Save for his 2018 record KOD, where the only features were his “Kill Edward” alter ego, the past year and a half have felt as though Dreamville head honcho J Cole officially rescinded his commitment to reclusiveness. On the recent Revenge Of The Dreamers III, we find him acting as both artist and advisor, mobilizing a fleet of hip-hop’s finest in a manner that celebrates the genre’s rich heritage and dazzling future all at once. In essence, serving as the “Middle Child” he’s been purporting himself to be. An enviable position to hold sway over in a game where experience is often viewed with contempt, Smino perfectly encapsulates the unique intangible that the Carolina native brings to the table in the REVENGE documentary. “I don’t know who else could’ve pulled some shit like this together and have it be all positive,” the St Louis rapper remarked. “It takes somebody like Cole for it to be some positive shit, you feel me?”

Described as an experience unlike any other by nearly every participant, Cole’s almost unequaled ability to break down barriers is an extension of the consistent artistic integrity he’s managed to maintain. Never one to bend to the will of financial gain at the expense of the product, he still carries himself with the humbleness of an underground king even whilst surveying his own self-made kingdom. As a result, the reason that J. Cole’s business model has proved to be so lucrative and fostered such indivisible ties to his fanbase is that it’s essentially an anti-business model.

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Without a Grammy to his name but still prone to obliterating first day streaming records, Jermaine Cole has been defying industry practice and fashioning an outlier status for himself since the embryonic stages of his career. Inspired to pick up the pad by Eminem and Canibus, Cole’s rap career really gained traction upon moving to the genre’s birthplace of New York City. Inspired by a city that was irreconcilably different from his native Fayetteville, Cole’s time at Queens’ St John’s University not only gave him the window to get on Jay-Z’s radar and eventually sign to Roc Nation, but it was there he met another man who’d ultimately prove instrumental in his rise to worldwide notoriety.

After becoming friends on campus in late 2005, Cole and Ibrahim “IB” Hamad would become near enough inseparable. They even worked the same soul-crushing job as debt collectors at Queen’s Courier and Tritium. Upon discovering Cole’s vastly downplayed rapping abilities, it was Hamad that set the wheels in motion for what would become a partnership that has withstood both the test of time and the many temptations of fame. In an interview with DJ Booth Speaking on the 10th anniversary of Cole’s debut tape The Warm Up, the co-founder of Dreamville discussed how the groundwork for what they’d become was laid in near-serendipitous ways. “It started with me being in Queens. If I was drinking or smoking with one of my homies, I would be like, “Let me play you one of my n***s,” and they would be like, “Jermaine who be hooping? He’s kinda nice,” reflects Ib.  “From there, I told him let’s do a mixtape, let’s do The Come Up. That was all before 2009, obviously, but, by the time 2009 came, I knew there was something here for me. I just didn’t know what.”  

Two years on, the rapper and his closest confidant would have a number one album under their belts with ColeWorld: The Sideline Story.

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Through world tours, curating a festival, and launching his own Dreamville Foundation, J.Cole has maintained the exact same sounding board he kept back when his hip-hop ambitions were under lock and key. It’s no exaggeration to say that without Hamad, the Cole that we know and love might’ve never received that necessary push forward that would kickstart his journey to potential GOAT contention. Left unmoved by the more extravagant trappings of the rapper lifestyle, it’s unlikely that even Cole fully believed the remarks he made to DJ Whoo Kid way back in 2010. When asked about where he wanted to be within a year’s timeframe, Cole matter-of-factly stated that “I'll be a little richer, but I'll still be the same. Yeah…I'm trying to stay the same or at least as close as possible. What did 50 [Cent] say? If you don't change then you ain't make enough? Or some crazy wild sh*t."

From this angle, Cole is a true anomaly in hip-hop. Both lyrically and thematically, you can draw a straight line from The Come Up to KOD. A key element in the high-standing that he commands among both his peers and the industry, Hamad sees Cole’s success and his refusal to fall into the realm of monetarily-minded self-deception as inextricably linked. Subjected to internal pressure from the higher-ups of Roc Nation to deliver something that would make for a safe bet on the charts, Ib reflected on Cole’s inability to cajole himself into being the artist that they wanted him to be. “That’s why I give Cole all the credit in the world. Even when the conversation was, “We need a hit” and he would try to appease people, he quickly realized this isn’t me,” Hamad recalled. “That’s really why we are where we are now because he sticks to his guns no matter what. It takes a lot of self-confidence.”

Unyielding in his artistic vision, this pugnacious drive would play a pivotal role in progressing Dreamville from an ad-hoc idealism into a label with certain contractual obligations and a sturdy legal underpinning. When they penned a deal with Interscope back in 2013, it might be hard to imagine that the terms they’d signed off on would eventually lay the foundation for ROTD III’s unorthodox creation. But once again, a recent Hamad interview grants us a window into their world, where creativity matters over capital. Made available last week, the interview with Variety shed new light on their deal with Interscope and more specifically, the head of their “Urban” division, Joie Manda. 

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While any number of artists that are all too ready to rush into ill-advised and ultimately detrimental deals, Hamad explained how biding their time was key in allowing them to reap the rewards and creative freedom that they so covet. “We waited, as we wanted to be in a position where we were sure of Cole’s career. That came first,” he explains. “The relationship with Interscope came down to Manda. We wanted to be with someone who knew that our vision was long term — not momentary, not based on a trend — and someone who understood that our artists were about careers, and not just pumping out hits. For someone who was willing to be patient, the pay-off would last longer. Joie, Interscope, they knew it would take a minute for our vision to come to fruition, and they were willing to wait with us.”

Governed by heart and feeling over bean-counting and risk evaluations, J Cole’s business model is a genuine rarity. While he is a leader of men in every sense of the word, the two crucial aspects that have gotten him to this lofty position in the industry is his faith in himself and his commitment to his day-one in Ibrahim. Birthed through loyalty and unshakeable goals as much as artistic ingenuity, Cole’s career is a true exemplar of what can happen when one remains true to self at all costs. Above any other commodity, Cole and IB have learned that authenticity is the most effective centerpiece of any portfolio.