J. Cole's breakthrough is undoubtedly one of the biggest stories of 2011. He was the first artist signed to Jay-Z's Roc Nation imprint in 2009, and seemingly came out of nowhere: Unlike most recent label signings, he didn't have a name, a buzz or a following when he inked the contract — just loads of talent. Two years later, after several album delays and endless rumors that he didn't have the full support of Jay-Z, Cole hushed the haters with his No. 1 debut, Cole World: The Sideline Story, and his Grammy nomination for Best New Artist. Jay-Z recently spoke with MTV about Cole's Grammy nod, his success and how Roc Nation helped him grow into one of hip hop's premier new talents.
"I think it's great for him," Jay said of Cole's Best New Artist nomination. "Because I'm sure it's a dream of his. We grew up seeing Michael Jackson, and I'm sure he grew up seeing whatever moment stuck in his mind, so I know it's great for him to do that. I think he's already won Best New Artist, to me. His journey is what I'm really excited about."
And quite a journey it's been: Cole released an acclaimed mixtape, The Warm-Up, in 2009, and another in 2010, Friday Night Lights, but he showed exponential growth on Cole World. And not just musically — the album was recently certified gold. Jay said that Roc Nation made a point of giving Cole room to discover his own voice and build his own following.
"The person he is today is not who he was when he first walked in," Jay said. "He got a chance to really go out, see what worked, see what people connect to, figure out how he was gonna tell his story."
From its founding, Jay has said that Roc Nation would be all about the lost music-industry art of artist development, which has been increasingly brushed aside in an era of shrinking record sales, shrinking budgets and the split-second demands of a digital world.
"That artist-development thing, I think we need more of it," Jay said, referring to hip hop in particular. "We need to ensure that this thing is around for future generations. This thing that fed our kids and our family and took us to these heights needs to be held intact by the people who are doing it."
With a talent like J. Cole on his way to the top, Jay is arguably one step closer to this lofty goal, and he couldn't be prouder. "Whether he was nominated or not, he was the best new artist to me; sold 200-and-something-thousand records in his first week; he was the best new artist," Hov said. "I'm sure it's great for him."
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