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J. Cole: Lights Please

20 November 2010 185 views No Comment

By Atkilt Geleta

On the surface, there’s nothing particularly captivating about Jermaine Lamarr Cole.  Stars are extra-ordinary.  They dress, speak, act and enthrall through peculiarly odd characteristics and personality.  This eccentricity is central to their creativity.  After all, they’re artists.

J. Cole likes basketball, grew up in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and is a Communications and Business graduate from St. John’s university.  That about sums it up.  Or does it?

Then how did he land a deal with Jay-Z, and manage to become a priority artist on the mogul’s Roc Nation management company?  Unlikely as it may have been, he managed to become one of the most anticipated artists in hip-hop music.  He released three critically acclaimed mixtapes – The Come up, The Warm Up, and last week’s Friday Night Lights – and in the best hip-hop tradition provides tidbits and anecdotes of his life on different songs for the listener to string together.  The composite reveals itself slowly, and you find yourself subscribing to his life story.

He raps from the gut.  There’s a zealous hunger and energy in his voice.  There are no gimmicks, no auto-tuned ballads or a well manicured-image.  He makes quality music about ordinary life, and through poetry and cadence makes it fascinating and addictive to listen to.  He jumps on songs alongside former drug dealers with their romanticized accounts of sex, murder and mayhem and he steals the show.  It’s 2010, where J. Cole the former honour roll student and a Jewish Canadian dominate the culture.

Sway spoke with him in the lead up to his December 3rd concert in Toronto.  He’s understated and polite on the phone, only growing excited when a question peaks his interest.  Currently on a busy road schedule, he excused himself and in-between bites of lunch we discussed Friday Night Lights, his upbringing, his future, and the Jay-Z/J. Cole/J. Electronica trifecta at Roc Nation.

So congrats on Friday Night Lights.

Thank you very much man I appreciate that.

I was listening to the mixtape and first off I want to get into your background.  You said you’ve experienced it all from trailer parks to middle-income life.  So give us an idea of your upbringing and Fayetteville.

In Fayetteville man I just feel like I got to experience every part of the city and every part of life other than being wealthy or rich.  So from watching my mom super-duper struggle to – single mother, one income, working at a restaurant or whatever with two kids – to getting a stepfather so now it’s a two person income, we get a little bit nicer house.  So I feel like I done experienced all of those phases of life, and really the best part was just the people and the vast amount of people I got to meet and experience.  Just from my friends that I gravitated to but also I was smart.  I was in the honours classes and the AP program and the AP classes.  So I really got to experience the other side to.  I’m half white but that doesn’t mean I was hanging around white people.  But luckily because of the types of classes I was in I feel like I really got a good sense of how to interact with all types of people.

I noticed that a lot of your music focuses on when you got to New York and beyond, whereas you don’t touch on your childhood that much.

Right, exactly.  I mean, I do kind of though.   If you listen to “Farewell”, you listen to “2Face”, those are like Fayetteville stories you know.  I feel like I mix a lot of [when] I grew up and left out, and a lot of me being in [Fayetteville] trying to find out a way to get to where I want to go.  I feel like it’s a good mixture of both.

Going on to “2Face”, a prevalent theme in your music is you talking about faith and being tested all the time by the devil or what have you.  You even have it on your logo [with the horns and the halo].  So where does [that side of you] come from, it seems like that composes a lot of your content?

Yeah it’s like that line I got [that] goes, “J. Cole set of horns and halo”.  I like using that.  A lot of the God and devil references or whatever – I feel like it’s really what all people go through.  No one person is all the way good, and no one person is all the way bad.  I feel like even if it’s just a small scale we all struggle with good and evil you know what I’m saying?  Even when we feel like we’re good people we fight these demons and these temptations.  That’s why I always focus on or talk about that, that struggle and that battle.  It’s like the classic battle between good and evil.  The horns and the halo, that’s where that come from.

What do you aim to achieve with the first album?  On the mixtape you say, well I’m not sure whether you said it or somebody told you that you got something like an Illmatic.

I do have a lot of material for it, and a lot of great material for it.  It’s sounding incredible.  And I have heard people say, “damn, this is like Illmatic.”  I don’t think it’s like Illmatic but I’ve heard that.  Somebody told me [it’s a] mixture between Illmatic and College Dropout.   I’ve heard these comparisons.  That’s where that line came from.  So yeah I do think it has the possibility to be a classic If I could just stay on the path that I’ve been going.

I’m always interested in the process by which people make music.  I think you’re sort of like and MC’s MC.  I mean you really rap.  So how do you go about crafting a song?

Man, it’s something I’ve been working on for years and trying to figure out.  The way I work, just me personally, I usually do the beat first.  I write lines all the time, and thoughts and ideas and concepts, but I usually just do the beat first.  As soon as I do a beat that hits me and inspires me, I start writing.  That’s usually how my creative process goes.  A lot of time songs just flow out.  “Lights Please” just flowed out, “Losing my Balance” just flowed out.   A lot of times I don’t even go into it knowing the concept, I just write the first line and the song kind of writes itself.

So you’re 25 right? Take away the fact that you’re J. Cole, this guy signed to Roc Nation and whatnot on the come up.  Just looking at yourself as Jermaine, what does it feel like to be surrounding yourself with the Talib Kwelis and Mos Defs, the Kanyes?

It’s incredible, kind of unbelievable.  I always have those unbelievable moments like when Kweli texted me and asked me to get on a song with him, and I was in my bedroom, I hadn’t even changed places yet.  I hadn’t moved out my crib yet so I was still in the same small room that I was in before the deal.  He texted me, I’m reading that text in the room like man, this is the same guy I used to go see in concert, seen him perform so many times.  It’s moments like that, those full circle moments.  Just as a fan man, it’s unbelievable that I’m here.  I know I got a long way to go but it’s a very rewarding feeling to be able to look at some of the things I done so far.

Where does that confidence come from, to jump on a song with a Jay-Z?  Where do you pull from?

I don’t know man.  That just came from him asking me and I had to – I wouldn’t say it was confidence it was like fear almost.  Like oh man, he wants me on a song?  I got to produce, I can’t be whack.  I’m not the type that’s like ‘I’m about to go smash this’. It’s [more] like, ‘I hope I do it’.  That’s always how it is though with me.

I find that with Jay-Z you have arguably the best crutch in the game.  You’re signed to the best that ever did it.  But you’re very much an independent artist, you don’t really lean on that, you don’t promote that too much.

I just try not to because -  I try not to throw up too many Roc signs and scream out too much Roc stuff but that just comes from me just being an independent spirit.  Jay[-Z] built what he built and I appreciate him for letting me even attach myself to that brand but I think it’s a fine line between overdoing it.  I could probably use it a little more but I try to use it just the right amount.  I want people to know yeah he had a Jay cosign but it was pretty obvious that he did this on his own.  I want that satisfaction to be able to say that.

I know it’s early but Jay Electronica signed [to Roc Nation].  There’s the three of you on the label.  So do you have any thoughts of perhaps this being another era like a Bad Boy, like a No Limit, like a Rocafella?

I think it’s too early to call that, it ain’t my label.  It’s Jay’s [Jay-Z’s] call and his decision, I don’t know what his vision is for the label.  Maybe that’s what it is.  If so that sounds fun, that sounds incredible, but I don’t know I’m not sure.  All I know is Jay Electronica is incredible.  So to have him on the label as well, it’s a beautiful feeling.   It makes me feel even better about the situation.

On one of your songs you say “I may arrive last, but when it’s all said and done, I’m a be ahead of them”.  A long time ago Drake commented that he saw himself as the [new] Jay-Z  and you as the [new] Nas.  Now that some time has passed, what do you feel about the statement?

Now that the situation’s over I just look it at it for what it was.  It’s just a compliment man, that was it.  It just showed you what he thinks of me.  You know to compare me to Nas – Nas is a legend.  Anytime somebody compares you to Nas is a compliment.  I just feel like that’s how he felt.  I don’t think that I’m Nas or Jay, I just want to be the first J. Cole you know?  But I know exactly where he was coming from when he said it, so it’s all love.

Last thing any comments, anything you want to say to Toronto before coming here [on Dec 3rd]?

Aw man, I cannot wait.  That’s one of the shows I’m looking forward to most.  I haven’t performed there yet, other than on stage with Jay.  I’ve done a lot of the major cities in America.  I always like to figure out my fan base you know what I’m saying?  If I do Chicago and the show’s sold out, or if I do Detroit and there’s a little more room for people, and I’m just interested to see what Toronto is like.  I hear that I got a lot of fans but I never really had time to get there.  I’ve heard it’s a beautiful city, so I can’t wait.

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