Jay-Z's protégé J Cole scored a No 1 album in the US last month with his debut album Cole World: The Sideline Story. The American rapper/producer, who was the first artist signed to Jay-Z's Roc Nation label, still has to pinch himself.
"I see Jay-Z more like a wise uncle than a father figure," says Cole. "When my album went to No 1, he was pleasantly shocked. I could hear it in his tone. It was his record label's first No 1 album. It's just as much a win for him. Jay-Z really worked me hard; he'd say: 'This song is a nine. Bring back a 10.' He pushed me harder; he never let me actually settle. That's a reason why the album took so long to come out." The video for his new single "Can't Get Enough", featuring Trey Songz, and which is out on Sunday, features Rihanna in a cameo role .
"I'd been supporting Rihanna on the North American/Caribbean leg of her 'Loud' tour when she asked if I wanted to do the Barbados gig. I thought it would be a great location for my video because "Can't Get Enough" has a real island vibe. I asked her to be in it. I knew Barbados was her home country and she said, "Yes, when is it?" I think she agreed because it was good for tourism."
I'm surprised that Cole, 26, with so many friends in high places, is so understated as he pops his head round a West London hotel room while here to headline his first UK tour. Always looking a bit pensive – even when I see him perform later to a sold-out Shepherd's Bush Empire – Cole is, according to the Roc Nation website, "poised to wake up a dormant industry". And with his new album, it continues, "he hopes to change the tide of current rap music, swaying it in a more insightful, meaningful and passionate direction."
During his show he pulls out a stool to sit on and holds his hand to his heart, while the crowd raps along. "Lost Ones" is about getting a girl pregnant; "Breakdown" is an absent-father lament. Less profound songs on the album include "Lights Please", "Work Out", "In the Morning" featuring Drake, as well as "Mr Nice Watch", featuring boss Jay-Z.
Jay-Z said: "I wanted to sit out the wave of the 'club song', the 'girl song' etc until hip-hop found its voice again. I wasn't going to sign any rappers, but J Cole changed my mind in a few bars – it felt new and familiar, naive and strong, vulnerable and heartless."
Cole has learnt a trick or two from Rihanna. "I learnt to have show outfits. I used to worry about what I was going to wear on stage. Now I wear my J Cole jacket."
What is remarkable about Cole's story is the sheer nerve it took to follow his dream. "You have to be oblivious to failure," says Cole. Born Jermaine Lamarr Cole in Germany, where his father was stationed in the US army, he moved to Fayetteville, North Carolina, when he was eight months old. He was raised by his mother and only saw his father sporadically after they separated when he was a baby.
Cole treated school like one big competition: "I was consistently a straight 'A' student. When I was cut from the basketball team I trained to the standard of an athlete." With this same steely determination, Cole applied himself to a career as an MC. By the age of 12, he was churning out rhymes in notebooks. His mum bought him a beat machine so he could produce his own music and by 17, he was posting songs on the internet as Therapist.
He left home and studied communication and business at New York's St John's University. After he graduated he worked as a debt collector. Perhaps arrogantly, Cole, then aged 22, decided to try to enlist Jay-Z's help.
"I waited outside Jay-Z's studio, where I knew he was recording American Gangster, to give him a beat I'd made and he would rap on. But he told me, 'I don't want that shit!'" Then about a year later Cole's manager, Mark Pitts,played Jay-Z one of Cole's tracks, "Lights Please". "That's when Jay-Z wanted a meeting," says Cole.
Newly signed, Cole released his mixtape "The Warm Up" and appeared on Jay-Z's album The Blueprint 3 on the song "A Star is Born" in 2009. In 2010 he released his third mixtape, "Friday Night Lights". His debut single "Who Dat" was released in the UK in February, followed by "Work Out" in August.
Cole was caught up in the Rihanna sex-tape scandal this summer, after adult magazine Hustler claimed to have obtained raunchy footage of the pair, an allegation which they both denied. "People were like, 'Rihanna has sex with who?'"
That's all about to change. When you see Cole make the same diamond symbol that Jay-Z makes with his hands in his latest video "Can't Get Enough", you'll see how he is waiting in line for Jay-Z's throne.
J Cole's new single, 'Can't Get Enough', is out on 27 November. The album 'Cole World: The Sideline Story' is out now