Off the Sidelines

At 26 years of age, Jermaine Lamarr Cole — better known as J. Cole — is a rapper and producer who, in usual, young-MC fashion, already considers himself to be the next hip-hop great. After all, this is a guy who once rapped that he's "something like the light-skinned version of the very same baby that the Virgin Mary raised."

But Cole is also sharp enough to know that in order for people to acknowledge that he's hip-hop's newest savior, he's gotta go out and preach the words. He's currently doing that now as the opening act on pop star Rihanna's "Loud Tour," which comes to town this Saturday.

Cole, who was born in Frankfurt, Germany, and raised in Fayetteville, North Carolina, says he is enjoying being the tour's official opener. (Cee Lo Green was also on the tour, but dropped out due to supposed scheduling conflicts.)

"It's been a great experience, like, performing every night in front of a sea of crowds who doesn't know who I am," says Cole by phone from L.A. "You know, when you're a new artist like that, you gotta learn how to win the crowd over. So, that's what I'm doing. That's my goal.

"By the time I get off this stage, I wanna have people like, 'Man, that guy was pretty good. That J. Cole kid was pretty good.'"

Cole is hoping that audiences will be inspired enough to pick up his long-awaited debut, Cole World: The Sideline Story, when it comes out in September. The album will be released on Jay-Z's Roc Nation label (where Rihanna is a managed artist). For Cole, who wanted so much to work with the rap superstar he used to wear a T-shirt that said "Produce with Jay-Z or Die Tryin'," working with Hova wasn't a dream — it was a mission.

"I slipped into this kid's sweet 16 party — he was [music mogul] L.A. Reid's son — because I heard Jay-Z was gonna be there, and I wore my shirt," says Cole. "And that didn't happen. And a couple of years later, I waited outside his studio for him and tried to hand him a CD. He wouldn't take it.

"And the next year after that, he called me into his office, 'cuz he heard one of my songs and he really liked it. So, it's just funny how that whole thing worked out."

Thankfully, Cole made enough of a name for himself online, dropping a couple of mixtapes on his own, for Jigga Man to finally take notice. Since signing with Roc Nation, he has appeared on Jay's The Blueprint 3 album as well as releasing another mixtape, Friday Night Lights, featuring guest rhymes from fellow young-gun MCs Drake and Wale and production work from Kanye West and Timbaland.

Cole says to expect more ­collaborations with superstar producers and his on-the-rise peers when World drops in the fall. Until then, he'll go from town to town, looking to gather more people into his flock.

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Craig D. Lindsey
Contact: Craig D. Lindsey