History hangs in the air at Premier Studios in midtown Manhattan, and at the mere mention of events that took place here, J. Cole jumps up from his seat and rushes outside through a side door.
“I’m pretty sure this is where Lil’ Cease saw ’Pac downstairs and called his name, either this one or that one up there,” J. Cole says, pointing toward another floor. He stands on a boxed-in concrete balcony with a look of earnestness. “Cease stood here and was like, ‘Yo, ’Pac!’ ”
That late-November night in 1994—one that J. Cole is compelled to re-enact—became a seminal moment in hip-hop. Just minutes after the encounter, back when Premier Studios was known as Quad Recording, Tupac Shakur was shot five times in an alleged robbery attempt. Shakur associated his assault with Lil’ Cease and, by extension, all of Bad Boy Records, including Sean “Puffy” Combs and the Notorious B.I.G. It ignited the East Coast–West Coast beef that changed the course of pop culture forever. Shakur would go on to spend a year-plus in prison and record hundreds of songs before his eventual assassination in Las Vegas two years later, but that night outside of Quad Recording changed everything.
“I’m such a Tupac fan, every time I’m downstairs I think about that,” J. Cole says, referring to the building’s lobby, where the shooting took place. “I try to figure out what elevator it was, where things went down and how.”
It’s a thought that’s crossed his mind again and again in the past few months, as 28-year-old Jermaine Lamarr Cole finished recording Born Sinner, the highly anticipated sophomore follow-up to his chart-topping Cole World in 2011. It’s a curious title for a lyricist who comes across as one of rap’s rare nice guys on his debut album and countless mixtapes. He occasionally objectifies women, but spends more time empathizing with their struggles. He details the difficulties of growing up in poverty, but chastises drug dealers. He discusses the immoralities of life, but more than anything, he sounds like an incredibly moral human being. It’s not a dichotomy on the level of Tupac’s sensitive thug, but it’s up there.
“I’m moralizing it for myself. My persona may be one thing to the world, but I got shit about me that I’m not happy about. I might do some shit that I feel guilty about or like, ‘Damn, I know better than that,’ ” says the North Carolina native. “Born Sinner isn’t even a praise of that, it’s actually a plea for forgiveness. It’s admitting that I got things about me that I don’t like. Even the most moral person is a sinner. You may know right from wrong, but it doesn’t always mean that you’re going to follow it.”
When it comes to his morals, look no further than his mother—military veteran Kay Cole—who is all over his art. (Her photo adorns the cover of his well-received Truly Yours 2 mixtape.) When he launched BornSinner.com at the beginning of May, a photo essay on her retirement from the post office—narrated by Kay herself—kicked off the intimate series of profiles that would later include rising music superstars Kendrick Lamar and Miguel.
The thread was a continuation of his first album, in which he rapped about his mother’s battles with his absent father, an abusive stepfather, and her own drug addiction. He had always put his mother on a pedestal, but now that pedestal was tall enough for every hip-hop fan in America to scrutinize.
“I never thought about it until it was time to release that first album, and ‘Breakdown’ was on there,” he says. The emotional song addresses many of his childhood troubles, including the line: “You made a milli off of servin’ hard white? Yeah right/My mama tell you what addicted to that pipe feel like.” Among his purest fans, it’s one of Cole’s most popular songs. “Before it was just therapy, a way to discuss this shit, but then I had a conversation with my mom. She told me, even before she heard the song, ‘Be sure you tell my story because people need to hear that and I’m not ashamed.’ And she shouldn’t be. She beat that shit.”
On “Cole Summer” you rap, “I finally put my Momma in that E Class, n****, and I told her quit her job/Oh, hold your horses/If my next album flops, it’s back to the post office/Both of us/They’re saying that’s a real possibility/The thought alone is killing me.” How true is all that? Do you feel that pressure?
Oh, absolutely. The fact that this interview is coming out after the album drops, I can speak on it. I feel so much pressure. It’s the cause of so many negative thoughts, and in my whole life I’ve only been a positive thinker. When I set a goal—whether it was making the basketball team after getting cut or going to New York or getting a deal—it’s always been very positive thinking. When I dropped [2011 debut Cole World: The Sideline Story], it was successful, but it didn’t do what I wanted it to do critically for a lot of reasons. Even as I was celebrating this commercial success that shocked everybody, I knew right away it didn’t do what I wanted it to do: Have everybody praise it as a hands-down classic. I didn’t get that with the album like I got with [2010 mixtape] Friday Night Lights and it f*cked me up. I wondered, did I f*ck this up?
I was overthinking, and when you apply that to negative thoughts, it’s just bad. It just spirals. For a year and a half, probably up until about two months ago, it was spiraling. Only then did I get back to a good place, but I still deal with it. The reason why it’s tough is because I’ve never had to process that before in any time in my life. It was never like that. I had a really good handle on my thoughts and was able to keep shit positive.
That line was definitely on my mind. I retired my mom and I’m not filthy rich. It’s not like, “Yeah, mom, whatever.” It’s retiring her with the thought like, “Damn, do I have enough if this ends tomorrow and I don’t make another dollar? Do I have enough to sustain my life, her life and all that?”
How do you make sure that the money stays if the hits stop?
When I’m not thinking negatively and I have a more rational mind-set, I know that even if I don’t have another hit, I have a fan base. Lupe Fiasco never has to have another hit in his life and he has fans that love him. He can go perform Food & Liquor for the rest of his days and he will have a career. I have to remind myself, “No matter what, you’ll have a career.”
But just in case, you pay attention to economic realities. Later in “Cole Summer,” you talk about throwing thousands of dollars at the strip club with Drake, difference being you’re throwing four and he’s throwing 50 …
Exactly. I understand I can’t live outside my means. That’s another thing, too. I retired my mom, and yeah, she drives a Benz, but I ain’t get her that house yet. There are goals that I gotta hit. I never used to think like that at all, so it’s like returning to that place where it’s like, “Nah, you got it.” It’s just a true faith in yourself. I do have faith in myself, but I’ve never had to box so much with doubt. I honestly think that comes from how much people can interact with you, regular people you don’t know. I can go online and literally see what people are saying. At first that never bothered me, but I think that over time, when you read other people’s thoughts so much, especially when they’re negative, they become your thoughts. Without you even knowing it.
Before your deal, you were a bill collector. Does that have any effect on your concerns over your career?
I was there at the height, when the shit just popped off. When people were losing their houses left and right. I was hearing terrible stories and I was already a very sympathetic person. I get that from my mom. I give a f*ck about shit like that, that shit hurts me. Being at that job was hard for me and, yo, I don’t ever want to be broke again. Nobody does.
Whether or not the commercial success of Born Sinner forever banishes the negativity from Cole’s mind is still unknown. What is known on that day—24 hours after turning the album in to Roc Nation and less than 12 hours after celebrating that very fact in Miami—is that the album’s first single is easily his biggest hit yet. At the time of this writing, “Power Trip” is a Top 25 hit on the Billboard chart and seemingly gaining some serious steam. Featuring heat-seeking R&B crooner Miguel, the song is a slow burner with a melody that worms its way deep into the subconscious. Just a few years ago, such dark and brooding tracks may have been relegated to deep album cuts. Today, it seems to make sense in a Top 40 format, especially with the public knowledge that Cole’s creativity is behind the entire product. The transparency of the Internet has finally given the artists who actually make their music a bit of an advantage.
Not only does Cole deliver two vaguely specific and subtly vulnerable verses, but he also wrote the hook and originally wanted to sing it, too—at least before his team convinced him Miguel was a better option. And yet, judging by the song’s companion making-of video, his work constructing the beat is what Cole wants his fans to recognize the most. In a late-night studio session, he re-creates his process, layer by layer, from the sampled melody that started it all to the shh-shh 808 sounds and a drum-kit tidbit he stretched out to make his own. Cole wants us to know he made that beat.
“I feel like it’s the opposite of what Kanye went through. He was already established as one of the game’s best producers but had to gain respect as a rapper,” he says. “I wasn’t even getting the awareness of being a producer. I feel like I had to start letting people know because that’s another thing that I’m incredibly competitive about—almost equal to rap.”
That competitive spirit reared its head again when Cole and the Roc Nation machine behind him decided to move the release of Born Sinner from June 25 to June 18, in order to go head-to-head with West’s Yeezus. By moving that release date, a decision the rapper himself claims credit for, Cole is attempting to generate hip-hop’s greatest pay-per-view event since West battled 50 Cent on the same September Tuesday in 2007.
“The Grammys—really the whole music-critic culture in general—I feel like they overlook hip-hop. They don’t give it its proper respect as a true art form. Maybe it’s because we don’t have a lot of true artists. I feel like Kanye should definitely have a Grammy for album of the year. Absolutely. The fact that you haven’t given him his means you’re f*cking me up now, because if I drop the album of the year on the same day as him, you’re going to give him his shit as a make-up because he’s overdue.”
And while the Grammys have always been something of a joke in the hip-hop community—the rap awards aren’t even always televised—the opinions of indie music critics especially irk Cole.
“You’re wielding too much power and control because there are people who take your opinion seriously,” he says, in which the “you” mainly refers to Pitchfork. “If you’re telling them to go listen to Chief Keef then they’re going to listen to Chief Keef. So you better make sure Chief Keef is representing [hip-hop] properly. And he’s great. But you have to balance it out. Maybe it comes from a salty place, because they wouldn’t f*ck with me—I’m too safe, too smart, too clean. I went to college.”
That is the image that will persist around J. Cole even after Born Sinner drops. He has speaking engagements at Harvard and plans on building a community center in his hometown. He loves his mama despite her demons. His music aims to express the duality of life as an African-American male. While all that shares similarities with the life and art of Tupac Shakur, J. Cole will never be seen as dangerous. And perhaps that’s the biggest danger of all.
Check out the August 2013 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands July 16) for more articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app. Follow Red Bulletin on Twitter for more.