When North Carolina native J. Cole packed his bags, moved to New York and enrolled at St. John’s University, he had a specific four-year plan: to land a record deal. With no intention of actually securing a diploma—“School is for lot of people,” he says, “but not me”—Cole got on his grind, trying to produce, rap and network his way into the music industry. But almost two years after graduating, J. (born Jermaine) still wasn’t any closer to realizing his dreams. Instead, he slogged through his day job as a newspaper telemarketer for $10 an hour.
But then Cole’s music caught the ear of one Mr. Shawn Carter. Three weeks later, the 24-year-old rapper became the first artist signed to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label. He has since released a mix-tape and recorded a verse on “A Star is Born,” a track from Hova’s recent album, The Blueprint 3. “One day, I want to have the biggest album of the year. I’ll let some kid I believe in get on a verse and change their life,” Cole says, paying it forward in his head. But despite his powerful backing, Cole understands that his success is up to him. “Jay is not the type of guy that’s going to take you from level 1 to level 10,” he says. “You’ve got to work all the way to level 8 and then he’ll take you from level 8 to level 10. He’s given me a great opportunity, but it’s up to me to fulfill my own destiny. If I succeed or fail, it won’t be because of Jay-Z. It’ll be based on what I did.”
Listening to your mixtape The Warm Up, it sounds like you feel entitled to success. Is that because you’re talented or have you just worked hard enough for it? It’s a little bit of both. I always felt like I was good enough but I realized once I got to a certain age that the talent wasn’t enough. You can’t just be the best basketball player in the world and not have work ethic or drive and it’s the same thing with rap. It’s like, okay, you’re really good but what are you doing with it? Are you really trying? So The Warm Up is from the standpoint of me sending all these guys my beats and songs and not getting hit back. I felt like nobody was even listening; I was doing it for years, trying to get my foot in the door. As a matter of fact, ninety five percent of The Warm Up was done when I didn’t have a deal. I didn’t know for sure that the deal was coming, I was just going off a feeling like — This is my year, I’mma be signed this year. It was that type of attitude, like “I deserve this shit, I’mma show ya’ll.”
You moved to New York to pursue your rap career and used college as a medium to get there. Is that your version of the benefit of school? I don’t want to minimize the importance of college. If somebody’s going to be a dentist or a pharmacist or something like that, great, school is for you. School is for a lot of people but I was a smart kid and school was never really hard, so for me it was just the next phase. It was something I knew I was going to do, but it wasn’t like, man I’ve got to graduate, I’ve got to come out of here with this degree so I can get this 9-5. There was no career plan involved with my college experience.
At the time, did New York seem like your only route to landing a record deal? Looking back, I understand that anything is possible and if I’d just known what to do from home, I could’ve done it there. But when I moved, I was clueless; I didn’t know anything about the game. Now I have a clear perspective on how you get these guy’s attention and I could’ve stayed home and put out the most incredible music within my city and state because the music speaks for itself. I could’ve found a way to promote myself and I feel like they would’ve come knocking but at the time I didn’t see it like that. It just thought, I’ve got to get out of here, because ain’t nobody checking for me.
When someone like Jay-Z signs you and gives you a verse on the biggest album on the year, some people might say that you’re being handed your success. Are you prepared to deal with that mentality? I’m prepared for it because I feel like once they actually listen and hear my story and hear the talent they’re going to realize it wasn’t a “give me” situation, it was earned and it was deserved. Not to mention that I’m not content with that — that feature was great and I’m grateful for it but my career plans are so much greater than what that verse is. One day I want to have the biggest album of the year and let some kid who I believe in get on a verse and change their life. That’s where my thoughts are, it’s not on “man, I hope people don’t think this is a hand out,” because I know it’s not a handout, I know it’s earned and deserved and I think that’s going to come through in the music.
Do you think your success will be equally based on your own effort and Jay-Z’s help? I think it’s more about my work. Jay-Z is at a position in his life and his career where he doesn’t have to do anything but push a button. Jay is not the type of guy that’s going to take you from level 1 to level 10. You’ve got to work all the way to level 8 and then he’ll take you from level 8 to level 10. If you use him too early, he’ll probably take you from level 1 to level 5 but I don’t want to use that card too early. Even though I’m on his album, he’s not out there everyday screaming my name with his arm around my shoulder, promoting me heavy. He’s giving me a great opportunity, but it’s up to me to fulfill my own destiny. Basically, what I’m trying to say is that if I succeed or fail, it won’t be because of Jay-Z, it’ll be based on what I did.
Jay had no intentions of making Roc Nation a rap label but when he heard you, he obviously changed his mind. Does that put on any added pressure to do well? I get the pressure question a lot but I didn’t really understand it until lately. I didn’t dwell on but then I started realizing that there is a positive pressure — I just don’t want to let these guys down. My manager Mark Pitts was Biggie’s manager but he’s been out of the rap game for so long because he’s been turned off. Now he’s working with me and he’s got high hopes, so it’s like I almost brought him back into the rap world. Same thing with Jay and my team – they’ve got high hopes for me, they believe in me and my team is so strong that I feel like a first pick in the draft. With that said, I can either be like Kwame Brown or I can be Lebron James. The difference is that they’re both talented but Kwame Brown couldn’t handle the pressure of being that first round pick and Lebron said, “I’m going to show you why I’m the number one pick.” I want to have that attitude.
Has recording the new album been challenging at all? I came into the album process with a stack of potential songs to weed through and see which ones were actually going to make it. They’re all incredible and the new songs I’m doing are incredible also, so it’s a little scary because it’s getting to the point where I’m on such a streak that before I know it, I may have too much great material to choose from. Seriously — I don’t know if any of this sounds too crazy or overconfident but I’m just almost impressed with myself. I’ve already got all this material and I feel like I’m only getting better and doing better music.
You’ve resided in the North for a few years now, but does being a Southern rapper add a different dynamic to your career? Definitely. Ten years from now I want to be on the top five list — I really want to be number one. So ten years from now when some kids form North Carolina, South Carolina or Georgia are having these “greatest of all time,” conversations, they’ll be like “Yeah! We got one.” Right now I guess the only people we’ve really got on that list are Andre 3000 and some kids out there have Lil Wayne on their list, so I just want to add to the cause. Add to the respect of southern rappers and change the direction a little bit. I think that when I come out, there’s going to be a lot of kids down there that’s not going to be afraid to be more lyrical and more creative.
Southern rappers are fans of ‘colorful’ names, especially the ever popular “Lil” prefix but your alias is derived from your full name Jermaine Cole. Why so simple? It just seems so gimmicky now. I’m not saying that everybody has to use their real name, because my rap name used to be “Therapist,” for a long time and even when I was 13, “Blazer,” was my rap name. But it just felt like too much of a persona now. I don’t want to be called “Therapist,” — what the fuck is that? I wanted to be something that really reflected me, so that it’s more relatable to everyday people.
Rappers do take on a persona to put an interesting spin on their music. Are you comfortable going that route or will you try to keep focused on reality? A lot of rappers just find new ways to say the same shit and there’s nothing wrong with that, just like a lot of directors somehow continue to make the same movie. If you watch Fresh Prince, you know Will Smith’s character and you know that every episode, one of a few things are going to happen — he’s going to fuck up somehow, or there’s going to be some girl he has a crush on etc. It’s the same few stories recycled in a new way, that’s kind of how rap is, and I don’t know if that’s a bad thing or not because your story is your story. I’m not going to be just a struggle rapper my whole career but my first album, of course, is going to touch on that because it’s just a lot about my life. I’m getting really personal, so it’s not just The Warm Up topic anymore, it’s family issues and a lot of deep shit that I’m not sure if I even really want to put out there.
It’s easy to hear that you’re a serious lyricist, but will that translate well to commercial success on the album? I don’t worry about making pop songs. It’s about the lyrical side — which I possess — then translating that to a mainstream audience without compromising your integrity. It’s just about finding that balance, which think is very possible. I think I’m onto something with this album.
J. COLE’S TOP-FIVE PARTY SONGS TO RING IN THE NEW YEAR 1 2Pac’s “I Get Around.” 2 Rich Boy’s “Throw Some D’s.” 3 Pastor Troy’s “Vice Versa.” 4 Jay-Z’s “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me).” 5 Dr. Dre’s “Xxplosive.”
Photo by Randall Slavin. Grooming Will The Barber. Production Sara Pine @ Creative 24.