En route to a show in his third state in as many days, J. Cole is still caught up in the whirlwind surrounding the release of his much-anticipated debut album for Jay-Z's Roc Nation label. After celebrating with a party in his hometown of Fayetteville the night before, the up-and-coming hip-hop star is squeezing in interviews whenever he can spare a minute. Pulling up to a Florida venue with fans buzzing in anticipation, the 26-year-old jokes about the "cheap-ass lotion" someone handed him and admits he's finally been able to relax a little.
"I'm really just relieved, like my mind is on ease, like I'm already thinking of new raps and new songs," he says via phone. "I got new energy, new life, and there's no pressure — like all the pressure is gone."
Releasing that pressure is Cole World: The Sideline Story, which is defying Roc Nation's modest expectations and even Cole's own ambitious goals. This week the album sits at No. 1 on both iTunes and the Billboard 200, and it sold 217,000 copies in its first week, giving Cole the highest-charting hip-hop debut of the year. By the time he brings his Cole World tour to the Fillmore on Thursday, Oct. 13, he'll be a bona-fide superstar.
Cole wasn't the only Carolina artist to drop new music late last month. Albums from Raleigh's Phonte and 9th Wonder, both of Little Brother fame, were getting national attention on the same day, although Cole was the clear leader. When asked what it feels like to be the flag bearer for North Carolina hip-hop, he seems genuinely blown away.
"It's crazy when you put it like that," Cole says. "These are the things I never really thought about — like I always represented and talked about it, but I never actually thought the day would come when I was successful with album sales and in terms of, like, critics, critically acclaimed or whatever. And the fact that it's an all-Carolina movement, that makes it that much better."
Also riding the wave of Cole's success is his hometown. The release of Cole World is as much a win for Fayetteville as it is for the artist. After all, that city is known more for creating soldiers than rock stars. "We're not L.A. We're not even Charlotte. We're not even Raleigh," Cole says. "So, the fact that I'm going so hard makes everybody back home want to go hard for me. People were ecstatic and happy, because I'm representing in every project I do, every song, so many shout-outs." Like the one in "School Daze," from his 2007 mixtape The Come Up: "Take y'all back to them school days, yeah. Fayette-Nam, what up, man?"
Cole has never been ashamed of growing up in the town people call "Fayette-Nam" for its large military presence, and he's entirely convincing when he says he enjoyed every minute of his childhood there. "That was some of the best times of my life," he says. "I always say when I die, I want to come right back and just do it one more time. I wouldn't have chose to be anywhere else, because I got so many great memories and friends and, you know, stories for years."
Storytelling is something that attracted Jermaine Lamarr Cole early on. He was born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1985; his father was black and mother white. When he was 8 months old, the military family relocated to Fayetteville, where Cole's parents eventually split up. He was raised by his mother and stepfather, and the music in their household was eclectic, to say the least. His mom listened to the folk and rock of acts like Peter, Paul & Mary and Eric Clapton, while his stepfather brought home records by 2Pac, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre. "The whole time there was this weird mixture of music going on," he once told the UK-based online magazine Blues & Soul. "If I was riding with my mom, she'd be listening to the classic rock stations, while if I was riding with my dad, he'd be listening to the Above the Rim soundtrack."
Cole began rapping at 12, and by the time he reached Terry Sanford High School in the late '90s, he was posting songs to the Internet under the name Therapist. While Therapist was becoming the latest in a long list of New South rappers online, in the world of Fayetteville, Cole was still the kid who worked at the skating rink and played high-school basketball. He was theirs.
But J. Cole had a dream. "Everybody used to talk about they was gonna be in the NBA. I felt like I really believed it," he confides. "Whenever I was thinking about it, I really believed it."
To get out of Fayetteville, you have to possess a level of determination most people don't have. Cole had determination to spare. After he graduated high school in 2003, an academic scholarship drove him to New York City, where he didn't know a soul. He attended St. John's University, studying communications and business, and graduated magna cum laude in 2007.