When every artist has a successful debut album, they always fear hitting the dreaded “sophomore slump.” The “sophomore slump,” as industry insiders refer to it as, aka the “sophomore jinx,” is an instance when a second album fails to match the accolades of its predecessor. Many fans sometimes consider these artists as a “one hit wonder.” But, usually that would refer to an artist literally having only one successful song. Usually if it is Billboard #1 song. In rap music, the “sophomore slump” is extremely common. Some music critics attribute the sophomore slump to the lack of struggle, hunger, or hardship an artist faces after they have a successful record. Many rap artists usually come from a touch upbringing. They were faced with tremendous struggle, crime and poverty on a daily basis in their lives. Then, once they succeed, the struggles and hardships are gone! Some people would say they are not as “hungry” anymore.  Others merely attribute it to the change in environment. They go from living with little to no money, and struggling to get to by, To a life where they essentially have everything they could ever dream of. The unspoken beauty of urban music is that rappers rap about what they see, and what they live through. If you make millions, move out of hood, drive a nice car, and surround yourself with gorgeous woman, your life experiences are different and you probably won’t be rapping about the same things. Unfortunately, the public usually resonates better with musicians who struggle. Everyone wants to see the underdog succeed. But what if you are not the underdog anymore? What if you don’t face those same struggles and hardships you did when you wrote your 1st album? Sadly, sometimes these follow up albums aren’t met with they same commercial and critical response. Some of the more notable slumps in rap music are artists like Snoop Dogg, who’s  follow-up to his classic Doggystyle did match the critical and commercial success of it predecessor (although I was one of the few who LOVED his 2nd album “Doggfather”). Bad Boy Records artist Mase, who’s “Double Up” album paled in comparison to his debut smash. Wu-Tang’s golden wordsmith Raekwon. Raekwon’s debut is considered a hip-hop classic. But his sophomore album “Immobilarity” literally came, and went. Even record executive and music producer Puff Daddy’s 2nd album did not match the success of his debut release. But sophomore slumps are not limited to rap music. You see it in pop and rock music as well. Anyone hear Alanis Morrisette’s 2nd album? Ya, thought so…

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Alanis 2nd album

Rap/Hip-Hop stalwart J. Cole was faced was the possibility of a sophomore slump, following the success of his debut album. He discusses it in this article here from the Red Bulletin, Red Bull’s music and entertainment magazine. He explains the pressure he faced, the stress he placed upon himself, creative hurdles, and responsibility to family. He even shares his view on how media and journalists, with regard to the hip-hop/rap genre.

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Jermaine Lamarr Cole, aka J. Cole, was born in 1985 in a military base in Fankfurt, West Germany. Cole, formerly a bill collector, has built a solid fan base from his years utilizing social media to build a fan base and drop numerous mixtapes that set new levels of success for indie hip-hop artists. He skyrocketed in popularity by self releasing and funding the promotion of thse homegrown mixtapes, which caught the attention of industry vets. In 2009 he landed a feature on Jay-Z’s “Blueprint 3” album, which led to being the first signing and Jay-Z’s new record label, “Roc Nation.” Being signed by Jay-Z, led to a tremendous amount of industry buzz, and J. Cole leveraged that buzz by continuing to release mixtapes. His self mixtapes were continuously well received by both critics and fans. Getting signed by Jay-Z was not as easy as one might assume. You think getting your music in the hands of or meeting a major player in the industry helps? Well, it did not do much for J. Cole, until he actually had a buzz and successful indie track record behind him. When J. Cole first met Jay-Z, he stood outside of Jay-Z’s Roc the Mic Studio for three hours, just to give him a beat. But, when Jay-Z came out of the studio he just ignored him Cole. But this did not demoralize J. Cole. He continued to pound the pavement and build a fan base. He scored a major radio hit with the song “Work Out” that was featured on his “Return to Simba” mixtape. Check out the video here, which currently has about 45,500,000 views.

J. Cole followed this up with a successful college tour, and was listed in the sought after XXL Magazine’s 2010 version of “Top Ten Freshmen” of the year. In August 2010, J. Cole was awarded the UMA Male Artist of the Year, due to the success of his “The Warm Up” mixtape. All this, among much more, before ever being signed to Jay-Z’s new label. Eventually, after most major labels wanted to sign him, Jay-Z saw the value in J. Cole, and signed him to in a very high profile record deal. Cole eventually stepped into the studio to create his debut album, “Cole World: The Sideline Story.” “Cole World,” was released on September 11th, 2011, and debuted at number one on the Billboard Top 200 chart.  It sold over 218,000 copies in its first week. As of December 2, 2011, the album was certified gold, and was clocked in at selling over 600,000 copies by April of 2013. But, as J. Cole admits, this all is sort of a “mixed blessing.”

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At this point, is where many artist’s would usually start feel the pressure for a follow up, and begin to fall to the dreaded “sophomore slump.” But J. Cole felt some pressures of his own. Pressures that motivated him to avoid the 2nd album jinx. J. Cole talks about a very unique type of pressure he faced while putting this album together; to be able to still support his mom. Kay Cole, a military vet, has been spoken about and featured in numerous blogs since Cole has hit the limelight. He has taken pride in the fact that due to his success, his mom has been able to retire from her post office job, and drive a Mercedes E Class. Kay, a former drug addict, has faced her own share of struggles. Aside from her struggles with drugs, J. Cole’s father abandoned them when he was young. Kay remarried to someone who was abusive to both her and J. Cole. J. Cole shares the pressure he faces with the possibility of his 2nd album, titled “Born Sinner”, flopping. He wonders if he will be able to sustain the income he made, and continue to make enough money to support keep his mom retired. On his debut album, he famously said “ I finally put my momma in the E Class, n*****, and I told her to quit her job. Oh Hold your horses, if my next album flops, it’s back to the post office. Both of us. They’re saying that’s a real possibility. The thought is killing me.” In reference to this lyric, today J. Cole says, “That line was definitely on my mind. I retired my mom and I’m not filthy rich. It’s not like, ‘Yeah, mom, whatever.’ It’s retiring her with the thought like, ‘Damn, do I have enough if this ends tomorrow and I don’t make another dollar? Do I have enough to sustain my life, her life and all that?’” Feel free to read this review with J. Cole’s mom, regarding the success her son has achieved.

KAy Cole, J's Mom

But J. Cole is not just keeping his fingers crossed, hoping he puts out an album that sells well enough. He is applying his natural entrepreneurial skills to work. The same skills that helped him become one of the most successful independent rappers of the last 10 years. The same skills that landed him a deal with one of the most successful music artists and executives ever.  First off, Cole admits he is not letting any negative thoughts enter his mind.  He says, “When I’m not thinking negatively and I have a more rational mind-set, I know that even if I don’t have another hit, I have a fan base. Lupe Fiasco never has to have another hit in his life and he has fans that love him. He can go perform Food & Liquor for the rest of his days and he will have a career. I have to remind myself, “No matter what, you’ll have a career.”

J. Cole discuss the importance of not living outside of his means, something MANY artists fail to realize. Many musicians, not just rappers, think the money will just keep coming. The hits will keep happening. But, in more cases than not, it won’t! He discuss that he knows he retired his mom and bought her the car of her dreams, but Cole’s hunger hasn’t diminished. He wants to buy her the house of her dreams as well. That is his next goal. He say’s that what helps him continue to work hard and stay motivated is the faith and belief he has in himself. But, as I always say, faith without works is useless. He is putting this faith to work. He says, “I never had to box with so much doubt.” Cole admits this is tough, due to some of the criticism he hears about his music. Cole says that many times, if he reads the negative criticism too often, the negative views will become his own. He says, “I honestly think that comes from how much people can interact with you, regular people you don’t know. I can go online and literally see what people are saying. At first that never bothered me, but I think that over time, when you read other people’s thoughts so much, especially when they’re negative, they become your thoughts. Without you even knowing it.” He uses the negative criticism and reviews that he has encountered online to help fuel his work ethic. His previous career as a bill collector continuously reminds him of how he could lose everything he has accomplished. He saw first hand people losing their house, their cars, everything. He witnessed and heard horrible stories of what people, including his mom, had gone through to make ends meet. He admits, “I don’t ever want to be broke again.” Interesting to hear, from someone we would assume has made millions and is on top of the music world. It’s amazing how positive he can stay. I know first hand artists who couldn’t. This became the downfall of their music career. Whenever he begins to doubt himself, he steps back and brings that positive energy right back in. Cole says, “There are goals that I gotta hit. I never used to think like that at all, so it’s like returning to that place where it’s like, ‘Nah, you got it.’ It’s just a true faith in yourself. I do have faith in myself.” Having faith in yourself is essential for any musician. Being an artist in the music industry, you will continously face obstacles and negativity. Without the mindset J. Cole works daily on keeping, any artist would stumble and fall flat on his face in the business.

J. Cole faced not only financial concerns regarding his 2nd album, but also the stress on his shoulder to deliver something both critics and fans alike would adore. He discuss that he was disappointed with his first album, “Cole World: The Sideline Story.” Cole felt that although it was successful, he was unhappy with the little critical accolades it received. Very few people praised it, or deemed it worthy of the “classic” status. He admits this might seem odd to people, but he was disappointed because he had a higher expectation.  Mainly because some of the mixtapes he released, like “Friday Night Lights” were universally praised. He even wondered if he messed up his debut album, and killed his career.  Regarding his debut, Cole says, “it was successful, but it didn’t do what I wanted it to do critically for a lot of reasons. Even as I was celebrating this commercial success that shocked everybody, I knew right away it didn’t do what I wanted it to do: Have everybody praise it as a hands-down classic. I didn’t get that with the album like I got with [2010 mixtape] Friday Night Lights and it f*cked me up. I wondered, did I f*ck this up?”

Friday night lights mixtape

Before his album was even released, he already had a top 25 hit single from his sophomore album. The song “Power Trip,” featuring R&B star Miguel, has been burning up the radio waves lately. But not without it’s share of obstacles. One of the biggest obstacles many artist face in their career, is the crossroads of relinquishing a certain amount of creative control. J. Cole needed to let go of some of the control his music, something that is hard for a rapper who not only raps, but also writes and produces his own music. J. Cole initially wanted to sing the hook of the song, but team convinced him that having someone else, preferably with an R&B voice sing the hook, would better suit the song. Take peak at the video for his song “Power Trip” here:

One of J. Cole’s main goals for his second album, “Born Sinner,” is to start to be recongnized not only as a talented lyricst, but to also as a great producer. J. Cole compares himself to a fellow rapper and producer, Kanye West (who Cole went head to head with on June 18th, the day both artist released their albums). Kanye West, who was initially known as a producer, worked tirelessly to make a name for himself as rapper as well. According to J. Cole, “I feel like it’s the opposite of what Kanye went through. He was already established as one of the game’s best producers but had to gain respect as a rapper. I wasn’t even getting the awareness of being a producer. I feel like I had to start letting people know because that’s another thing that I’m incredibly competitive about—almost equal to rap.”

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For many years in it’s infancy, rap music was perceived as a 2nd class music genre. Music critics and purists looked at rappers and rap music producers NOT as musicians. They assumed most rappers and rap producers weren’t musical. Even still to this day, many artists feel that critics do not truly give the genre and it’s most successful artists the credit they deserve. With all the emotion and creativity he invests in his music, Cole hopes to change the industry’s perception. He expressed his views by explaining how the Grammy’s have often overlooked rap albums in it’s much celebrated “Album of Year” category. Even though in the hip hop community, The Grammy’s are many times looked upon as somewhat of a clichéd joke. Cole says, “The Grammys—really the whole music-critic culture in general—I feel like they overlook hip-hop. They don’t give it its proper respect as a true art form. Maybe it’s because we don’t have a lot of true artists. I feel like Kanye should definitely have a Grammy for album of the year. Absolutely. The fact that you haven’t given him his means you’re f*cking me up now, because if I drop the album of the year on the same day as him, you’re going to give him his shit as a make-up because he’s overdue.” To Cole, and even myself, the reviews that many of the indie music critics give seem to be one-sided and extremely biased. J. Cole stated, ““You’re wielding too much power and control because there are people who take your opinion seriously. If you’re telling them to go listen to Chief Keef then they’re going to listen to Chief Keef. So you better make sure Chief Keef is representing [hip-hop] properly. And he’s great. But you have to balance it out. Maybe it comes from a salty place, because they wouldn’t f*ck with me—I’m too safe, too smart, too clean. I went to college.” Rap music fans and critics always seem to celebrate the thug and troubled artist who is misoginystic, and violent. J. Cole isn’t. He raps about taking care of his mom, and the demons she has bettled and overcome. He raps about the duality of his race, being both African-American AND white. Since J. Cole is not dangerous, particualrily to White America, will he be celebrated and praised like some of the artists he admired growing up? Artist like 2Pac and Biggie?

J. Cole’s sophomore album “Born Sinner,” was released on June 18th, 2013. All of Cole’s worries were put to rest when it debuted at #2 on the Billboard Top 200 Charts with over 297,000 copies sold in it’s first week (right below Kanye West’s “Yeezus” album). As of today, the album has sold over 324,000 copies. Music critics have praised the album, calling it the “record of the summer.” Jon Dolan of Rolling Stone Magazine said, “Sometimes I brag like Hov/ Sometimes I’m real like Pac,” J. Cole raps on his second LP. Sometimes he’s both – a verbal powerhouse and a self-emptying truth-sayer. The flagship signee to Jay-Z’s record label spins dervish rhymes over dazzling self-produced tracks (see the Outkast-sampling “Land of the Snakes”). His riffs on racism, homophobia and misogyny have more lyrical cunning than insight. But when it comes to twisting himself into Kanye-size pretzels of career-oriented real talk, he’s a champ.” Los Angeles Times Music Critic August Brown said, “If the self-mythologizing of ‘Yeezus’ is a little much for you…J. Cole’s ‘Born Sinner’ is at the other end of the universe from Kanye West’s latest — a quieter, self-examining rap record that’s short on audacity but long on workman-like singles.” People magazine even gave his album a higher rating than they gave to Kanye West’s much publicized “Yeezus” album…which even J. Cole thought would getter more critical praise. Looks like J. Cole has been able to avoid the sophomore slump afterall.

3 Responses to J. Cole – Boxing with Doubt

  1. UK hip hop fan says:

    2 great albums from j cole..hope he stacks and buys that property! One love

  2. J. Cole – “Work Out”.

    FORTY-FIVE MILLION VIEWS ON YOUTUBE?!?!?!?!?

    Dude. He must be doing SOMETHING right.

    Thanks for this article – very helpful and inspiring.

    Andrew Colyer

    P.S. Maybe you could publish a blog post / article on how to do a “college tour”,
    like J. Cole did…………………

  3. Nikki says:

    How I love J. Cole. And I’ll explain why. He worked his entraprenuer skills for many many years before he made it. I train my artists to do, is exactly that. Once you understand how to accept this as a lifestyle, eventually, you get the respect you deserve. J. Cole seems to be going through these chapters in his life because he is smart and wants to figure out how to change the game, beat the odds, and come up on top with himself being ultimately himself, true, and recognized as a success. The negatitiy that comes with the fame is difficult to get past, but he is trying to beat it with all he knows. These challenges are real. I like him though because he incorporates his real life emotions into his music. I just cant get enough 🙂

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