On September 27, J. Cole released Cole World: The Sideline Story, a long-awaited label debut that delivers on the promise of several years of tour appearances, guest spots and mix tapes. Delivering a disc full of vivid, evocative portraits of his life and experiences, the Fayetteville, NC native is a natural-born storyteller, following in the footsteps of acts like Nas, Tupac and Eminem, albeit with his own unique sensibility, and a sound that’s impossible to attribute to the easy divisions between East Coast, West Coast and Dirty South rap. Crave Online caught up with J. Cole late last week via telephone for a conversation about those influences, as well as his personal and professional inspirations for Cole World. Additionally, he talked about how his upbringing in North Carolina, described the alchemy of words and music that makes his music so distinctive, and offered a few suggestions of folks he wants to work with in the future.
How did your upbringing in North Carolina affect your sensibilities as a rapper?
Do you mean musically or on a life level?
Musically, Fayetteville has always been a melting pot, especially when I was coming up. Now if you go to Fayetteville and come to the club, there’s going to be a lot of Gucci Mane and Young Jeezy and Rick Ross – heavy, heavy down-south. But in the ‘90s and early 2000s, it was way more East Coast. I grew up on all of the stuff kids were growing up on – Kris Kross and whatever was hot – but when it came to real rap, I was more West Coast-influenced, by like Tupac and Snoop and Dre, Ice Cube and Tha Dogg Pound. This was all based on my stepfather and the music he was listening to, and then eventually as I grew older, I became familiar with Nas and Jay-Z and Eminem. I was a big Outkast fan, a fan of Royce the 5’9” and these super-lyrical rappers. But I also have got to say that Fayetteville was not as down-South as it is right now. Of course, we had our 3-6 Mafias, and Lil’ Jon, but it was never like it is now. So I had a good balance of East Coast, down South and West Coast [influences].
Your lyrics stand out because they’re very narrative driven. Where did you develop your instincts as a storyteller?
I think it started with me being a Tupac fan. I was a super-duper Tupac fan, and I realized later, when I became a huge Nas fan and a huge Eminem fan, I was drawn to the storytellers. They all told stories in different ways, but they were all like the best storytellers; Tupac told stories, but his were about the emotion of the story, and Nas told stories, and his were more about the details, the attention to detail in the story. Eminem told stories and his were more like the fantasy of the story, the wackiness of the story or the evil of the story. It wasn’t reality. And then the first song I ever recorded was like a mixture of all of those things. So I think it was just the type of rappers I was drawn to, which in time became my style. That’s why I’m such a storyteller. Even when the song isn’t just an outright story, I’m usually telling some type of story.
How did you decide to go by the name J. Cole? It’s funny that it’s the exception and not the rule that rappers go by the real names instead of by a nickname or pseudonym. I mean, you could have been LL Cole J or something.
Right, right. I did have one of those names, and me and my homeboys would get on the phone and we’d try to come up with rap names. We’d look through the dictionary for cool words we could possibly go by. And that was a big thing – like, what’s going to be my name that I go by. But one summer, my mentors were looking for a rap name, and these older guys I was kicking it with and making music with, they were teaching me things. And I was looking for a name, and one of them called me and said, “you – we’ve got a name for you.”
How do you come up with ideas for your songs? Do you start with the music and build lyrics around that, or do you have ideas that you search for an appropriate instrumental to put with it?
It’s a mixture, it’s never one way. Usually I start with a beat, I start making a beat, and my producer side is making the beat. And on a good day, my rapper side will jump in and start the writing process – maybe come up with a hook or start a verse. Sometimes it just happens like that. A song like “Lights Please” happens like that. I didn’t have a concept, but the song just kind of wrote itself and turned into that. And then I have some songs where I have the idea first, and I’m just waiting for the right beat; you know, I might think of an idea today, and tomorrow I’ll apply that idea to music. So there’s all different types of ways; there’s never really one way. There’s several kinds of ways that I create.
What sort of aesthetic do you connect with musically? Given your mix of influences, how did you end up with the sound that dominates Cole World: The Sideline Story?
I don’t know – I think it’s just the things that I like and what I’ve evolved to. So I think there is, especially on this album, a lot of live instrumentation. Even when I’m sampling, I’ll throw a live bass on top whenever possible, or live guitars, or I even brought in some strings – I have string players and horn players on the album. It’s just a mixture of the sample-based stuff that I love and the live elements that I love and the dirty drums that I love and the clean drums that I love. It’s just a mixture of all of these things that I’ve come to love in hip-hop, you know?
Do you have a dream collaborator or someone you would especially like to work with?
Yeah, I have a lot – Alicia Keys, Andre 3000, Nas, Kanye West, Jay-Z, even though we just worked together. Lauryn Hill. I have a lot of people – all of my favorites.
Missy Elliott is on one of the tracks on your album. We haven’t heard from her in a while; how did that collaboration come together?
That was just, well, I wanted to work with her since last year, and I called around and tried to make it happen. Like I think we share a mutual publishing company, and I tried to get in the studio with her. But I didn’t really have the time to make it happen, and I don’t even really know who initiated the conversation, but I had about five days until I had to turn in the album. And I made the song with Jay-Z called “Mr. Nice Watch” in that last five days, and I made “Nobody’s Perfect.” When I started making the beat, I laid the verse down, and it reminded me of something that like Timbaland would have done in the ‘90s, like something that Aaliyah would have gotten on, and I was like, “damn – I wish I could get Aaliyah on this song.” And as soon as I said that, my memories of wanting to work with Missy so bad popped in my head, and I said “that’s perfect!” so I just called her management and luckily I was lucky to make that happen super quick; she turned it around for me in like a day.
How tough is it to juggle creating a hot single and then fitting it into a collection of songs that complement it?
That’s the tough part, right? And even I think my album has a sound and a feel to it, and I think that’s because I produced so much of it. Hip-hop albums aren’t made like that any more; they have so many producers and they have 13 songs on the album with 12 different producers. Mine is like the majority [produced by] me with complementary producers to produce a few of the other songs. In terms of singles, I think because I produce too, my ear for singles is different: yeah, I want a hit record, but I don’t want something that’s going to be outside of what I’m doing at the time. So I won’t do this super alternate hip-hop album that’s got a mood and a feel to it, and then go to like David Guetta for a single just because I need a hit record. Or go to Stargate, because they do a lot of Rihanna hits and they’re guaranteed to give you a hit, but it just wouldn’t fit into my album. So it helps me out that I produce, because my ear for hit records is getting better, but I have an ear for what hits with my projects, and what doesn’t.