You might not immediately picture these two artists on the same bill, but rising hip-hop star J. Cole and rap-rock-and-pop hybrids Gym Class Heroes share some key characteristics.
Both have platinum-selling singles that have occupied high places on today's Billboard charts. Both are on their way up and are presumably on the fast track to even greater success. But more important, J. Cole and Gym Class Heroes both have personal, commercial and artistic goals to give them a greatness that can't be summed up in record sales, radio spins or downloads.
On Thursday, these two artists will have one more thing in common, thanks to the University of Kentucky's Student Activities Board, which will bring J. Cole and Gym Class Heroes together for its annual spring concert at Memorial Coliseum.
For both artists, who have headlined shows and opened for some of music's biggest acts, performing in a college town like Lexington provides a special bond with the audience.
"It's like it's a connection," J. Cole said. "Even if they don't know it, I relate to them. They relate to my story. Other than that, wow! How much energy (these) schools have."
Gym Class Heroes drummer and co-founder Matt McGinley says, "It wasn't that long ago that me and the rest of the guys were college students ourselves. It's always fun to play to a group that's fully conscious of what you're talking about."
Big things in mind
In the case of J. Cole, you have an artist who has been making his case as a formidable presence in hip-hop. The notably gifted MC from Fayetteville, N.C., began rapping at age 13 and producing his own beats at 15.
"I just thought, I'll just make the beats myself ...as if I knew how," said Cole, 27.
His clever wordplay and punch lines melded with narratives of a personal, reflective nature. That, combined with his jazz- and piano-infused production, caught on in rap's underground, with J. Cole's barrage of mix tapes — The Come Up in 2007, The Warm Up in 2009 and Friday Night Lights in 2010 — garnering some major buzz. J. Cole's music eventually found its way into the hands of rap mogul and hip-hop heavyweight Jay-Z, who signed Cole to his Roc Nation record label.
Having Jay-Z's backing certainly got J. Cole some attention, but any weight the ringing endorsement brought Cole didn't alter his already grand intentions.
"My expectations were so big that my own pressure on myself exceeded any pressure from being signed by Jay-Z," Cole said.
Eventually, J. Cole made a splash with his first album, Cole World: The Sideline Story, which debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's Top 200, top R&B albums and top rap albums charts in September. It also earned Cole a Grammy nomination for best new artist earlier this year. The considerable pre-release buzz on his largely self-produced effort was aided by the hit single Work Out, which spliced a Paula Abdul chorus and Kanye West sample together into a summer smash of 2011 and became J. Cole's first mainstream hit.
Cole says the song wasn't supposed to be on the album. He didn't have hit records on his mind until a classic from his mentor provided some inspiration.
"I heard Jay-Z do Big Pimpin' and I was like, 'Damn, I want one of these," J. Cole said. "I'm a competitor. I want classic albums. I want hits. I want to do all these things in one."
J. Cole says he is looking forward to dropping a new album this year, and he's keeping the details largely under wraps. But it's easy to decipher Cole's ambitions as a producer and lyricist from this point forward.
He wants to make "platinum, hands-down, critically acclaimed classic albums," Cole said. "The hits keep you relevant, but the albums keep you legendary."
The 'black sheep' return
J. Cole is experiencing his first taste of popular success and music stardom, but Gym Class Heroes has been in that realm — and is getting reacquainted with it.
The New York band has kicked around since the late '90s with its mix of rock, hip-hop and funk created by live instruments and led by frontman and MC Travis McCoy. The band finally broke through into pop music in 2005 with the release of The Papercut Chronicles on Fall Out Boy bassist Pete Wentz's label Decaydance Records.
The album contained the single Cupid's Chokehold, a hip-hop/pop track featuring Fall Out Boy vocalist Patrick Stump and built around a sample of Supertramp's classic Breakfast in America. The single was the rare catchy song with legs, and it was even rerecorded for the band's 2006 album As Cruel as School Children to capitalize on its popularity.
"That was something that was not only a complete surprise to us but our record label," McGinley said. "We didn't know that we had a pop song in us, and I think that we still feel like the black sheep of the pop crowd."
This outsider status is something McGinley, McCoy, guitarist Disashi Lumumba-Kasongo and bassist Eric Roberts think has been a key to the band's longevity. The emo music scene that Gym Class Heroes initially was associated with has essentially come and gone, but the group's affinity for various musical styles has allowed it to occupy a unique niche that speaks to many types of listeners.
"It's funny. We can play on a bill like Warped Tour and feel like one of the more pop acts on the bill, and we can go play a radio festival and we're a more alternative band," McGinley said. "I think that's always kind of been a really good thing for us. For whatever the current trend is, there will always be a group of people looking for something that's not that."
Even with the 2008 album The Quilt falling short of the band's earlier commercial success and McCoy going on to make an impact with the hit Bruno Mars collaboration Billionaire, Gym Class Heroes has regrouped, and its members find themselves on a creative and commercial upswing. The release of The Papercut Chronicles II has produced one of the band's biggest hits, the Top 5 single Stereo Heart featuring Maroon 5 vocalist Adam Levine. It also looks as if the dancey, reggae mash-up Ass Back Home featuring Neon Hitch is on its way to occupying airwaves just in time for summer 2012. Although hits like these allow Gym Class Heroes to continue to do what they love — touring the world performing for countless fans — they say they have the potential and obligation to write more than just a good pop song.
"I still want to write that song that gives me the goose bumps forever when I hear it," McGinley said. "I think we haven't written that song yet, and I think that's something that I guess inspires me. It's just something to strive for."