For most MCs of this generation, being a student of Nas and Jay Z is an understandable fixation. But J. Cole, one of the more precocious and preternatural of his class, took a slightly different approach to his studies. His main focus was absorbing these influences to illustrate his journey as honestly and creatively from his perspective as he could, which would inevitably earn him working rights with both his idols as well as a cult following. Catching up with Cole shortly after the release of his second album Born Sinner, he speaks as vividly through the phone as he does on the mic about finding the right balance between remaining true to his form and competing commercially.
What do you consider your role as an artist?
I guess my role is to speak for people in the most creative way I can and to touch people by telling their stories or by giving them something they can relate back to their lives, whether it be inspirational, whether it be sad, whether it be hopeful. But at the same time I try to make music that’s therapeutic for myself to get my thoughts out and get some shit off my chest.
How do you define success?
Well I used to place a lot of weight on where I’m gonna be at in ten or fifteen years, but now I look at success like, where am I at now? Am I living my dream? Am I happy? That to me seems more equated to success. I mean I can have all the accolades in the world, but if I’m not happy then I’m not successful in reality. So for me happiness is the dominant factor of success.
And how does your journey thus far compare according to that?
I think I’m getting there. If I’m creating and I’m having good studio days that inspire me and get me excited, then I feel like I’m successful. So how my music comes out kinda dictates that.
One line I notice you often like to quote is “You have to play the game to change the game”. How exactly has that applied to your career so far?
Well when I first got that as advice I took it as truth because it touched me and I still hold that advice very true to me to this day, but you know I didn’t understand how exactly that advice would play out. The idea that I had was that I was come in to the game, drop this classic album that would change the game and shake up the world because that was my goal and my dream. But the way that advice fits in to it, I had to play the game even just to get an album out.
So by putting out The Warm Up and Friday Night Lights as mixtapes when those projects were my album material, to me that’s playing the game. I had to find a single that worked, so I put out the Work Out single, that’s playing the game. So when I dropped the album it actually didn’t change the world the way I had been dreaming about after all these years. So in reality the way it changed the game was it made labels realise that things don’t work the way they thought it worked. I didn’t need a fuckin’ single because I had a real fanbase.
Sometimes these labels tell the artists like Wale or K.R.I.T or myself or whoever the fuck it is “Where’s the single, Where’s the single?” and I’m like shut the fuck up! I have a real fanbase, I don’t need a radio single. If I do get one that’s great, that’s a bonus. But I have a real fanbase of people who love my music. That’s where the ‘change the game’ came from. Now you have artists who don’t have to go through what I went through or what K.R.I.T went through or what I saw Wale go through. So it’s a beautiful thing when you look at it like that.
I remember when “Produce for Jay Z or Die Trying” was your mantra in 2008. Now that’s a reality, what is your “Die Trying” mantra in 2013?
Damn [laughs], good question let me think. ‘Album Of The Year’ or Die Trying. Not Rap Album of The Year, Album Of The Year. The Grammys! If I’m in a position to set the bar high, then fuck it. I’m just gonna set the bar as high as possible and we’ll see where I end up.
We’ve all heard the story as to how you and Jay first became acquainted, but more specifically what did he first tell you he appreciated about your music?
He told me he appreciated my perspective. That it was fresh, new and honest. That it wasn’t pretentious, as in it wasn’t trying to be anything. He could tell I was just speaking about my life and my perspective, especially with Lights Please and Lost One’s. He understood me as this smart kid who wants to talk about some real shit but the girl he’s fucking with doesn’t really care about those things and yet he still can’t resist fucking her [laughs]. That’s what it was in reality, so he appreciated that.
Was there any compromise or requirements involved for you guys to be able to work together?
There weren’t any requirements originally, but I did learn early on that to be on that team numbers were important and competing commercially on the charts was of heavy importance.
Well that raises an interesting point. For an artist who maintains a degree of honesty and integrity in their music, how much more challenging is it to compete commercially when the majority of music that gets club play or radio play relies heavily on the production and doesn’t require half the thought process from the lyricist?
Right! Well the good thing for me is that is still a side of me. If you look back at even my earliest mixtapes I always put that other aspect of me out there. I lived that lifestyle where I was addicted to going out and living that very social lifestyle, chasing girls and always wanting to be around the scene. So I think it would have been misleading if I came out as a rapper who only ever gave you those deep thought-provoking songs and never gave you a song like Split You Up or Ladies. So that’s the good thing. It’s never been a departure from myself, it’s just reflecting on another side of me. But the hard part was I just didn’t know how to fuckin’ do it. I had never made a successful hit record that connected on radio or connected in the clubs. So it created a whole new approach for me. Instead of just going to the club to drink, holler at girls and all that, I’m going to the clubs and listening and watching what moves people and studying more of that side. I’d studied all the great lyricists like Jay, Eminem and Pac but it introduced a new side of studying the people that got the club moving that really added another element to my arsenal.
So who stood out to you when you first started exploring that side?
Man everybody from Lil Jon to Rich Boy to Jay himself with all the club records he has. But I think it really started around the time I was on tour for Blueprint III. We were in an arena of 20,000 people when Big Pimpin came on and I was just in awe of the way people moved and responded to that song, so that’s when I really started to pay attention to artists who move people in an intellectual kind of way.
Born Sinner sounds like a much different concept to the running theme of your previous projects. I assume this indicates some kind of milestone in your development as an artist?
Definitely! When you look back on my career you’re gonna see that this was definitely an important part in my maturity. I can’t wait for this album to do well and I pray that it does do well so that I can re-release Friday Night Lights and The Warm Up commercially because I feel there’s a lot of maturity in those as well on an underground level. But this album is a huge step in my maturity as a full grown quote-unquote commercial artist. An artist who has been waiting for his album to drop, not the kind of artist that sneaks up on you and drops this some quiet classic mixtapes that should have been albums.
What does the title mean to you personally?
Man I don’t wanna give that away just yet, ‘cause if I gave you the real answer to that it would probably spoil the album. But I’ll say that this allows me to dive in to all the things I’ve wanted to talk about over the past couple of years and I’m just making the music that I wanna make that moves me and gets me excited and I hope people love it the way I love it.
The joint Forbidden Fruit with Kendrick is dope. How’s progress with the Kendrick collab album?
It’s still where it was six-seven months ago, we haven’t had a chance to get up since then. His album did phenomenal and absolutely shut the whole game up. So he has to keep touring that and I have do my thing with my album. It’s good to know people are asking for it as they should, but I remember watching Kendrick’s interviews leading up to his album and I felt bad for him because in every interview they would ask him about this collab album. I was thinking ‘Damn that must suck to get that question every day.’ But I guess the tables have turned and it’s my turn now. But it’s cool to know people want that so bad and they should! But it hasn’t left the table yet, right now it’s all about timing.
Well I’m glad I could kick that off for you. Who are some underground cats you think we should be paying attention to?
Man the underground is so crazy right now I don’t even know if I can call it underground any more. There’s so many people on that scene now it’s like that‘s damn near the main scene. But the next guys up clearly would be Joey Bada$$, Ab-Soul, Schoolboy Q, my nigga Bosh from Queens, my nigga King Mez from North Carolina. New York has in ill movement. Clearly Cali’s got an ill movement. There are really a lot of dope cats on the way right now
What do you feel makes your expression unique?
I think the level that I’m rapping at, mixed with the level of storytelling, mixed with the level of lyricism, mixed with the fact that I’m producing everything on my own. I mean, don’t wanna take anything away from anyone else so I’m gonna stop right there. But I don’t think people even really look at me as a producer, they look at me as a rapper. So if you’re putting me up there with your favorite rappers and I’m producing everything on top of that, then I have to pat myself on the back for that.
And finally, what advice would you give to aspiring artists out there?
Just don’t try. Speak from the heart, let it flow out as creatively as you can. Study all the time, listen for new albums all the time, fill up your whole tank with inspiration and let it flow out how it does.
Born Sinner is out now.