Talking to J. Cole the day after his debut album Cole World: The Sideline Story dropped, two feelings could be immediately detected: relief and exhaustion.

J. Cole

Tonight at 7 p.m.
Royal Oak Music Theatre
Tickets from $30

“We’re running a marathon, and we finally reached the finish line,” Cole said in an interview with The Michigan Daily.

Four mixtapes into his career, J. Cole — who will perform tonight at the Royal Oak Music Theatre — has caught the attention of industry vets and rap fans alike. He’s a product of a unique phenomenon that has seen artists like Drake, Wiz Khalifa and Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All gain intense popularity before a formal album release.

“It’s my first album, but it feels like my third,” Cole said. “I’ve been touring so much and I’ve been putting out projects.”

Having passed his formative years in North Carolina, Cole reminisced about spending time with one of his cousins who encouraged him to start rapping.

“He was older than me and I looked up to him,” he said. “And he had girls.”

Although the ladies might have been an initial inspiration, Cole knew he wanted to do more than simply serenade some neighborhood honeys from time to time.

“(My cousin) was just freestyling and fooling around, but I thought it was dope,” he explained. “Poetry wasn’t hard for me … and once I started, I took it seriously.”

After fully committing himself to pursuing his passion, Cole made a mature decision many in his position would never think of doing: He went to college. But though he valued his education, his main motivation in going away to school was to relocate to a place closer to the music industry he so desperately wanted to make an impact on. So he attended St. John’s University in New York.

“It’s the best decision I ever made,” he said. “It’s the reason I am where I am now. Being close to the industry allowed me to learn so much.”

During that time, Jay-Z was impressed by Cole’s song “Lights Please,” and soon after offered him a record deal on his label Roc Nation.

Now, Cole considers the hip-hop mogul a major influence on his life and career.

“My relationship with Jay-Z is a great one,” he said. “He came to my release party last night for a celebration. It’s like a mentorship, and it’s really just him knowing everything and me not knowing everything.”

A specific aspect of Jay-Z’s career that J. Cole has emulated is crafting an engaging live show — a rare feat for a rapper. He takes an aggressive approach, bringing unbridled energy into every song, and stresses the importance of making eye contact with as many audience members as possible.

His live show isn’t his only rap irregularity. Cole also shows a sensitive side from time to time, and his work can deal with issues not often touched on by hip-hop artists. In his song “Lost Ones,” which addresses abortion, Cole puts himself in the shoes of both men and women to exhaust all perspectives, displaying his knack for storytelling in a clear and emotionally stirring manner.

“It’s a real-life situation, not even with me,” he explained. “(It’s something) I’ve seen a friend go through. And I kept on questioning it inside my head, like, ‘Man, I wonder what he’s feeling right now?’ and, ‘I wonder what she’s feeling right now? I wonder what it would sound like if I wrote about that?’ ”

When the final numbers came in after Cole World’s first week of sales, it had grabbed the number one spot on the Billboard top albums chart. And even though this is evidence that his hard work has paid off, with over 40 international tour dates scheduled this fall and a new mixtape in the works, he doesn’t plan on slowing down anytime soon.

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