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Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2010

J. Cole’s High-Pressure Debut

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In rap music, first impressions count. From Nas to Jay-Z, The Notorious B.I.G. to Eminem, many of the genre’s giants arrived with perfectly realized debut albums, instant classics that remain the foundation of their legacies. Especially in the East Coast rap tradition, no achievement is more romanticized than the classic first album, yet none is more difficult to pull off—after all, artists only get one attempt. None of this is lost on J. Cole, the highly hyped 25-year-old rapper and producer readying his debut for Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label.

“People always ask me do I feel pressure from being signed with Jay-Z, but that’s not what I think about,” Cole says. “It’s the pressure of putting out and making a strong impact with my first LP; that’s the pressure I feel. I’ve always dreamed about having that first, classic album.”

Like every significant rap discovery of the last five years, Cole first came to attention through mixtapes. The short, mythmaking telling of his success story has Jay-Z signing Cole after hearing just one of his songs, “Lights Please,” but that all-too-simple narrative downplays the five years Cole spent earning that break, which began when Cole left Fayetteville, N.C., to attend college in New York.

“I had to move just to be closer to the music industry,” Cole says. “Then for years I was just knocking on doors, calling a bunch of people, sending out MySpace messages and doing whatever I could to get my music heard, because nobody was listening.”

Almost as dispiriting as the slow response to his music was the state of the New York rap scene. Like most hip-hop fans who came of age during the ’90s, as a kid Cole had lionized New York as the birthplace of rap and home to its greatest talents.

“I had this image in my mind of New York having this incredible scene, where every night there was a freestyle battle or a beat battle, but the real New York wasn’t even close,” he says. “By the time I got there in 2003, it was dead. There was this one place in Manhattan, the Pyramid Club, where they held occasional open mics or whatever, but overall it was just sad. This was supposed to be New York.”

None of this deterred Cole or hampered his confidence.

“Even though it sounds crazy, I knew I was going to get signed eventually,” he says. “I didn’t know it would be by Jay-Z of all people, but I knew that I would eventually get a deal. If I hadn’t been sure of that, I never would have stuck around. I mean, I was super-broke and super-hungry, literally. I was saving up my $1.50 every day, timing it out to eat my one slice of pizza around 8 o’clock, which would be my food for the whole day. If I didn’t know I was going to be successful, I never would have stuck around.”

The expectations for Cole’s upcoming debut album, Cole World, are high, not only because Cole has dominated “rappers to watch” roundups since last year, but because after a decade where New York’s rap scene has been overshadowed by the South, Cole is pegged as one of the scene’s great hopes—a rapper whose stardom, if it materializes, would be an affirmation of the city’s classic lyrical tradition. In the face of such expectations, Cole has taken his time on the album, tweaking it in search of the right balance between critical and commercial appeal.

“I still don’t know a release date,” he says. “I do know I’m almost finished, but I always say I’m almost finished. I’ll probably be working on it until they give me a day when I have to turn it in.”

J. Cole headlines a 7 p.m. bill at the Rave on Friday, Nov. 5, with K. Michelle and CJ Hilton.