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— By Dontaira Terrell
When you consider the top MCs in the game, undoubtedly, J. Cole is on that list. In a saturated market filled with trendy rappers, the North Carolina native brings substance, originality, and introspective lyricism. From the release of his very first mixtape, The Come Up, in 2007 to dropping studio albums with little to no promo, his level of mental and emotional maturity can be witnessed throughout each stage of his music career. Back in 2018, he released the album KOD and it further proved his ability to usher in a sense of social significance to the culture; which was refreshing, appreciated, and much needed.
Spitting rhymes about the triggering effects of trauma, healing, and substance addiction is one of the reasons he’s been able to successfully connect across generations. With five platinum albums under his belt, Cole’s continued success is engineered in raw, real talent instead of a reverse-psychology marketing strategy — something that is extremely rare these days. Although, it’s been more than a decade since he first hopped on the music scene, he’s still at the top of his class with proven staying power as one of the hottest rappers in the game.
Here are five ways the MC became just that.
The Music Speaks for Itself: Scouring the internet and trying to find information about J. Cole’s personal life outside of the spotlight is scarce. As one of only a handful of entertainers who shy away from the common media, J. Cole’s decision to stay under the radar has paid off. For the 34-year-old, it’s not about the fame, it is about his artistry and his ability to inspire on a different playing field — a playing field that doesn’t consist of celebrity gossip and superficial fallacies.
His Competitive Spirit: Creating a competitive landscape early on in his career played a significant role in J. Cole’s success. Competition breeds growth, an insatiable appetite to succeed, and the desire to be the very best. In a 2013 interview, J. Cole explained his decision to change the release date of his second studio album, Born Sinner, to directly go toe-to-toe with Kanye West’s Yeezus album.
“This is art, and I can’t compete against the Kanye West celebrity and the status that he’s earned just from being a genius. But, I can put my name in the hat and tell you that I think my album is great and you be the judge and you decide,” Cole said.
His Humble Beginnings: Becoming the first rapper to be signed by JAY-Z’s Roc Nation label is no easy feat. Initially, Hov dismissed the rapper’s attempt to hand him a demo track after waiting outside of a recording studio for several hours. It wasn’t until the release of J. Cole’s second mixtape, The Warmup, that the course of his career trajectory changed. Fast forward to today, and in response to his humble beginnings of rejection and uncertainty, J. Cole’s grit and grind is a true testament that paved the way for his success.
His Relatability: As a seasoned storyteller, J. Cole’s relatability is deeply rooted in the black experience, social issues, and personal references. He has masterfully built a loyal following by revitalizing fan culture with concepts such as his “Dollar & A Dream Tour,” hosting listening sessions at his home, or participating in interactive discussions on Reddit. In a previous Billboard interview, he spoke about the importance of cultivating a devoted fan base.
“I worked my fan base and put out free music, and toured for two years. Every album I sold wasn’t because of a hit song. The single didn’t do the work, my fan base did,” he said.
His Business Acumen: Stepping outside of the rapper spotlight and into the shoes of a boss, J. Cole is following in the footsteps of his mentor JAY-Z. Back in 2007, J. Cole established his very own record label, Dreamville Records; created the Dreamville Foundation in 2011, and most recently launched the highly anticipated Dreamville Festival. Dreamville Records’ ultimate plan is to disrupt the traditional business practices of major labels. With a roster including Cozz, Bas, Omen, Lute, Ari Lennox, J.I.D. and EarthGang; the label is well poised to be at the top of its game for years to come.
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