Story by Damien Scott; Photography by Matt Salacuse; Styling by Matthew Henson; Additional Credits.
The future looks bright for Roc Nation's first signee. With his debut album hitting stores this week, J.Cole’s hip hop dreams are finally being realized. Damien Scott takes a look back at the days when the forecast was much cloudier.
This feature is a part of Complex's J. Cole week.
“Shit, it’s about to rain,” said J. Cole as the two of us stood outside of Baseline Studios in midtown Manhattan, the soundlab where Rocafella Records created many of its biggest songs during its reign over the rap game. The year was 2005. Four years earlier, Jay-Z had recorded his opus, The Blueprint, here. For that reason some considered it hallowed ground. Which is why—despite the falling rain, and despite me wishing Cole would say, “Fuck it, D, let’s roll”—we remained staked outside of 127 West 26th St., hoping for someone to open the door.
Cole’s plan was a simple one: Jay-Z was supposedly working on a new album, so if we went to the place where Jigga was known to record, there was a chance we would run into him, and… you know… the stars would align, and Jay would take Cole’s beat CD, and listen to it, and love it, and have someone reach out to get him on the next album.
As roommates from sophomore to senior year, I watched Cole hope and dream about getting a deal while working tirelessly to perfect his sound.
The plan couldn’t have been more far-fetched, but J. Cole believed it was viable. It never seemed to cross his mind that his dreams would not come true. To him it was inevitable. There was just one problem—in order for any of that happen, we would need to get into the building first.
We pressed a number of buzzers; hoping someone on the other end would thoughtlessly open the door. No dice. So we waited. And waited. Cole cracked jokes to keep the mood light. He would have waited all night if need be, but he could sense my resolve to the cause wasn’t as steadfast as his own. I wanted to bounce. Could you blame me? We had no idea if we were going to get in—worse, we didn’t even know if Jay-Z was up there. It wasn’t like there was a Maybach 62 parked outside. Dude could have been on a yacht with Beyoncé for all we knew.
Finally, we saw a middle-aged lady step out of the elevator and head towards the door. The woman leered at us as she exited, pushing the door wide enough for Cole to grab it before it closed. We headed upstairs to the glass-fronted waiting area where we saw a guy who looked a little older than us sitting behind a receptionist desk shooting the shit with some similarly aged dudes. The receptionist noticed us and buzzed us in through the next door.
At this point, I was straight-up stunned: Holy shit, I thought to myself, we’re actually at Baseline Studios! Now what? Do we ask if Jay-Z’s in? While I’m working through my bemusement, Cole, clear-headed and half-grinning, tells the receptionist that he came to check out the studio because he produces and he’s a big fan of Jay-Z and Just Blaze. He tells us unfortunately nothing’s poppin’ at the studio tonight. To make it seem as though we weren’t just star-stalking, Cole inquires about an internship. He grabs an application and we bounce. He didn’t meet Jay-Z that night, but he wasn’t dismayed—not in the least.
These days, Jermaine Lamarr Cole, better known as J. Cole, doesn’t have to stake out studios in order to talk to Shawn Carter. As the first artist signed to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation imprint, he simply waits for the Big Homie to call him. Which is pretty crazy considering the bumpy road that led the 26-year-old rapper to the Roc. When finishing high school in Fayetteville, N.C. in 2003, he figured the only way he was going to get a record deal was by moving to a huge music market. So he packed up, kissed his mother goodbye, and headed north to attend St. John’s University in Jamaica, Queens—which is where I met him. As roommates from sophomore to senior year, I watched Cole hope and dream about getting a deal while working tirelessly to perfect his sound. Though he’s prone to speaking about the power of dreaming—he calls his label Dreamville, his team is made up of Dreamvillains—It was his hustle and unwavering determination that got him to where he is today. Oh, and the fact that he can rap really, really well.