In a post-Drake world, respected hip-hop superstars can be pulled from almost any sort of background. Consider Jermaine Cole, who raps as J. Cole and was the first signee to Roc Nation, Jay-Z's partnership with concert giant Live Nation. He's a well-spoken guy from North Carolina who studied communications at St. Johns University and unapologetically digs The Lion King.
At this stage, 26-year-old Cole is best-known within the tight-knit hip-hop press and mixtape collectors — XXL magazine named him among its top ten freshmen for 2010 alongside Wiz Khalifa and Big Sean, and he received a Best New Artist nomination at the 2011 BET Awards. But among his Jay-Z affiliation, his current run with R&B supersiren Rihanna (who's also steered by Roc Nation), and his first official studio album set for fall release, the rollout to greater things has begun.
So far, the album, titled Cole World: The Sideline Story, is shrouded mostly in mystery. The lone track to emerge is the party jam "Work Out," which indicates plenty about his multifaceted aspirations. Sampling Kanye West's "The New Workout Plan" and referencing Paula Abdul's "Straight Up," this is built on the foundations of previous pop smashes.
"It just so happens that that hook from 'Straight Up' encompasses everything that I miss [from childhood]," Cole tells New Times via phone from his tour stop in Oakland. "I used to try and redo that hook when I was a kid too. When I was 15 or 16, I remember I was spending the summer at my father's house, and I was laying and writing songs and stuff, and it just slowed down and got superlyrical."
Like the Lil Wayne protégé-turned-heartthrob star Drake, J. Cole is a rapper who doesn't bother with gangsta posturing and often can sing his own hooks with agility. Known more as a rapper so far, he's also an aspiring producer who cites Kanye West and Timbaland as influences and was creating his own beats back in his teens.
Although he's easing into the high life living in New York, what will likely help J. Cole distinguish himself in the crowded field of braggadocio-fueled young rappers is the grounded, youthful approach to his rhymes. True, he'll put up his "middle finger to the suit-wearers," but it's within a song called "Return of Simba," the latest of a series of songs with tie-ins to the 1994 Disney animated film The Lion King. If J. Cole is Simba, then Jay-Z is Mufasa, he says, referring to the lion cub's father figure.
This "Simba" track also outlines another aspect of Cole's rap identity: athletic achievement, especially on the basketball court. "Bein' good is good, that'll get you Drew Gooden/But me, I want Jordan numbers, LeBron footin'/Can't guard me, Vince Lombardi, John Wooden." Although Young Jeezy and others have famously used NBA players' numbers to refer to a price for a kilogram of cocaine, there's evidence to suggest Cole's taking a more literal approach.
First of all, he's got a background playing basketball himself. As a high-schooler in North Carolina, Cole recalls running out onto the court to another rapper with b-ball aspirations, Master P's 1997 hit "Make 'Em Say Uhh!" "That's the most hype basketball song ever," he notes.
He's also quick to articulate which NBA player is most similar to him.
"Early Kobe Bryant, because he gets his work ethic in," Cole explains. "How he plays and how serious he takes the game, more than probably most of his other teammates and a lot of the other players in the league. When he first started, he knew he was on this incredible team, the Lakers, and he's supertalented for making the team — and he wasn't starting. He had to earn his spot, even though he knew he was good."
This arrangement parallels nicely to J. Cole's time out on the road with grand showman Jay-Z, who is arguably one of the best live performers in hip-hop — or any style of music. He admits to gaining "a lot of tools" from Hova from watching him command the stage night after night.
A different sort of challenge presents itself as Cole has experienced the young crowds coming to Rihanna's shows. Originally, Cee Lo Green was set to open up as well, but he dropped off the tour and has left more of an opportunity for the young rapper to shine — or offend.
"I mean, I'm watching my mouth," he explains. "At first, I came out and held back just a little. Then, I noticed as I looked out into the crowd that it was all little girls, like 7, 9, 10, 14. They scream for me, not knowing who I am. I'd come out and they'd like be screaming, and I started to feel bad, like I better watch my mouth. I try not to curse a lot."
Wise words for a guy courting the music-buying public, but probably not a big deal considering that his cusses come before Rihanna, an artist known for ribald ("S&M") and violent ("Man Down") themes of her own. Down the line, if J. Cole becomes known more for his work than his potential, he'll be able to be more brash. But is that even what this Carolina gentleman at heart is after?
"I live in New York now, but I still have love for wide open space, slow living, smaller towns," he admits. "Slow, you know what I'm saying? I feel like I'll always have that in me. I really feel lucky to have lived that. I still cook my food; that's how I like to eat. Some people say I don't have a stronger accent anymore. Somebody that's not from North Carolina will say 'Oh, I can tell.' My memories [of North Carolina] are the things that will never leave."