J. Cole: In The Zone (Online Cover Story)

Story by Damien Scott; Photography by Matt Salacuse; Styling by Matthew Henson; Additional Credits.

With no direct connect to Jigga, and our college years coming to an end, Cole became laser-focused on rapping. He began making more music than I’d ever seen him make. I sensed that he felt his window was closing. By this time, I had just scored a full-time gig as a reporter working for VIBE magazine, while the rest of my class were going through their senior year, doing all they could to prepare for the job market. Well, everyone except Jermaine.

The man who was set to graduate at the top of his class didn’t have an internship, in any field, under his belt. He didn’t want to work. Said he just couldn’t do it. It was not what he was meant to do. He would have rather eaten a steady diet of hot dogs and ramen noodles than work a regular nine-to-five. To pay rent, he took up a job as a bill collector. The plan was to bide his time until he got a deal.

 

A bank statement was taped to his wall right near his bed. I took a closer look and saw his bank balance with a bunch of handwritten zeroes behind it. 'If I keep that number in mind,' he told me, 'I’m going to get it. I swear.'

 

Even though he was cranking out music, Jermaine didn’t have a set of songs he could hand out. We encouraged him to make a mixtape. He said he didn’t want to give his music away for free. Fuck that.

This was around the time when DJ Drama’s Gangsta Grillz mixtapes were flooding the block and Lil Wayne’s Dedication series made him the hot topic of conversation. Mixtapes, it seemed, were the way to go.  Eventually “Fuck that” turned into maybe, which turned into him putting his all into the project that became his first mixtape. When we weren’t bouncing from lounge to lounge, Jermaine was holed up in his room making music. For the first time since I’d met him, he was completely devoted to his craft. He was in his zone.

Finally, in 2007, Jermaine dropped his first tape, The Come Up, hosted by DJ On Point. Even with a mixtape under his belt, Jermaine continued to grind. He would often call whoever was in the house up to his room to listen and give an opinion. Sometimes it was a beat, sometimes two verses held together by a chorus that Jermaine sang as a placeholder—like he did with the song “Lights Please,” an intimate conversation between Cole and a lady friend who he was attempting to educate while she just wanted to cut the lights and get it poppin’.

Another time I proposed to my roommates the idea of writing a hip-hop musical. They laughed. I told them it wouldn’t be like Carmen, the one on MTV starring Beyoncé. It’d be well written, with good songs that could live on their own. Jermaine dug the concept. “I’ve been working on something that would be perfect for something like this,” he told us. He sat down on my radiator and starting reciting verses from the song that would become “Lost Ones,” a powerful track about a guy and a girl trying to deal with an unwanted pregnancy. When the song leaked a few months ago, I texted him and told him I was sorry to hear about the leak because I knew how much “Lost Ones” meant to him. He responded, “Yeah, man. Shit sucks. Only good part is that’s an old-ass version. The album version sounds crazy.”

Despite getting a lot done in his bedroom, Jermaine realized he needed to record in a studio. In order to make it big, he had to get more professional. In 2007, Cole linked up with Mike Rooney, the nephew of multi-platinum songwriter and producer, Corey Rooney. Mike got Jermaine studio time and had him working with more established producers like Syience. With a business partner working to get him a deal, things started to look promising. Cole felt he was close.

Even though he was still working a bullshit job, and money wasn’t flowing as well as he’d like, he believed in his heart of hearts that he was going to make it. One day I went up to his room to see what he was working on and I saw a bank statement taped to his wall right near his bed. I took a closer look and saw his bank balance with a bunch of handwritten zeroes behind it. “If I keep that number in mind," he told me, "I’m going to get it. I swear.”

Tags: j-cole, complex-cover-stories, online-cover-stories, j-cole-week
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