What Made J. Cole So Successful?

The North Carolina-bred artist has just accomplished what no other rapper has managed to do—that is, make conscious rap mainstream with virtually no promotion.
2014 Forest Hills Drive
2014 Forest Hills Drive

J. Cole is selling out.

Not like that—literally. His newest LP, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, is projected to reach first place on The Billboard 200 next week with well over 300,000 albums sold. That in and of itself is not too surprising; after all, Cole’s first two albums topped the charts, each selling more copies than the last. While it has easily outpaced Rick Ross’s super-plugged Hood Billionaire and set to topple Taylor Swift’s 1989 from its perch at #1, first week sales for Cole’s newest release won’t break a Guinness record. Still, news of its retail popularity is rocking the rap industry.

What makes the success of this project so impressive is that it has none of the usual requirements of a best-seller: No mainstream media promotion. No radio singles. No features. It was a ballsy risk to make in a rap game driven by hype and club bangers—after all, isn’t that what the people want? Artists throughout time have faced the notorious dilemma in reconciling personal values with career aspirations: either become a sellout or starve. No stranger to Top 40 radio playlists, Cole has previously expressed regrets about sacrificing his art for commercial viability in the song “Let Nas Down,” from Born Sinner. In this case, however, Cole made no bones about the self-actualizing intent of his project, and making money was not a priority. In light of that, the album’s overwhelming reception despite his blatant disregard for the standard elements of commercial appeal is not only anomalous in the rap scene—it’s unprecedented.

In a documentary-style album preview released on YouTube, Cole describes what compelled him to go so far against the norm in his approach to creating this work:

“I’ve gotten to this point in my career and realized that, yeah, I’ve got a lot more dreams and I want to go further; but at the same time, I don’t want it if it’s at the expense of my happiness. There was a time when my happiness depended on how successful I was in my career, but real happiness doesn’t come from that […] At 29, I’m figuring this out.”

Mind you, this isn’t Lil’ Wayne we’re talking about; with his introverted and reflective persona, Cole has always stood apart from the blinged-out and aggressive braggadocio typified by other mainstream rap artists. This type of missive is not out of character, nor is it completely new in the rap world. Other “conscious” rappers have expressed similar sentiments by disapproving of materialistic vices and attempting to educate the masses in their own brands of spiritual enlightenment; however, since his early mixtapes, Cole has occupied a more prominent and popular space in the industry than was ever filled by Common, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, or even Nas. Whether it’s the message itself or the way he delivers it, the content of Cole’s music seems to resonate with the public in a way eluded by most underground rappers. And, ironically, it’s the mainstream success of his music that has made him most susceptible to the hedonistic delusions he now cautions against in “Tale of 2 Cities”:

Small town nigga Hollywood dreams
I know that everything that glitters ain’t gold
I know the shits not always good as it seems
But tell me, till you get it, how could you know?
How could you know? How could you know?

Somehow, the fact that J. Cole has had the reverie of wealth, fame, and decadence within his grasp gives him more credibility. It didn’t just slip through his fingers; he handed it right back. He can’t be so easily dismissed as a hater who just doesn’t have what it takes to be a part of that world. Neither does his tone come off as preachy, which has been a bane of the conscious rap genre. Unlike some of his high-minded counterparts, Cole doesn’t try to hold himself above or apart from mainstream rap; he is immersed in it, embraced by it. Jay-Z is his mentor, and Drake is his friend. His current life appears enviable, but the stories of it he tells are raw and honest in a way that is rare in humanity, let alone a street-inspired rap world that sees hardness as “real” and emotional vulnerability as a handicap. Through his courage to go against that grain, Cole exemplifies leadership qualities that makes it easy to see why others are innately drawn to follow him.

Studio execs and big-name artists are undoubtedly paying close attention to the profitability of Cole’s brand right now. Record labels dedicate huge budgets to album promotion, and Cole’s ability to circumvent that paradigm while still reaping high earnings is a strategy that no doubt many others wish they could duplicate. Observant players may change up their tactics in an attempt to mimic his outcome, but unless the motive is sincere they will likely fall flat. What has ultimately ensured Cole’s continued success is not some reverse-psychology marketing scheme engineered to dominate the rap game, but rather a personal reframing of what the prize is. As he reflects in an interview with NPR’s Microphone Check, “anytime you base your happiness on something that is not real [….] you’ll always be reaching. I realized I gotta base my happiness on what I have.” It’s a philosophy that starkly counters the capitalist corporate agenda to maximize revenue and profit margins. It’s a dream of escaping the rat race, finding inner bliss, and achieving creative fulfillment. It’s the pursuit of true artists everywhere.

And, judging by his sales, it’s something that masses are willing to invest in. TC mark

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