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J. Cole — A Day in the Life

Diana Levine for AOL

There’s an eerie calm surrounding J. Cole as he makes his way into a black turtle-top van outside Sony Music headquarters in New York City. Today, Sept. 27, 2011, marks a day forever ingrained in his psyche. After two years of beatmaking, networking and lyrical masterminding, his highly anticipated debut album, ‘Cole World: The Sideline Story,’ is out for mass consumption.

However, the 26-year-old Roc Nation signee isn’t shouting his musical victory to passersby on the street nor jumping around like a kid in a Willy Wonka-style candy store. Cole, dressed in a simple black T-shirt, khaki pants, black Jordan sneakers and a gold rosary decorating his neck, is unusually reserved. But his quiescent demeanor is a result of the weeks leading up to this moment. “Today, I feel like it’s a collection of all the work I’ve been doing over the years mixed with the past two weeks of promo,” Cole tells The BoomBox. “Like, now that it’s finally here, I’m physically exhausted.”

It’s close to noon and the ‘Can’t Get Enough’ creator is on about three hours of sleep, commencing his official album release promo day around 5:30AM. From interviews with esteemed radio personalities to an in-store album signing, 15-hour days are the usual for J. Cole. Sometimes he has to step back from the incessant calls and the overwhelming emails to absorb this “personal first,” which only happens once in a lifetime.

“There’s a lot going on first of all,” he admits. “So I don’t know if I can truly process the moment for exactly what is cause there’s so much running around. But that’s how strong the moment is, that I can still feel the excitement and importance of it. ‘Cause usually like with major events, I don’t usually get to, like, appreciate them at all ’cause I’m so busy. This one I am actually enjoying and appreciating it.”

J. Cole’s not shy in admitting he’s tired, but he’s human, demonstrated most genuinely on his LP — a collection of songs that reflect the struggle to follow his rap dreams, relationships with women and the ups and downs of his upbringing. On ‘Breakdown,’ he spits, “Just seen my father for the first time in a minute/ And when I say a minute, I mean years, man/ Damn, a whale could’ve swam in them tears, fam.”

Cole speaks on the importance of honest records like this. “If you only listen to one song and you want to know what the album’s about, I’d pick that song,” he states before entering Music Choice for a performance. “That or ‘Lost Ones.’ Why? ‘Cause they’re super emotional and they’re deeper records. I feel like they more closely represent who I am as an artist. Those are my favorite type of records.”

As he eases into a soundcheck on a rooftop overlooking the Hudson River, it’s apparent the Fayetteville, N.C. native turns his energy switch “on” as the music moves him. He grabs the mic and performs tracks like ‘Work Out,’ ‘In the Morning’ and ‘Lights Please,’ all while his mother, best friend Camille, Dreamville Entertainment business partner Ibrahim Hammad and entourage look on with satisfactory smiles on their faces. Just like J. Cole, the people he’s chosen to play on his team are ecstatic that his goals have finally come to fruition.

“I seen some pictures his best friend from back home, Camille, had, and it was from ninth grade, and on the back [Cole wrote], ‘Keep this ’cause I’m gonna be famous one day,’” says Hammad, who’s also credited as A&R on the lyricist’s LP. “Just to see him come to New York and go to school [St. Johns University] and say, ‘I’ma be a rapper.’ When he graduated school, he didn’t get a full-time job ’cause he knew if he got a full-time job, like it’s harder to make it happen. So just to see him go through that and struggle to stay afloat, and to be here today. That’s the lesson I took from him: There’s no such thing as an obstacle.”

The sun shines bright as Cole and his crew leave Music Choice’s rooftop venue around 2PM. There’s an hour to kill before he sits down with Hot 97′s Angie Martinez, a radio interview coveted by hip-hop and R&B artists nationwide. “It’s a huge look,” the Jay-Z protégé discloses. “I’ve been waiting on that day… ’cause that’s when you really know your album is out when you go see Angie.”

Diana Levine for AOL

After taking a quick nap in a nearby hotel, the avid hoops player makes his way to 395 Hudson St. to speak with Martinez and her resident mixer DJ Enuff. He chops it up with radio jocks from Cipha Sounds to DJ Spynfo, records some drops and runs into Rev. Run’s daughter Angela Simmons, who has just finished her own interview at the station and congratulates Cole on his album release.

There’s a big cheese smile on J. Cole’s face when he finally sits in front of Angie Martinez to talk business around 3:30PM. He may have been exhausted a few hours ago, but he’s reveling in the moment. “[Your album] feels authentic,” Martinez tells the rhymer. “It doesn’t feel like a lot of bells and whistles.” While the lauded radio jock compliments his sonic masterpiece, she also wastes no time in asking about the Rihanna dating rumors and “lyrical beef” between Jay-Z and Lil Wayne. J. Cole takes her remarks in stride and with a hearty laugh. “I’m learning there are no rules [in music],” he says to Martinez.

The room is tension-free and heavy with celebration, as Enuff plays Cole’s Missy Elliott-assisted track ‘Nobody’s Perfect.’ Though the beatmaking entertainer doesn’t have radio records aplenty, that hasn’t slowed his dedicated fanbase.

“Fans love him because he’s a good looking guy, he’s handsome, he’s humble, he’s got the skills,” DJ Enuff explains. “He plays the part. I look at his CD cover now, and I’m like, this is the guy who could save hip-hop for a lot of fans. That’s a lot to be said. Some people will be like, ‘Well hip-hop doesn’t need to be saved,’ and all that kind of crap, but for the most part, he’s bringing something fresh to the game. He’s having fun with it and his lyrical wordplay is pretty genius and key. That’s why I think fans like J. Cole across the board.”

Diana Levine for AOL

His Dreamvillains — the name he dubs his legion of followers — are hardcore. After exiting Hot 97, a crowd of fans are ready and waiting for him. A few want photos, one has him sign her copy of the October issue of his GQ magazine spread and another asks him to autograph a cigar. There’s no screaming and crying supporters yet, but they’ll come a bit later on. The laidback dude has grown accustomed to being poked, prodded and doted on by fans.

“We were in Tampa and a girl had ‘Cole World’ tattooed on her fingers,” he exclaims in disbelief. “I’ve seen a guy in Rutgers had my whole verse tattooed on his forearm. I had one kid tell me that he had cancer and the only reason he felt like he beat it was ’cause a song that I made got him through it. I got wild stories.” Not once does he take the support for granted. “I’m super proud. I’m just blessed that people get the music and they gravitate to the music the way that they do. That’s why I make it. I never think about that like, ‘Oh man, some kid is gonna beat cancer ’cause of this,’ but I definitely want people to love the music like that and have that connection. That’s the intention.”

Cole hops in a black Escalade now and heads towards downtown New York City where he’ll sign copies of ‘Cole World: The Sideline Story’ for fans. He stops at Star Pizza along the way to grab a slice and a Snapple at about 5:20PM. The ‘Never Told’ performer goes unnoticed in the restaurant, a few customers shoot glares his way as if they recognize his face but can’t quite put a finger on who he is. Outside is a different story as one young girl stops him while he makes a phone call to pose for a photo. His quick dinner is rushed as he jumps back in his ride to head towards J&R Music World to meet his Dreamvillains.

As J. Cole approaches J&R, the scene is complete pandemonium. The store sits at a point on the corner of 23 Park Row and both sides of the building are lined with fans who’ve purchased a copy of his debut opus. His exit from the Escalade is immediately met with shouting men, women, boys and girls who surround him to get a closer look, or a quick touch, at the current hip-hop poster boy. Cole seems a bit nervous with the mob surrounding him but he still makes an effort to throw a few daps and shake hands before finding a safe entrance into the building.

Inside, the man of the hour signs his rap moniker on countless albums. Fans decked out in Cole World T-shirts make a single-file line inside the store, LPs and cameras in hand. But just like them, Cole too is a fan of hip-hop and of those helping to refresh its sound. For ‘Cole World,’ he was a student of the game. “I got in with No I.D. and Pharrell, Danjahandz and all these guys who know way more than me about production and know different things,” states J. Cole, whose musical tastes include Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Eric Clapton. “Now I know more ’cause I’m seeing them work and I’m learning from them. I’m a smarter, better producer.”

Nearing 8PM, J. Cole’s day isn’t close to being over. The emotive MC is still signing away and there’s a celebratory dinner and album release party that awaits him. As tired as he may be, this workhorse, who recently came off an ankle injury as a result of a late-night basketball game, is about to party the night away, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. Today, years of personal sacrifice have turned into a game-winning shot, one for his memory bank.

“I always feel like it’s two key ingredients when it comes to following your dreams, making something happen that the average person deems difficult,” he finalizes. “If you truly believe it, that’s step one. Step two, is, you know, the hard work that goes along with it. So if the belief is there and you got the hard work to match that belief, I feel like it’s impossible that you fail. If you fail then it just wasn’t meant to be.”

Fortunately for J. Cole, his “dollar and a dream” became a sonic slam dunk.

 

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