Stick To Ya Gunz
J.Cole, the first hip-hop artist signed to Jay-Zís Roc Nation, is notoriously guarded. Still, he canít 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. Heís 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-hopís most promising careers. So Jermaine Lamarr Coleís got a story to tell.
On that Tuesday, New York Cityís Radio City Music Hall was rockiní. 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 whoís the best ever. Of whoís famous vs. whoís 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 didnít really like each other, it was hard to tell.
But you couldnít 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.
ďThereís a producer,Ē he says. ďBrian Kiddówho lives in Atlanta on a fuckiní hill. He played me some of the most incredible beats Iíve ever heard,Ē Cole says this while on a tour bus rolling through Washington, D.C. Itís late October and heís on the way to a Howard University Homecoming gig on a Saturday night. ďAbout the fourth one Kidd played, I knew right away. I started writing right there. And finished it on a plane back to New York.Ē
So: Cole is in NYC, that Tuesday night after the Drake show. Inspired by his Dreamville business partner Ibrahim H., a guy heís been down with since his St. Johnís 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. ďHe was upstairs eating, like the Godfather, by himself at a table. I walked up to him. I ainít have too many words. I was like, ĎYo I think I got something special, I just need you to hear it.í I told him I wanted Trey Songz to get on the hook and I handed him my iPod. His reaction was so fuckiní crazy. That was probably the craziest reaction I ever got from him on any song.Ē
Hovís scrunched up face and exuberant exclaims enforced that the decision Cole made to force a meeting was correct. ďOut of all the songs I brought him I think thatís what he was lookiní for,Ē Cole says. ďItís something Iíd never done, a different sound. Like nothing Iíve doneóbut 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.Ē
October 6, 2010
. New York City. A day before Coleís takes off on a 35-city Fall U.S. tour with no name.
Whatís the status of the album?
Man, I thought my album wouldíve been out right around now. But one thing Iíve 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 wasnít gonna happen. I havenít even had a consistent three weeks in the studio. Iím blessed enough to be able to go out on the road. I get a good week in the studio but then Iím off for a show. But I still managed to pull off what I think is an incredible album.
How did ďWho DatĒ end up becoming the first release?
Everyone at Roc Nation was asking, ĎCan we work something?í and ĎWho Datí 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 donít know if itís 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 donít gotta be a No. 1. Even though it wasnít a smash hit, theyíll never forget ďWho Dat.Ē Mark said, it was like Smoothe Da Hustlerís ďBroken Language.Ē It turns heads.
Stillóyou werenít disappointed it wasnít a big radio record?
The fact is, as many radio stations in as many places that did play ĎWho Datí exceeded my expectations. Now that I know the game and Iíve been on these stations, I know whoís gonna play what records, and whoís 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 didnít get a chance to hear it. I refuse to be that
What about the second single, ďBlow UpĒ?
Thatís like a placeholder record. Theyíre working ĎBlow Up,í but you know that was another one of those records that when I played it for everybody, the reaction was like, Oh, shit. I ainít told anybody, but I donít even know if itís 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 canít deliver them my album this yearóor even a release dateóI should at least give them this. To hold them over for four months or so. Iím sittiní on so many incredible songs, whether or not they were gonna make the album. Let me put something out!
Whatís the meaning behind the title?
Friday Night Lights
sums up that feeling before the big game. Itís definitely an extension from my last mixtape, The Warm Up
. But now itís like heís on the team, and itís that anxiousness to get in the game and prove himself. Alsoósome 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
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 Iíve heard them and done them Iím so busy thinking about whatís 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, thatís an exception. Itís definitely on the album. Iíve been saving that one. I have a video for that and everything. Iíve 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 Eminemís ďStan.Ē Itís one of those really emotional stories. Itís an immediate experience of some friends of mine, but I actually did have a similar situation, though not to the extent of the song. Itís in the vein of Commonís ďRetrospect for Life.Ē Not that I based it off of that, but you canít 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.
Thatís 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 didnít 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 didnít 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 NYCís St. Johnís University]. Thatís when The Come Up
was being made. I was still early in school, and thatís when she was really hurting because now sheís back on her own and both her sons are gone. Sheís in debt, house foreclosed. I was watching her, literally, trying to stay afloat. Thatís where a lot of the anger from Come Up
Channeling out through your music.
That was the most angry Iíve ever been. On that mixtape. But I donít feel like that no more. Iím at peace with how I grew up. Because it was nice. It wasnít like I never saw my father. Thereís 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 Aís. 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 fuckiní silly. I remember my best female friend from high school used to ask me, ĎYou going to New York? You crazy? Arenít you scared?í And I used to front. But man, I was 18 years old going to somewhere Iíd never really been. Living in a dormóall 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 didnít 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, ĎIím gonna move here one day.í I didnít really know Ďtil 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 nobodyís even gotta know what Iím going for. Because I wasnít telling people, ĎYeah Iím gonna go get a deal.í I was like, ĎIím gonna go to college in New York.í But inside I knew what it was for.
The girls think
this niggaís 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, ďKnock On WoodĒ 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 thatís something mad people are going through. Balancing career and a relationship or just juggling a relationship, period. But yeah, Iím trying. Taking that one day at a time. And itís greatóluckilyóyou know.
You met her in New York?
Yeah, thatís a college sweetheart. Thatís like so serious I wonít even speak on that. Iím not saying you was gonna go any further, but Iím not gonna go any further and probably never will Ďcause thatís a really serious relationship, not one of those, ďThese niggas are dating.Ē Iíve 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, itís gonna be a very big sacrifice. I guess thatís the answer to your original question, itís just a time sacrifice. But so far, so good. I know thereís no science to this shit, but I know weíre already beatiní the odds.
When you talk about the album, you throw out the term Ďclassic.í Everybody hopes for that, but what makes you keep articulating it?
Maybe Iíll speak it into existence [laughs]. But itís 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, ďYo, how are you not gonna put that on the album?Ē 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 makiní you and Drake rivals. Does that affect your personal relationship with him?
I donít think it affects it. Iím aware of it. I think heís aware of it too. But itís not something thatís really spoken on. But moments like at Radio City crush all the talk of any kind of beef. I think itís just a reflection of how excited people are. I feel like weíre probably the first two artists in a long time that theyíve been able to be so excited about.
Mr. Graham sent me a text, said you guys were making a song together called ďThe Luckiest People.Ē Can you confirm?
Hell yeah. That shit is dope. Iím 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.