Can Rising Rapper J Cole Overcome Jay-Z's A&R Curse?
"Jay-Z is the reason I signed to RocNation. It's very hard to say no to the opportunity when Jay-Z is involved." That's J Cole, talking optimistically about his status as the first signing to Jay-Z's RocNation label venture with concert giant LiveNation. But with Cole's debut album now pushed back again until September, the North Carolina-based rapper might be wondering if he's the latest victim of the curse of Jigga's A&R skills.
Despite Jay-Z being one of about three rappers who can still sell records and fill up stadiums himself, his record of spotting and nurturing talent is calamitous. In 1997, with the buzz of Reasonable Doubt building, Jay was part of the brain trust that decided that what Roc-A-Fella records really needed was Cristion, an R&B duo whose name was a pun on a brand of champagne and whose Ghetto Cyrano album probably isn't due for the revisionist treatment any time soon. Then came the traditional rap reflex of giving deals to your thug pals. But Beanie Sigel and Memphis Bleek (who still holds down an honorary role as Jay's on-stage hype man, often dressed in a tux) gave Roc-A-Fella careers of diminishing results -- and in Beanie's case, a public falling out.
Next up came Jay's Def Jam years, during which he inherited a roster of beloved-if-aging artists like Ghostface, Method Man, The Roots, and Redman. But instead of reinvigorating their careers, he signed off on albums that pretty much bombed -- prompting a recurring joke that the projects were being used as tax write-offs -- and saw the Wu-Tang element of the roster throwing not-entirely-coded barbs at their label boss. (Meth's "Say" is still a poignant take on the frustrations of an established artist experiencing the industry shift around him.) The Roots were even singled out for some special positive discrimination, as Jay allegedly started the more experimental Def Jam Left just to house the group's talents.
And then there was Kanye West, who, as rap lore and the "Big Brother" confessional goes, tried to persuade Jay to give him a shot as a solo artist for many years, with Jay continually shooting down his ambitions while proceeding to rap his way to platinum status over Yeezy's beats.
For J Cole to score a fruitful career, he might do well to take a cue from Kanye's perseverance, rather than waiting for a sincere assist from Jay. (Like Kanye, Cole produces as well as raps; there's a growing sense that his long-term future might even be behind the boards.) Being hand-picked by an icon is only beneficial if there's some reciprocal investment involved -- but at this point in the RocNation story, it's safe to assume that Jay isn't exactly spending much time in the office. That absence may have allowed J Cole's fellow RocNation signing Jay Electronica the leisure of forging a career based around releasing just one song a year. But for Cole it's left his early singles sounding decent but lacking any definite personality.
Last week on Twitter, Cole announced the formal title to his debut, Cole World: The Sideline Story. Considering the fortunes of Jigga's prior signings, he might want to switch out the subtitle.