Courtesy of the Daily Tar Heel
34 | musician
Cole doesn’t fit the profile of a top-selling hip-hop artist, many of whom emerged from rap capitals such as Atlanta, Brooklyn and Los Angeles. He was raised for the majority of his youth by his single mother, Kay, in Fayetteville’s Forest Hills neighborhood. A self-proclaimed class clown, he began rapping when he was 12 while excelling in school. He is a graduate of E.E. Smith High School, earned an academic scholarship to St. John’s University in New York and graduated magna cum laude in 2007, majoring in business and communications. That same year he released his debut album, “The Come Up,” which caught the eye of business mogul and hip-hop legend Jay-Z. Cole became the first artist to sign with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label in 2009, igniting a meteoric rise.
Cole’s accolades include three American Music Awards, five Billboard Music Awards and more than 40 BET Hip Hop Awards. All five of his studio albums released from 2011 to 2018 went platinum, each selling more than 500,000 copies, and all topped the Billboard charts. He’s received 11 Grammy nominations, including five in 2019.
Entertainment outlet Complex lists Cole as the fifth best rapper of the 2010s, trailing Drake, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar and Future. In a generation of hip-hop artists consumed with materialism, he’s hailed for his social conscious and has been compared to New York rap legend Biggie Smalls. Cole has placed North Carolina rap on the map, paving the way for rising artists including Charlotte’s DaBaby and Raleigh’s YBN Cordae. Forbes estimated his net worth at $35 million last year.
Cole eschews publicity, rarely granting interviews. He and his wife of five years, Melissa Heholt, are raising their son in Raleigh. Their second child is expected soon. He announced the pending birth at the end of a song.
Instead, Cole has used his platform as a source of empowerment with lyrics describing the struggles of the black experience in America, based on his personal story.
Cole started his own label, Dreamville Records, shortly after signing with Jay-Z’s company. He has eight acts signed, including Charlotte-native Lute, and he has released three albums, including last year’s Grammy-nominated Revenge of the Dreamers III.
Through nonprofit Dreamville Foundation formed in 2011, Cole is addressing socio-economic issues in North Carolina. The group’s purpose is to “bridge the gap between the worlds of opportunity and urban youth,” according to its website.
The foundation sponsors school-supplies giveaways, writing contests and Mother’s Day brunches. Its annual Dreamville Weekend features discussions for the Young Men’s Book Club, an appreciation dinner and a career-day panel with African American professionals in various fields.
The first Dreamville Music Festival was held in Raleigh’s Dorothea Dix Park last year. It attracted some of the nation’s most popular musicians, prompting a sellout with more than 40,000 attendees. A second festival is planned for April with proceeds going to the Dix Park Conservancy, the Dreamville Foundation and hurricane victims.
— Harrison Miller