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

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

As Jermaine and his team—which now included his current A&R rep, Ibrahim—worked to get his music in the right hands, he began to work on his next mixtape, The Warm Up. This tape would be bigger than The Come Up with more original songs and production from outside beatsmiths like Elite and Sycience. After taking in a Lee Fields and the Expressions show in Williamsburg, NY, I sent Jermaine some of the tracks, telling him he may want to sample one. He agreed, and made two songs for The Warm Up—“Ladies” and “World is Empty.” His team got stronger when Mark Pitts, President of Urban Music at Sony, and The Notorious B.I.G.’s former manager, decided to manage Cole. That’s when things got serious.

 

All his years of perfectionism paid off that day. That night a gang of us hit a bar on the Lower East Side and drank, and drank, and drank to J. Cole’s future success.

 

I don’t remember the day; all I remember is getting to my desk at COMPLEX one morning in 2009 and seeing missed calls from my roommate Rich and Jermaine. I called ’em both back asking if anything was wrong. Rich picked up first. He asked me if I’d heard the news. “Nah,” I said. “What happened?”

“Son, Jermaine has a meeting with Jay-Z today.”

I told him I’d call him back. I dialed Cole again, and this time he picked up. He sounded like he was in motion. “Dude, I heard you got a meeting with Hov?” He paused, caught his breath, and told me that he got a text at work saying that Jay-Z wanted to meet with him. He didn’t know why. But he just left work, went home and changed, hopped in his car and raced to the city where he was currently awaiting his meeting with Jay-Z. The man he’d been trying to meet for the past five years; the man for whom he stood in the rain; the man he saw as his way into the game. He had to go, he said. He’d hit me when he got out.

Not an ounce of work was done that day. Rich and I both sat in our respective offices waiting to hear what happened. Now the story is part of Cole’s lore: He sat in a room with Jay and Mark Pitts as Jigga told him how much he liked his music—especially the song “Lights Please.” The song that exemplified the internal struggle of good intentions versus bad ideas that pervades his music (as well as his logo, an “O” with devil horns and an “E” with a halo)—the song he made in his tiny room; the song he once told me was one of the best songs he ever made—was getting props from the biggest rapper in the world. It was the reason he landed his first record deal. All his years of perfectionism paid off that day. That night a gang of us hit a bar on the Lower East Side and drank, and drank, and drank to J. Cole’s future success.

Cole frequently quips in interviews that all the work he put in up to this point is nothing, and that getting signed was just the beginning. And of course, he’s right. Since inking the deal that made him the first artist signed to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label, Cole hasn’t let up. He dropped two stellar mixtapes, spit one of the best breakout verses ever on the so aptly titled “A Star is Born” from Jay’s Blueprint 3, murdered a raft of rappers on their own songs (Wale’s “Beautiful Bliss,” Reflection Eternal's “Just Begun,” and Kanye’s “Looking for Trouble,” to name a few), toured the world, and now finally has an official album hitting stores.

Not only does he have an album coming out, he has an album coming out that he produced almost solely by himself. This is the way he’s always worked. Even with a major machine behind him, he’s staying in his zone, a place where he can best balance the industry’s commercial requirements and his artistic needs. Given the opportunity to work with seasoned hitmakers like the Neptunes, Cole opted to go at it alone, to put his future in his own hands. If he fails or succeeds it will be by his own volition. Yes, Jay-Z signed him and put his name in bright lights, but it was Jermaine who put his nose to the grindstone and amassed a legion of fans—Dreamvillains as he calls them—who pack out his shows. He’s betting that staying in this zone will bring him massive rewards even if Cole World: The Sideline Story isn’t appreciated until the second album comes out.

In July of this year, while sporadically checking my Facebook page, I read a message from a young rapper asking me if I really knew J. Cole, and if so, could I tell him how to get some music to him. Maybe he should make a T-shirt.

RELATED: J. COLE'S SIDELINE STRUGGLE (TIMELINE)

ADDITIONAL CREDITS: Jacket and jeans by G-Star / T-shirt by Diesel. COVER IMAGE: Jacket by UNDFTD / T-Shirt by Calvin Klein / Shorts by G-Star / Sneakers by Nike.

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