J. Cole Reveals Hip-Hop Nickname, ‘Winning’ for Jay-Z
When you are about to release one of the most anticipated hip-hop albums of 2011, you can be forgiven for coming off a little anxious. Certainly you can hear it in the pressing tone of J. Cole's voice. Add on the fact that the North Carolina lyricist just so happens to be Jay-Z's first signing to his Roc Nation imprint, and you've got the makings of unmitigated show-and-prove pressure.
The 26-year-old MC has spent the last two years toiling in the recording studio, working on music that at times has been praised, dissected and criticized from a hardcore Internet-fueled contingent of fans that are as loyal as they are outspoken. Indeed, 'Cole World: The Sideline Story,' due out Sept. 27, will go a long way to giving credence to the talk that J. Cole is destined to be his generation's Nas. Cole is humbled by such talk, but he understands that releasing his first official musical statement is worlds away from the string of critically-acclaimed mixtapes that have garnered him respect. J. Cole wants to win.
From talk about his early childhood hip-hop nickname to sacrificing his personal life for his career, J. Cole opens up about it all.
'Cole World' has been close to two years in the making. Do you now have a sense of relief given that your first official single, 'Work Out,' has finally been released to radio?
I'm really excited. I'm ready. There are no nerves at all. It's just a feeling that I [want] to prove my fans right and make them proud. I know what the album is. The next step is just letting the fans hear it -- to let them know that everything they thought about me as an MC is true.
A lot of your fans were shocked at the overt commercial feel of 'Work Out,' which seems to be aimed squarely at the clubs. Were you worried about alienating more hardcore fans that were used to hearing J. Cole in a more lyrical setting?
I'm just going to be me. That's it. Of course I want to be commercially successful. That's not the label making me feel like that, that's what I want to do. I don't want to have music that goes under the radar for the rest of my life. I want to win at all levels of this career. I'm not afraid of success. Back in the days, I was worried about what becoming a star meant. I was afraid of becoming successful too fast. Now I want my music to be heard by everyone. I think 'Work Out' is a summertime, feel good record. It sounds like some [old school] West Coast, that Roger Troutman [voice box] feel. It just feels good. But I also want to show that I'm still that artist lyrically.
There are plenty two-fisted moments on 'Cole World.' Your work with No I.D., who has produced everyone from Common to Jay-Z, comes to mind. Talk about that collaborative process.
No I.D. is great, man. As someone who also produces I look up to him as a mentor. He would come into the studio and make a beat there on the spot. He's so talented. Overall, I had the pleasure of making the album that I actually wanted to make. So when you hear 'Cole World,' just know it's really what I wanted. My music will always grow, but to my core, I will never change. As long as I stay true to myself, you will always be pleased as a fan.
How surreal is it to be connected to someone as larger-than-life as Jay-Z?
It's crazy to just even be associated with that, man, with everything that he has done in the game. Now it's kind of like, OK, it's been two years, let's get this album out [laughs]. Still, being in Jay's office or being around him you still feel like, "Yo, this is Jay-Z, man." He's arguably the greatest rapper of all time. The facts are the facts. No one has done what this man has done in this game.
As Jay's first signing at Roc Nation, is there any part of you that wants to give credence to his confidence in you as a viable artist?
I don't live with that pressure. I don't wake up everyday like, "Aw man, I'm Jay-Z's first signing!" But as a businessman, I want Jay to be successful through my success. I want him to win because I'm winning. I want the label to win because I'm winning. I want to come through for him.
What do you make of some of the earlier lyrical comparisons to the likes of Nas and Jay you were receiving during your early mixtape work?
It's a compliment to be compared to some of the greats. You hope that you can do half of what Jay-Z did in his career or half of what Nas did in his career. It's very flattering that somebody would think that you are good enough to represent this generation for a long time. That's flattering.
You grew up in North Carolina, but your rhyme style leans more heavily with the East Coast-based artists that we named up top. How did that style evolve in such a southern setting?
Even though it's a southern state and a southern town, it's a military town, which brings you people from all walks-of-life. Fayetteville, N.C. is a funny place. I can't speak for all southern states, maybe Florida because you have a lot of different styles down there. But North Carolina today is more southern leaning -- what we call southern music. But back then it was different because we were right in the middle of Florida and New York. So what was happening was you had people who were listening to Tupac, Geto Boys and Scarface and Outkast, which I was, too. But then you had a heavy Nas and Jay-Z influence. It wasn't like it is now.
North Carolina is a totally different scene now, right?
Right. Now it's heavy leaning music like Gucci Mane and Rick Ross, which is great. But when I was coming up there was way more of a balance, so I never felt like I was doing something out the ordinary. I was just rapping like my favorite rapper. I carry the effects of that today. Sometimes people are like, "Man, where you from?" They really can't place where I'm from. That comes from me trying to rap like these guys for so long and also me moving when I was 18.
What were your earliest memories of hip-hop?
I can remember liking Kool Moe Dee. I couldn't tell you why. I just remember having his posters in my room. Everybody used to call me Moe Dee. That was my little nickname. I had to be three or four years old back then. That's the first hip-hop memory I had. Of course I was into Kris Kross as a little kid.
You were one of those annoying young kids jumping up and down like a fool?
[Laughs] They were my group back then! I also liked the 69 Boyz -- anything that was going on with the bass music that was coming out of Miami was really hot where I was at. But the first rapper I was listening to and got into their words for real was Tupac. My stepfather came home from Desert Storm with a whole new collection of CD's. And one of them was '2Pacalypse Now.'
That's a pretty heavy album for a kid.
I will never forget listening to 'Brenda's Got A Baby' and just riding around with my stepfather listening to that album. I knew back then that Tupac was more than just a rapper. He was so real.
So are you ready to be that MC on somebody's wall?
I'm ready, man. I'll be touring for the rest of the year. I have the next seven months of my life blocked out. I won't be having any personal time. And that's cool. I have accepted that fact. That's all for the cause. The minute you take a break, you are finished. I heard a rumor growing up, before I was even close to this industry. You would hear that Jay never had a vacation.
You're trying to go hard?
I feel like the minute you take a vacation the chances are super high for you to fall off and lose your spot. There's somebody else out there that will fill the void while you are gone. So understanding that the next eight months of my life will be all touring and all work, maybe in the next five years, I'm cool with that. I might get tired, but it's all for a greater purpose.