Nice Watch: The Overlooked, Astounding Story of Jay Z Signing J. Cole

J. Cole wasn't in Jay Z' original plans for Roc Nation, so how did Cole become Hova's biggest success?
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J. Cole wasn't in Jay Z' original plans for Roc Nation, so how did Cole become Hova's biggest success?

He stands outside Roc-The-Mic studios with a freshly burnt beat CD and a bottle of E&J waiting, hoping, waiting, praying and waiting for Jay Z. The waiting, there's always more waiting. It's night, the rain begins to pour. Two hours go by, his stomach is full of cheap liquor and raging butterflies as an expensive car pulls up. Hova has arrived. For a young man that once made a “Produce for Jay-Z or Die Trying” shirt, this was it, the reason he moved to New York, attending college in the City Of Dreams instead of staying in his home state of North Carolina. When the opportunity comes, standing in front of the man who could hand him his ticket off cheap couches and overdue rent, words refuse to form. He stutters and stammers. Jay sees the CD in his hand, a wall goes up in his eyes. “I don’t want that, give it to one of them,” he says. I would’ve walked away cursing Jay's name, playing “Ether” all the way home, hoping that while he’s recording American Gangster Beyoncé is in the arms of her true love, Memphis Bleek. Not J. Cole. He took his first encounter with Jay as a lesson learned, that getting on wouldn't be so easy. 

A year later, it was Jay Z asking to meet the same kid he previously dismissed. Mark Pitts played one song which lead to a three hour meeting which lead to multiple meetings (waiting, always more waiting) until eventually Jermaine Cole was officially the first artist signed to Roc Nation. This is a story well known by fans, but I don’t know if I truly appreciated how astounding the tale is until recently, especially from Jay's perspective. 

The real thing is that they weren't going to do rap, if that tells you like my position over there. They weren't gonna do rap. I think Roc Nation was just gonna be a pop label” - J. Cole to Complex, circa 2009

As Cole said in his Complex interview after the signing was announced, Roc Nation was created to be a label focused on pop music. Jay didn't want the resurrection of Roc-A-Fella but to recapture the success he had during his Def Jam presidency with Rihanna and Ne-Yo, but on an even larger scale. There wouldn’t be any Diplomats or State Propertys, he wasn’t seeking talent from the streets but voices that could reach the households he couldn’t imagine while standing on the Marcy Project blocks. Rita Ora, Willow Smith, Calvin Harris, these are the kind of artist that fit into that mold, the kind of artist that would be eaten alive standing in the Roc-A-Fella jungle with real lions from Philly and tigers from Harlem. Jermaine was something different. He wasn’t a pop sensation or a hustler with imagination but a rapper passionate about rap, a hip-hop artist through and through. So what made Hova make a detour in his plans, signing a rapper more focused on making hip-hop history than dollar signs or fame? I have to believe Jay's intuition told him that this kid had that mythical “it.”

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“Lights Please” is the song that lead to the first meeting, a song that showed a relationship between a young man full of angst toward the cold world and young women whose only passions are loud packs and casual sex. A record with zero crossover possibility, too slow for the clubs, too intellectual for radio, a business man would’ve dismissed it. Listening to it now I think of “Jesus Walks,” a song that challenges the accustomed and accepted. I imagine Jay listening to it and thinking it would sink in a world where Soulja Boy’s “Kiss Me Through The Phone” and Jamie Foxx’s “Blame It” were current Billboard hits. I imagine he saw attributes of his little brother, Kanye West. J. Cole didn’t have his swagger or the enchanting ego of a mad scientist, but reading over his old interviews from this time frame it’s clear he had a glow. Who stood before Jay was a passionate rapper that cared more about making good music than making good money. A producer that learned to make beats because he was tired of rapping over others' subpar production. Southern roots with an east coast style, not from the streets but familiar with hardship. An anomaly.

A deal was never the goal for me, it was just a step. A hard step to get to, but never the end result. My end result is still much greater. I’m trying to be the fucking best. This isn’t the time to chill. It’s the time to go harder.” - J. Cole, post Roc-Nation signing interview with Just Eat Cheese

After seeing the success of music's favorite college dropout I don’t think it was a coincidence that Jay’s next big artist would be a college graduate. Another example of how J. Cole’s selection further shows his separation from the artists Jay formally associated with on Roc-A-Fella. If he saw anything in Cole, it was that he lacked any obvious star power. There was no larger gimmick attached to his persona, no style that gleamed with magic, he was simply a dreamer that grew up on hip-hop from the late '90s and early 2000s. This is the kid Jay prophesied about on the 2000 Back Stage Documentary, later and fittingly used on J. Cole’s "Rise And Shine." He was looking into the future, a rapper born from his pre-retirement world that could reach a new demographic of fans witnessing the music at the end of gangster rap’s era. If Jay saw any of this, along with the talent displayed on “The Warm Up,” there’s no way he could let Jermaine could leave his office with signing a deal, even if a rapper wasn't in Jay's original blueprint for his new Roc Nation empire.

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During the Roc-A-Fella era Jay used his co-sign to stamp the label up-and-comers and associates, similar to how Rick Ross functions now on MMG. Jay’s growing likeness was meant to bring allure to other acts like Freeway, Beans and Bleek. It wasn’t just a feature, Jay had entire songs on their albums. "Dear Summer" is a classic Jay Z song that appears on Memphis Bleek’s 534. The last song on Beanie Sigel’s The Truth is “Anything,” another Jay Z solo record. Not to mention The Dynasty album, a Roc-A-Fella compilation marketed as a Jay solo LP that was meant to showcase the talent he was housing. Jay appeared in their videos, studio sessions, magazine covers, the Roc was a family and he sat at the table’s head. Roc Nation didn’t have a chair for Cole, to the outside world their relationship was like Vernon Dursley and Harry Potter. The internet has countless jokes about how the two have surprisingly few pictures together, I could only find one video where Jay is speaking to Cole. Jermaine has yet to produce for Jay and only received one feature from the boss since his signing in 2009. A feature that he had to wait for (waiting, always more waiting) so long that his albums mastering was stopped and had to be pushed back a week. It’s easy to claim that Jay just doesn’t care, that J. Cole was a side project for him, an investment he didn't invest much time in.

It was a time when he was in all of the Roc-A-Fella artist videos. He’s older now and has different priorities. Jay is a businessman. He signed me, that’s enough. I respect that Jay let’s me do what I want to do.” - J. Cole on Jay Z’s lack of public support, Jet Magazine interview circa 2013

You don’t relate J. Cole to Jay Z in the same way as the artists during the Roc-A-Fella era. No one ever says Cole is successful because Jay Z made him. In fact, the further he goes from a Jay Z guest verse, the more successful he's become. I think Jay’s lack of public support tactic turned out to be a blessing in disguise, perhaphs Jay's intent all along. He removed his name so that his artist could glow if the moment presented itself. Their relationship is based on trust and the belief that Cole didn’t need a giant to lift him, that he had potential to grow into a giant himself. I remember hearing Big Sean rapping over "Say You Will," confessing his frustration with the lack of support from Kanye and the label, “But honestly I wish that I could take you off tour, Put you in the studio so you could focus more on my shit.” I believe this is the attitude of most artists that sign under a bigger artist, they have certain expectations, and it turns into a waiting game. It’s a sentiment that I never saw in J. Cole’s music or character. He was driven, determined, with or without a deal he would make it. Jay found a rapper that he wouldn’t have to babysit. Introduce him to the world and let him sink or swim. J. Cole’s destiny was always in the hands of Jermaine.

One thing I appreciate about Jay-Z is he let me do it my way and let me figure it out. ... He never compromised or interfered with my creative process. There was a never a point when he was like, "I need to come in and play big brother and show you how to do this." He let me figure it out, and it feels better to win like that. It feels better winning knowing that I figured this thing out on my own and if it wouldn't have worked, I would have been OK with bumping my head and failing on my own terms, rather than winning on somebody else's” - J. Cole to the Associated Press circa 2012

Later Jay would sign the alien, Jay Electronica, meaning that from 2009 to 2015 J. Cole was essentially the only active rapper on Roc Nation, a label founded by one of the greatest rappers of all-time. Cole's been surrounded by producers, songwriters and potential popstars, yet somehow became the label’s biggest and brightest investment. He went from getting the coldest shoulder outside of a studio to a hip-hop leader in his own right, from "Mr. Nice Watch" to rapping about getting robbed for a nice watch. J. Cole wasn’t the heir to the throne but the ambitious son that would leave home to build his own kingdom, a true parallel of Jermaine Lamarr Cole's life. 

[By Yoh, aka the Yohrest Hills Drive, @Yoh31]