It started with academics. He received a scholarship to St. John’s University in New York and graduated magna cum laude. The whole time there was an idea brewing. He had a passion, a skill, which he dreamed would one day make him big. A few years after graduating, it did. Sound like a start up story? It is, of sorts. It’s the backstory of up-and-coming rapper Jermaine Cole, more commonly known by his stage name, J. Cole.
After dropping his first official album, “Cole World: The Sideline Story,” in late September, Cole’s position in the rap world was solidified. The album debuted at number one on the charts and quickly added members to his already prominent fan base.
However, listeners may be unaware of Cole’s rather academic beginnings. He grew up in North Carolina and became interested in hip-hop and rap at an early age. At the age of 14, Cole started writing his own rhymes and making his own beats on a Roland TR-808 machine. He told stories through his music and quickly realized he wanted to sculpt a career out of his love for rap.
After graduating high school, Cole sought a college where he could gain as much exposure to the music industry as possible. He received an academic scholarship to St. John’s University, which he accepted because of the school’s proximity to New York City and the music industry moguls located there.
Cole graduated magna cum laude from St. John’s in 2007 with a degree in communications and a minor in business. This somewhat unusual feat in the hip-hop world allows Cole to proclaim on his website that he took a “scholarly approach to the game.”
The same year he graduated, he dropped his first mixtape, “The Come Up,” which caused few reverberations within the hip-hop community. Experiencing a slow beginning to his career, Cole was persistent in his attempts to make it big, sending his mixtape to big-name hip-hop artists.
Luck struck when one such artist heard something he liked on Cole’s mixtape. In 2009, Brooklyn-based rapper and producer Jay-Z decided to sign Cole as the first artist to his Roc Nation label. Cole had finally broken through the boundary separating struggling musician and profit-garnering artist.
When his first album, “Cole World: The Sideline Story,” dropped, it sold nearly 220,000 copies in the first week and climbed to number one on the charts in less than a month. The album instantly achieved high popularity for its original, fluid and beat-propelled songs, each of which puts an emphasis on the importance of true musicality.
Cole’s lyrical work is the real selling point, however. His lyrics combine a relaxed flow with a sudden intensity on hard-driven punch lines. He discusses issues he finds of importance, primarily societal struggles that he can relate to. On the Roc Nation website, he expresses his hope “to change the tide of current rap music, swaying it in a more insightful, meaningful and passionate direction.”
His intellectual background, combined with a personal look into his views on societal matters, offers a unique experience not always found in current popular hip-hop. He accomplished a feat many Stanford students currently hold as a goal. Not everyone dreams of becoming a hip-hop artist, but being able to successfully realize your own, original idea so soon out of college is an ambition not unusual to many of us in the Silicon Valley.