With heavyweight hip-hop co-signs from Nas, Kanye West, Drake and XXL magazine 2010 Freshmen cover, former St John’s University (New York City) student J Cole has a right to be hailed as “your favourite rapper’s favourite rapper”. In 2009, he became the first artist signed to Jay-Z’s label Roc Nation, before going on to build a devoted following through the release of his critically acclaimed sophomore mixtape The Warm Up. November 2010 saw the release of third mixtape Friday Night Lights, yet another tape hip-hop fans are calling a classic. Having supported Jay-Z on his 2010 UK tour, J Cole also supported Drake’s 2011 UK tour, alongside two solo shows at Koko in London, the other at Manchester Club Academy. The as yet unknown to the public titled album is scheduled for release in spring 2011.
Flavour catches up with J Cole to talk about growing up in Fayetteville, the pressure of converting mixtape hype into album sales, and what era he’d have most liked to rap in.
On ‘Farewell’ from your latest mixtape Friday Night Lights, you say if you could be reincarnated you’d go back to your childhood. Tell us about growing up in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
What I said in that song is really true, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It was real enjoyable growing up. The first 18 years was incredible because of all these experiences. It wasn’t good or bad. Growing up in a city like Fayetteville I was able to see so many parts of life – from my mum raising two kids on barely single-parent income and dealing with those things to eventually her getting remarried and then living in a two-family income, so I’ve seen life on a trailer park all the way to having a front and backyard. With that comes all the people that I’ve met and grew up with or whether I just crossed paths with them in life. I feel like I’ve known everybody from all walks of life, whether it’s suburbs or rich white kids I was in class with to super-duper hood. To see all these things moulded and shaped me. I really had a great experience as a kid.
As we know, you are signed to Roc Nation. What is your working relationship with Jay-Z?
He’s the boss; it’s his label so I always want to make sure he’s aware of what’s going on. I don’t send him over every song. But if I have like seven or eight songs or it’s been a while, I always like to go and play him what I’ve been working on and get some feedback and some advice. Really, he has given me a lot of guidance in my career. He isn’t letting me settle. If it wasn’t for Jay I probably would have been comfortable with dropping an album with ‘Who Dat’ as a single and one more that wasn’t really a smash. With him, it’s two things: watching him do these shows selling out arenas, packing out stadiums and doing incredibly sized festivals like Wireless. Seeing that and knowing the importance of hit-making ability and hits to be around for so long; so it’s seeing that and also talking to him. He will not let me settle because I think he wants the same thing that I want. He sees that potential in me so he’s really pushing me and that’s the type of relationship we have.
Drake is a recent example of releasing a well-received mixtape last year, then successfully converting that into album sales this year. You’ve collaborated with him on the song ‘In The Morning’ from Friday Night Lights. People often compare you both – can you see the similarities and what are the differences?
Yeah, I definitely see the similarities. I think the similarities are we are two new rappers that aren’t talking about what was normally talked about in rap music. We’re not selling drugs, we’re not killing anybody… I think those are the similarities. The differences are our stories are different. For example, my stories are more reflective overall. I know that he has a lot more [songs about] relationships, how he deals with success, fame and money, and how that changed his life – which is great. With mine, I don’t know, I haven’t reached that level yet so I’m not talking about that as much. I don’t know if when I get there I’ll change up. Those are some of the similarities and some of the differences.
On the mixtape Friday Night Lights you have songs like ‘Home For The Holidays’ and ‘Higher’, which sounded more commercially viable than those on The Warm Up. Is that the direction you will be going in with the album?
There will be that on the album. I think that’s just my growth as an artist on the album. I never thought about making hits in that aspect until a year, year-and-a-half ago when I started going on the road with Jay-Z and saw how important for an artist’s life span it is to have songs like that. But at the same time that is a natural growth. The same way you can tell ‘Higher’ is a more commercial song or some of these songs are more commercial than others, it still feels natural. It still feels like a J Cole song. The album will be the same way. The album isn’t going to be full of songs like I’m trying to get on the radio; the album is still super deep and super emotional, and I’m sure to balance that out with more easy to listen to. I don’t want it to be a mood album, like you have to be in a certain mood to listen to it, so I’m sure to balance that out now with some more lighthearted songs. But please don’t expect the album to be my pop attempt or whatever. It’s too early for that, but you will hear my growth. Even larger growth than you heard from mixtape to mixtape.
To quote a lyric from Blow Up you rap: “Funny how money, chains and whips make me feel free”. What is success to you?
Man, success to me is like two levels. On one level I’m successful right now; I’m doing what I want to do, I’m chasing my dreams, I’m doing what I love. I think something as simple as that is just happiness and success. But then there’s also this huge success that I don’t really think I’ll be a legend until 10-15 years from now if I’m still relevant and on top of the game. I feel like that’s when I’ll be able to really have success. But on a more basic level I think success is just happiness. Finding happiness in life, whether you’ve just got a nice family or doing something you want to be doing.
Final question: first question we spoke about going back to your childhood, but if you could go back to any time and rap, which era would you choose and why?
I would definitely go back to about ’94 so I could catch 2Pac. Really I’d just like to catch ’Pac and then Jay when he came and Nas. But definitely ’94 to come and just demolish everybody around apart from ’Pac [laughs].
Friday Night Lights is available for free download
Interview by Marvin Sparks