Elliot Wilson penned an excellent profile of J. Cole, which was conducted on the eve of Jermaine’s Friday Night Lights mixtape release for RESPECT magazine. “Print ain’t dead — you n*ggas just scared”, says Elliot. Stimulate your mind below . . .
Stick To Ya Gunz
J.Cole, the first hip-hop artist signed to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, is notoriously guarded. Still, he can’t hide the fact that 2011 will be the year he earns his place in hip-hop history with a classic rap debut.
Words: Elliott Wilson
J.Cole hates telling Jay-Z stories. J.Cole is private. He’s protective of his own personal and professional life. So the young North Carolina MC with the young company by the name of Dreamville is even more reticent about leaking any information related to Shawn Carter.
But still. What happened on September 28, 2010, may just have changed the course of one of hip-hop’s most promising careers. So Jermaine Lamarr Cole’s got a story to tell.
On that Tuesday, New York City’s Radio City Music Hall was rockin’. Drake brought Cole out on the main stage: special surprise guest. For over a year, the Internet has been flooded with rumors and hearsay pitting these two MCs against each other. The bloggers and the commenters want rivals (rivalries equal traffic), dreams of lyrical chokeholds and grimy subliminals, of who got ethered and who’s the best ever. Of who’s famous vs. who’s Internet-famous. So it was mesmerizing to see Drake and Cole say eff all that and effortlessly co-exist, join forces and electrify the crowd. If these two dudes didn’t really like each other, it was hard to tell.
But you couldn’t blame Cole if he was a tad distracted.
That very afternoon before the show, in the bedroom of his Big Apple apartment, Cole recorded a new song. He instantly thought: This is that one. This could be the hit that raises his profile and brings his dream of releasing a classic debut album to the masses.
“There’s a producer,” he says. “Brian Kidd—who lives in Atlanta on a fuckin’ hill. He played me some of the most incredible beats I’ve ever heard,” Cole says this while on a tour bus rolling through Washington, D.C. It’s late October and he’s on the way to a Howard University Homecoming gig on a Saturday night. “About the fourth one Kidd played, I knew right away. I started writing right there. And finished it on a plane back to New York.”
So: Cole is in NYC, that Tuesday night after the Drake show. Inspired by his Dreamville business partner Ibrahim H., a guy he’s been down with since his St. John’s University college days, Cole decided to hunt down Mr. Carter. Texts are exchanged and then Cole is headed over to a fancy East Village nightclub called Butter, where a birthday celebration for Young Jeezy was dying down. “He was upstairs eating, like the Godfather, by himself at a table. I walked up to him. I ain’t have too many words. I was like, ‘Yo I think I got something special, I just need you to hear it.’ I told him I wanted Trey Songz to get on the hook and I handed him my iPod. His reaction was so fuckin’ crazy. That was probably the craziest reaction I ever got from him on any song.”
Hov’s scrunched up face and exuberant exclaims enforced that the decision Cole made to force a meeting was correct. “Out of all the songs I brought him I think that’s what he was lookin’ for,” Cole says. “It’s something I’d never done, a different sound. Like nothing I’ve done—but in a great way. This is the culmination of all lessons. I stepped out of my own box. This record will open up so many doors for me.”
October 6, 2010. New York City. A day before Cole’s takes off on a 35-city Fall U.S. tour with no name.
What’s the status of the album?
Man, I thought my album would’ve been out right around now. But one thing I’ve learned in this game is you never know anything. I remember when they gave me the release date of October 26. I was so hyped. But I soon knew that wasn’t gonna happen. I haven’t even had a consistent three weeks in the studio. I’m blessed enough to be able to go out on the road. I get a good week in the studio but then I’m off for a show. But I still managed to pull off what I think is an incredible album.
How did “Who Dat” end up becoming the first release?
Everyone at Roc Nation was asking, ‘Can we work something?’ and ‘Who Dat’ was the first record I did that had this incredible energy about it. My team in the studio was like, Whoa, this sounds special. I don’t know if it’s a single, but damn this just sounds special. It stood out immediately. My manager, Mark Pitts, always says that on your first one all you gotta do is strike a nerve. It don’t gotta be a No. 1. Even though it wasn’t a smash hit, they’ll never forget “Who Dat.” Mark said, it was like Smoothe Da Hustler’s “Broken Language.” It turns heads.
Still—you weren’t disappointed it wasn’t a big radio record?
The fact is, as many radio stations in as many places that did play ‘Who Dat’ exceeded my expectations. Now that I know the game and I’ve been on these stations, I know who’s gonna play what records, and who’s not. I refuse to be the artist that drops a super-duper great album, but it goes under the radar. Or it sells however many thousands, but there was no radio record so the masses didn’t get a chance to hear it. I refuse to be that artist.
What about the second single, “Blow Up”?
That’s like a placeholder record. They’re working ‘Blow Up,’ but you know that was another one of those records that when I played it for everybody, the reaction was like, Oh, shit. I ain’t told anybody, but I don’t even know if it’s gonna make the album.
Why did you decide to create the mixtape, Friday Night Lights?
I got fans waiting for music and I was like, if I can’t deliver them my album this year—or even a release date—I should at least give them this. To hold them over for four months or so. I’m sittin’ on so many incredible songs, whether or not they were gonna make the album. Let me put something out!
What’s the meaning behind the title?
Friday Night Lights sums up that feeling before the big game. It’s definitely an extension from my last mixtape, The Warm Up. But now it’s like he’s on the team, and it’s that anxiousness to get in the game and prove himself. Also—some fear. I had to redo songs, I had to really just suck it up and realize that a certain song might be a better fit for the mixtape than the album.
Have the frequent leaks of your material hurt?
A leak will make you fall out of love with a song. I fall outta love with my songs over time. Once I’ve heard them and done them I’m so busy thinking about what’s the next song, I forget how special these songs are that I have. I wish I was better at appreciating my songs.
I heard you have a really deep song about a girl having an abortion.
Yeah, that’s an exception. It’s definitely on the album. I’ve been saving that one. I have a video for that and everything. I’ve been sitting on the concept for damn near two years. If I get to where I want to be in my career then it could be like Eminem’s “Stan.” It’s one of those really emotional stories. It’s an immediate experience of some friends of mine, but I actually did have a similar situation, though not to the extent of the song. It’s in the vein of Common’s “Retrospect for Life.” Not that I based it off of that, but you can’t help but compare it to that.
I listened to your first mixtape, The Come Up, the other day. The underlying theme of it seems to be your dedication to your mom and your desire for her to have a better life. Like it was you and she against the world.
That’s how it always felt. Even when I had a stepfather, it was always like me, my older brother, and my mother against everybody else. Early on, I seen my mom real, real broke, working as a waitress. A single mother, trying to raise two kids, after she divorced my father, when I was two. They were both from the Army. Then she got a good-ass job working at the post office. Then she got remarried.
You didn’t have any type of father-son relationship with your stepdad?
With him, nah. I mean I thought I did. I looked up to him, but I probably didn’t ever let him know that. He did some foul shit at the end, so I never respected him after that. He disciplined, he whooped us. I never really looked at him like no father. But I still have to say that things were pretty good. We had stability at first but it all crashed and burned right as I was going to college [at NYC’s St. John’s University]. That’s when The Come Up was being made. I was still early in school, and that’s when she was really hurting because now she’s back on her own and both her sons are gone. She’s in debt, house foreclosed. I was watching her, literally, trying to stay afloat. That’s where a lot of the anger from Come Up came from.
Channeling out through your music.
That was the most angry I’ve ever been. On that mixtape. But I don’t feel like that no more. I’m at peace with how I grew up. Because it was nice. It wasn’t like I never saw my father. There’s kids way worse off than me.
Is school something you were always was attracted to?
My mom. She had such an influence on me. She put such an emphasis on school. I loved the reaction that she would give me when I came home with some straight A’s. I lived for that. I wanted to have the highest score in the class. I was just good at soaking up information quick, but my passion was elsewhere. At a young age it was basketball, and then my passion turned to rapping.
How much of a culture shock was it when you moved to New York?
It was crazy. Ridiculous. On my own, bro. I was fuckin’ silly. I remember my best female friend from high school used to ask me, ‘You going to New York? You crazy? Aren’t you scared?’ And I used to front. But man, I was 18 years old going to somewhere I’d never really been. Living in a dorm—all I knew was living with my moms up until that point. For me to do that, it really just took, like a blind confidence that I didn’t really have, but I was telling myself I had it. The first time I came to New York I told myself that I was gonna move there. I just knew. I visited once when I was 13 or 14. I said, ‘I’m gonna move here one day.’ I didn’t really know ‘til probably about 16 or 17. I was like, I can go to school in New York, college. It clicked I guess [snaps fingers]. Like: college. I could do it. It was almost like an excuse to go to New York City, and nobody’s even gotta know what I’m going for. Because I wasn’t telling people, ‘Yeah I’m gonna go get a deal.’ I was like, ‘I’m gonna go to college in New York.’ But inside I knew what it was for.
The girls think this nigga’s handsome. But sorry ladies, young Mr. Cole is taken. He did a great job keeping his relationship status under wraps until gossip site YBF reported that Jermaine, 25, got down on bended knee on October 16, 2010. After the story was published, Melissa Heholt confirmed she and Cole have been together six years, but that they are not, in fact, engaged.
In your song, “Knock On Wood” you rap about missing NBA All-Star Weekend to spend time with your girl. How do you balance your career responsibilities with obligations to your relationship?
I speak on those things to get that shit off my chest. Because I know that’s something mad people are going through. Balancing career and a relationship or just juggling a relationship, period. But yeah, I’m trying. Taking that one day at a time. And it’s great—luckily—you know.
You met her in New York?
Yeah, that’s a college sweetheart. That’s like so serious I won’t even speak on that. I’m not saying you was gonna go any further, but I’m not gonna go any further and probably never will ‘cause that’s a really serious relationship, not one of those, “These niggas are dating.” I’ve been in a relationship so long, man, that sometimes that shit is a marriage, like damn near it. It takes a big sacrifice on both sides. Obviously on the person whose career is not in this business, it’s gonna be a very big sacrifice. I guess that’s the answer to your original question, it’s just a time sacrifice. But so far, so good. I know there’s no science to this shit, but I know we’re already beatin’ the odds.
When you talk about the album, you throw out the term ‘classic.’ Everybody hopes for that, but what makes you keep articulating it?
Maybe I’ll speak it into existence [laughs]. But it’s just telling you where my mind is. It gives insight into how high my standards are, and why I let some of these songs go that somebody else would be like, “Yo, how are you not gonna put that on the album?” My standards are a little higher.
You came out onstage at his Radio City set. You recently agreed to do some European tour dates together. But the public still seems hell-bent on makin’ you and Drake rivals. Does that affect your personal relationship with him?
I don’t think it affects it. I’m aware of it. I think he’s aware of it too. But it’s not something that’s really spoken on. But moments like at Radio City crush all the talk of any kind of beef. I think it’s just a reflection of how excited people are. I feel like we’re probably the first two artists in a long time that they’ve been able to be so excited about.
Mr. Graham sent me a text, said you guys were making a song together called “The Luckiest People.” Can you confirm?
Hell yeah. That shit is dope. I’m recording my verse. Drake is one of the people I really wanted to work with as soon as I got myself to the place where I needed to be. He got himself there. He worked super hard. Those are the type of people I wanna work with. I wanna feel like I earned it.