine Cole, toiled by night at any cramped downtown nightclub or open mic that would have him. He was different. Amid ostentatious, don’t-look-me-in-the-eye MCs, he was strangely normal and — gasp — approachable. Cole was reminiscent of a brother, cousin, or that babe you dated freshman year. He slowly built his base and eventually met rap godfather Jay Z. He was featured on “A Star Is Born” in 2009, but it took three studio albums before the neophyte earned the title. On August 4, J. Cole returns to New York City for his first headlining, sold-out show at Madison Square Garden as just that — a star.
“It’s crazy. So ridiculous. It’s insane,” he muses. He remembers foreseeing the moment. “I was either walking or riding my bike past Madison Square Garden, and thought, ‘One day I’ma do that shit.’ Three months later, that bitch sold out in one day.” It’s after midnight in a back room at Carnesecca Arena on the St. John’s campus. Earlier, he performed at his alma mater and spent hours posing for photos with students and faculty. Dr. Julia Upton, former provost and the professor of Cole’s “Discover New York” class, even surprised him with his long-delayed diploma. The rapper never received his sheepskin (despite graduating summa cum laude in 2007) due to fines for a missing library book. “I’m gonna send it to my mom,” he says, sinking into a black leather sofa, his long legs tucked beneath him. On- and offstage, he dresses down in a black-and-red Atlanta Braves varsity jacket and dark jeans. His gray hoodie is fully zipped, and his growing locks peek out from underneath.
Cole is known for repping the ‘Ville — his voice still bears traces of a Southern twang — but the city has been integral to his career. He has an apartment in midtown west (which he loves despite a chaos that reminds him of “the outskirts of Hell”), and he recorded his recent 2014 Forest Hills Drive at nearby Legacy Studios.
But before this, he was just Jermaine, the out-of-town student performing at talent shows and open mics. He got his first break, ironically, at Carnesecca during his senior year. “Everybody was mad surprised that I rap. They were like, ‘Oh, shit. This nigga can really fucking rap!’ ” he laughs, fidgeting occasionally with tendrils of his hair. “I didn’t broadcast it and go around with a rapper personality. I’m just Jermaine, walking around campus, making friends, and living my life.” Dr. Upton remembers the out-of-towner as “very focused” and “a very fine student” — but one who never mentioned his rap aspirations. Ibrahim Hamad was similarly surprised. They met playing basketball, and Hamad realized his friend had talent after stumbling upon music in Cole’s car. The two began making the local rounds. “I was going to people in Queens, to people at parties, when we would play ball, [and telling them], ‘Yo. Jermaine is nice,'” says Hamad, now Cole’s manager and the president of Dreamville Records. “He always knew what he wanted to do, but that built up his confidence, like, ‘We need to get a mixtape out.'”
J. Cole released his debut mixtape, The Come Up, in 2007, followed by his seminal The Warm Up in 2009. Things began to gain momentum. Cole opened for Wale at Le Poisson Rouge that May, and songs like the autobiographical “Grown Simba” and the lyrical mind-fuck “Lights Please” swelled on rap blogs. He inked a deal with Jay’s Roc Nation and appeared on “A Star Is Born,” from The Blueprint 3. “And could I be a star/Does fame in this game have to change who you are?” he asks in his verse. “Or could I be the same one who came from a faraway life/Just to make it in these Broadway lights?” Even then, fame was a heavy crown for J. Cole. “That was clearly on my mind at that time,” he says. “Without even knowing it, my thoughts, even at that time, were, ‘Damn. Can I attain major success but come out of this thing as myself?'”
In 2010, Cole performed at Hot 97’s Who’s Next Live at S.O.B.’s — a sold-out hotbed for young talent — and affirmed his spot as an ascendant. Kozza Babumba, director of marketing and publicity at S.O.B.’s at the time, says he booked the rapper as the fire growing beneath “Lights Please” raged. “Tickets sold out in no time. Might have been in about four days or so. I think even his team was surprised,” he says. The club was well over capacity. “There might have been something like 650 people in there. Everyone wanted to be in there. Industry insiders, journalists, cool kids. Everybody.”
So it was no surprise when Cole was ushered in to XXL‘s annual Freshman Class that year, but sharing the cover with artists like Wiz Khalifa and Big Sean wasn’t easy. With the release of his 2011 debut album, Cole World: The Sideline Story, many industry insiders wondered if Cole was too normal and therefore forgettable. Yes, he had bars — but was he a star? Formidable competition from characters like Drake and Nicki Minaj didn’t help. The murmurs reached Cole. He sighs. “I used to hear that from people in the industry, like, ‘Yo, we love Cole, but he’s so regular.’ Like if that was a negative thing. It used to fuck with me for a second, like, ‘Damn. Maybe I do need [to change].’ ”
And when he tried to fit the mold, it backfired — all over the red carpet. In 2013, Cole acquiesced to a stylist and wore a gaudy, black-and-gold Versace sweater to the B.E.T. Awards. “I’m listening to these stylists like, ‘You gotta really step out. You gotta really hit them with the superstar look!’ ” The sweater must have been on fleek; both DJ Drama and Brandon T. Jackson rocked it. But the choice was seen as a sartorial faux pas, and became fodder for the Fashion Police, launching several “Who Wore It Best?” stories — not cool for a serious rapper.
Nowadays, Cole isn’t about impressing anyone but himself and his ardent fans. “It’s about growing up and realizing…’Yo. I really do like myself being a regular person who could be [somebody’s] homeboy.’ ” After seeing kids coming to his shows decked out in expensive watches and jewelry, Cole made the intentional decision to be “attainable.” Sweats, sneakers, and a T-shirt are common concert attire. These days, if someone calls him regular, he takes it as “a high compliment.”
J. Cole’s everyman appeal is all over 2014 Forest Hills Drive, his third album. He eschewed the typical dog and pony show for personal, grassroots promo. One lucky Dallas fan got a preview in her house after she hit Cole on Twitter, while a handful of contest winners went to the home of his mother in North Carolina. “Fans stuck around since day one. They love him and they believe in him,” says Hamad. “We realized if we take care of our fans and give them what they want, they’ll spread the gospel of J. Cole.” Day-one fans ushered 2014 Forest Hills Drive to No. 1 on the charts with 375,000 units sold.
Cole continued to connect with the people after the album’s success. Last year, the rapper marched in New York City as part of #BlackLivesMatter in memory of Eric Garner; he also visited Ferguson, Missouri. In December, he released a powerful tribute to Michael Brown called “Be Free,” an emotional rendition of which he performed on the Late Show With David Letterman. “All we wanna do is break the chains off/All we wanna do is be free,” he raps. It’s one of the few response records to address our current national crisis of police brutality.
For someone of his caliber, he’s remarkably reachable. This year, Cole attended a fan’s high school graduation after she promised him she’d get good grades and get accepted into a four-year college. Hamad remembers how she would send Dreamville her report cards over the years to track her progress. Cole routed his tour to ensure he could attend her graduation, and he’s offered to help her pay her tuition. He has also turned his childhood home into a rent-free house for single mothers. It’s easy to dismiss altruism as a marketing ploy, but Hamad assures that Cole’s is genuine — as the manager, even he sometimes has no idea what the rapper’s planning — and comes from the heart. “If you make a promise, you can’t let them down.”
Caring extends to journalists, too. “You taking an Uber home?” Cole asks after our interview ends. “Just making sure. It’s kind of late to take the bus.” Chivalry aside, this is why J. Cole wins — and, more importantly, why people want him to win. J. Cole is the people’s champ. He’s the small-town kid who made it without selling out or changing. He proves that being yourself — even if it’s regular — is enough. Nice guys do finish first.
J. Cole headlines Madison Square Garden on August 4. The show has sold out, but tickets are available on the secondary market.