Man of the House
J. Cole left home to follow his rap dreams. To find true happiness, he’s going back to where he started.
Interview by Damien Scott
Photography by Justin Hogan
The drive to Fayetteville, N.C., is an hour-and-a-half straight shot from the Raleigh-Durham International airport. The small city, with a population of 204,408 people, is rarely talked about on the national stage. To most, it’s a military town, home to one of the nation’s largest army bases, Fort Bragg. To a nice older woman working at the airport’s Avis car rental office, it’s not a place you should be when the sun goes down. “If I were y’all, I would eat somewhere around here,” she warns. “Fayetteville is not the safest place to be at night.”
To Jermaine Lamarr Cole, Fayetteville is home. It’s where his mother brought him shortly after his birth on a U.S. Army base in Frankfurt, Germany. It’s where he learned to play basketball. It’s where he made a number of friends with whom he still rocks today. It’s where he moved from house to house as his mother tried to make ends meet. It’s where he feels comfortable. Most important, though, it’s where the soon-to-be-30-year-old rapper and producer known as J. Cole learned how to rap and make beats.
Those talents powered Cole’s dream to move from the city dubbed “Fayettenam”—a portmanteau of his hometown and Vietnam; similar to the way kids call Chicago “Chiraq”—to New York City, where he attended St. John’s University, honed his craft, and became the first signee to Jay Z’s Roc Nation label. From there he released two gold-selling albums—2011’s Cole World: The Sideline Story and 2013’s Born Sinner—both backed by platinum-selling singles, “Work Out” and “Power Trip,” respectively. By all measures, it seems Cole accomplished his dream. Some rap fans lampoon his career—they call him boring, note the fact that he doesn’t sell like Drake, and crack wise that Jay Z doesn’t know who he is. But when compared to his peers, he’s doing better than OK.
Cole’s success has allowed him to start the Dreamville Foundation, an organization that helps disadvantaged youth in Fayetteville by providing them with school supplies and taking them on field trips to fun places like Carowinds amusement park. He’s teamed up with Interscope to launch Dreamville Records, an imprint that has already released two strong projects from rappers Bas and Cozz. He’s done so well, in fact, that Hov, the guy who people joked couldn’t tell Cole from one of the Migos, bestowed upon him one of the greatest honors in rap: During a concert in NYC this past summer, Jay gave Cole his Roc-A-Fella chain. But, if you ask Cole, his greatest accomplishment is buying his favorite childhood home, a charming split-level house located at 2014 Forest Hills Drive. It’s the nicest house he lived in as a kid, and the one where he formed his fondest memories. It’s where he wanted to do the photo shoot for this story.
The address also serves as the title of J. Cole’s third album, his most ambitious project to date: 2014 Forest Hills Drive tells the story of a young man leaving home, much like Cole did back in 2003, to find success in Hollywood. It shows the progression from starry-eyed newbie to jaded star. The arc describes his life. While previewing the album at a Midtown Manhattan recording studio a week after the photo shoot, Cole is repeatedly interrupted to handle non-music-related business. Reps from a popular, storied European shoe company stop by in hopes of getting Cole to attend a store opening in October. In a black T-shirt, Nike sweats, and black Nike Huaraches, he tells the brand’s communications team about the album he’s working on and asks pointed questions. The attention is flattering, he says, but it’s his least favorite part of the business. He’d rather work on the music, create new experiences for his fans. It’s a balancing act, for sure, and one he’s determined to master, so he’ll always feel at home.
What do you feel when you go back to Fayetteville?
Comfort and pride. I realized recently I’d never asked myself that question. When I’m home, I’m either stopping through to visit or I’m doing something for the [Dreamville] Foundation. I might get an extra day to see friends and family but then it’s off to the next thing. I’ve never been there long enough to feel comfortable and think, “This is home”—not until I was home doing a cover shoot for the album. I noticed I felt comfortable. Usually if there’s a camera rolling I’m anxious; it doesn’t feel natural to have a camera on me.
How has the city changed since you left?
People I grew up with tell me it’s getting worse. I don’t know if that has to do with the economy or if the education is getting worse. On the flipside, Fayetteville has some heroes now—even if they’re rappers or athletes. We never even had that [when I was growing up]. You couldn’t go to Raleigh, Charlotte, or Atlanta and be proud of where you were from. The pride before was about coming from somewhere that had a reputation of being a hard place to make it. Now there’s a pride about accomplishment, whether it’s me, or Eric Maynor, who made it to the NBA, or Eric Curry, who was the No. 3 draft pick in the NFL Draft. It sucks that these things have to come from sports and entertainment, but it’s something for kids to look up to and say, “Somebody from here did something.” I don’t want to inspire kids to rap. I want to let them know that anything they want to do is possible. I come from here and did some shit that was impossible, so if you want to be an astronaut, lawyer, doctor, writer, journalist, or whatever, I want to inspire you to do that.
Coming from that, how does it feel that big companies are looking to work with you now?
It’s flattering that they would take notice, but it is fucking weird. I didn’t grow up wearing that shit and [fashion] is still a new thing for me. Years ago, we had conversations as a team, like, “Are we going to start a clothing label? Do we want to turn it into some exclusive shit and charge niggas this, that, and third?” That never felt right. I always liked accessibility. I loved the fact that I could attain Sean John, I could attain Rocawear, I could afford a $25 T-shirt. It might take my whole check to get those pieces but it was attainable. That was a struggle when we were considering a line: Do you want to separate yourself from who you are and the people who are where you just were?
“I was unhappy when amazing things were happening that I should have been grateful for.”
It’s not exciting to receive business offers?
I’m not excited by business. I want to make music. I want to perform. Louis Vuitton—or whoever the fuck—could come to me right now and say, “We want to do a major deal with you,” and I’d be like, “Thank you. That’s flattering. And yeah, fine, let’s do it.” But there’s no excitement. Excitement is the anticipation of knowing people are about to hear my music. That other shit is an honor and I appreciate it because it [shows that] the work has spread so far that it’s making it on these brands’ radar. But it’s not exciting.
But it seems you’re at a place, business-wise, that makes sense for you.
Things have the opportunity to be great. I’m laying the foundation right now. Am I a great businessman yet? No.
Do you want to be a great businessman?
I want to be a great artist first, and as good of a businessman as I can be without taking away from my art form. I’ve been through worrying about a hit and it forcing me to make [a certain] type of song because I got all this pressure. Business is only satisfying in the security of it and the fact that the better I am at business, the better I am at providing for my family. Business moves don’t bring me happiness. The things the business moves provide bring me happiness. Seeing Cozz about to drop his first project and remembering what that was like. Seeing Bas go on tour….
Is that what made you want to start the label?
I always wanted to be fucking Berry Gordy. I wanted to have a production platform. But now I realize that, even if I never produce a record for someone who’s signed to me, the real pleasure of having a label is watching somebody start from ground zero and get to level one, two, and three. These dudes are trying to get to 100. It’s mad rewarding for me to see.
This album feels like a turning point for you.
That’s exactly what it is. It’s crazy that I chose to record it in Hollywood because it’s such a “fuck Hollywood” album. Being out there maybe contributed to [me thinking], “I’m bugging. There’s some shit that’s way more important than how many albums I sell and if I’m the best.”
What led to that realization?
I was unhappy when amazing things were happening, [career successes] that I should have been grateful for and super happy for. I didn’t feel I was getting the type of recognition I always wanted and that I felt you had to get to be considered at a certain level. Last year, I started to realize that means nothing. It’s all unattainable. You have no control over what somebody else feels about you, but you have 100 percent control over how you feel about yourself and how you feel about the people around you and how you handle life. I became happier and started to deal with shit more, not run from the feelings, not have the anxiety, like, “Complex ain’t fucking with me? Man, fuck these niggas. They missed the whole shit. They didn’t even tell niggas about The Warm Up and Friday Night Lights. They’re going to sleep on Born Sinner. Y’all didn’t see I sold more than Kanye?!”
That gave you anxiety?
Not all the time, but it was a source of anxiety at a time when I should have been like, “Damn, I’m blessed. I have so much positive shit going on. I’ve got family and friends that love me. I have the opportunity to make music and have a career that I love.” That shit is so minor.
That’s interesting because you, unlike a lot of your peers, don’t talk about the hate and the jokes about you being boring. It seems like it rolls off your back.
I’m an introverted person, especially with problems. I feel like I can deal with shit on my own and I don’t need to express it. I put up a great front because I don’t want to show [that something bothers me], which is why I respect Wale. I’ve always loved that he says it and he says it right away, like, “Yo, I don’t feel this. Them niggas ain’t showing me no respect.” In a way, that’s therapeutic. To keep it in and suppress it makes it worse. That kind of expressiveness is not prevalent in my music, but you’ll find lines. That shit affected me so much that I had to write a line about it. I can tell you five or six lines where it was addressed. That’s the danger of giving a fuck about what people say in an age where you can see what people say so easily. It’s about getting over that, like, “Man, I don’t give a fuck. I love me. I love this shit I just made. If you like it, fucking great. It you don’t like it, cool. I hope you find some other shit you like.” On my best day that’s how I feel.
At your Dollar and a Dream show in NYC, fans were lined up down the street, sharing umbrellas in the rain. That must make you feel good.
Now that’s a fucking honor. That’s a real reward to know that some shit I made in my room alone on some excitement shit, some therapy shit, just capturing a moment and being in tune with magic and the universe and my soul, traveled so far and impacted somebody so much that they would do that. I’m fucking super grateful for that.
“I don’t want to inspire kids to rap. I want to let them know that anything they want to do is possible.”
How do you feel people responded to Born Sinner?
I wish that it went further but I’m grateful because the people who got it fully appreciated it. They felt how I wanted them to feel.
When you made “Power Trip,” did you feel you had to make a hit song?
Hell no. See, that’s the thing about Born Sinner: I stripped that [pressure] away because I had been through that on the first album, with “Work Out.”
“Work Out” was you saying, “Yo, I need a hit.”
Yes, and I said, “I’m never going through that again.” And I never will. Born Sinner was the next phase of that, like, “Nigga, don’t ever try to get the hit. It’s never going to work like that.” With “Power Trip,” I just went downstairs to make a beat because I was bored and that shit flowed out. I didn’t even think it was going to be for the album; I thought I had my album already. I was just going to drop it the next day! Like, “I been quiet. I just want to throw some shit out.” I went to Elite’s house to work on “Crooked Smile” and I played it for him and and Ib [A&R Ibrahim Hamad], like, “I just did this at the crib. What do you think?” In my heart, I knew the shit was special and big but I wasn’t confident enough to say, “Nigga, I got a crazy one.” Ib said the words I’d hoped to hear: “This is the one.” I needed that boost of confidence because I was in a creative place but I wasn’t in the most confident place.
You rap a lot about love. What is it that attracts you to it?
I guess because I’m interested. I became more conscious of that with this album. That’s what Hollywood represents versus 2014 Forest Hills Drive, which is home. Home is wherever the authentic, unconditional love is. The fake shit, the synthesized love, is Hollywood. I ran from Fayetteville to New York, from New York to everywhere, ultimately looking for what? For love—respect and love from my peers, love from the fans, love from the critics. I’ve learned that none of that shit is real. I appreciate it, it’s extra love, but it can and should only help and add to the real pot of love. It should not substitute. “Artists” that go to Hollywood and live their lives for the cameras, the attention, they’re supplementing for their lack of love, their holes. Those people—and maybe myself included—are ultimately running away from the place where the real love exists, because maybe it’s too painful, maybe it wasn’t the type of love that they needed, or it was void there. There was no father, there was no support. Wanting to be a movie star, wanting to be a rap star, wanting to have jewelry, wanting to have girls, and wanting to have money, all that shit is just trying to plug those holes. It’s dangerous because it’s not real.
Do you feel the label and Jay Z believe in you more now?
They definitely believe in me more now. But first of all, Jay Z believed in me enough to sign me, and for that I am forever grateful. Thank God he heard “Lights Please” and those songs I played for him the first meeting. Thank God he signed me off of those. After that, I can’t front. If we asked him honestly, I’m sure he would say he wasn’t sure what I would turn out to be in the grand scheme of things, in terms of commercial success.
What was it like when he put the Roc chain on you?
That was a top life moment. I don’t soak shit up well, but after that night I definitely took a moment to. It wasn’t about that moment of the chain. It was like, it took so long to even get this dude to come out on stage with me. It took so long to get this guy to come to shows.
Did he just show up on his own?
No, we asked him to come. But we still didn’t know if he was going to come. You’re never sure. It was a culmination. And what I’ve realized, now that I’m far removed from that era, is that he could have been letting me grow and do my own thing. He could have looked at me with more confidence than I had in myself, like, “This kid doesn’t need Jay Z to walk out on the stage with him. He doesn’t need Jay Z to get on his song. He can do it without me.”
Would you ever consider retiring—going out on top like Jay? I don’t know. I love doing it, so I’m not going to use that as [a sales pitch], like, “Last album—make sure you go out and buy.” But I’m content if this is my last one, going out like this. Listen to all my music and you’ll hear this nigga who went to New York City and started with a dream; he gained his confidence and his step with The Warm Up and was here to show y’all niggas “I’m the best”—and Friday Night Lights put a stamp on that. Sideline Story was like, “I have to figure this shit out and sell records.” Born Sinner was “Fuck, that wasn’t how I wanted to do it. I gotta make up for that one, I got to get back to myself.” And then fighting through all of that to realize on 2014 Forest Hills Drive, “No, this is where it was always at.”
Like, I’m good.
I’m good. I’m cool. That would be the illest note to leave listeners with.
VIEW FULL DIGITAL INTERVIEW HERE: http://www.complex.com/covers/j-cole-interview-2014-cover-story/