Rapper J. Cole

The prolific rapper discusses his hit album, “2014 Forest Hills Drive,” and its coinciding worldwide tour.

Widely considered one of the "most talented storytellers of the new hip-hop generation," J. Cole has managed to become the rare artist who has maintained his integrity as a contemplative lyricist while also achieving consistent commercial success. Born Jermaine Lamarr Cole on a U.S. Army base in Frankfurt, Germany, his early musical influences include Michael Jackson, 2Pac, and Ice Cube. J. Cole made his first song on a beat machine at 15 years old. A superb student, Cole attended St. John's University on an academic scholarship, and graduated Magna Cum Laude. His career breakthrough came when he got his demo into the hands of hip-hop powerhouse Jay-Z, who would later ask Cole to record a 37-second verse on “A Star Is Born” from Jay-Z’s album, "The Blueprint 3." J. Cole then became the first artist to sign with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label. He then 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. He is currently on a three-part, 64 city tour for his third studio album "2014 Forest Hills Drive," which also debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 Chart.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, a conversation with J. Cole, widely considered one of the most talented storytellers of the new hip-hop generation. His latest album is called “2014 Forest Hills Drive”. He’s currently on a 64-city tour to promote the project. A conversation with J. Cole coming up right now.

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Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Tavis: J. Cole is widely considered one of the most talented storytellers of the new hip-hop generation. His latest album is called “2014 Forest Hills Drive”. We’ll explain that in a moment. He’s currently on a three-part 64-city tour to promote the project.

Before we start our conversation with J. Cole, a look at the music video for the song “Apparently” from the album, “2014 Forest Hills Drive”.


Tavis: You have an amazing gift for storytelling.

J. Cole: Thank you. That means a lot. Thank you.

Tavis: I mean, seriously, an amazing gift. That gift comes from where?

Cole: Oh, man, I’m not sure. I’m not sure. I just know I started gravitating to that. Like I started off just rapping about nothing.

Tavis: Yeah [laugh].

Cole: More like battle raps. Like I’m better than your raps. You know what I mean? Once I really started like to fall in love with the art more and like really pay attention to my favorites, Pac, Nas, it was the stories that I gravitated to.

I think about all my favorite artists, period, and they’re just amazing storytellers and that’s what I just, you know, emulated and eventually there’s been points in my life where it’s like to be a rapper, you got to always keep your pen sharp and like be ready to go in the battle anytime in the competition, the sport of rap.

And there’s been times when my career was just like that’s so far from where I want to be. You know, it’s like I’m just interested in telling stories and, you know, getting across a message and a theme. And if I get chills, that’s when I know. If I tell a story that’s like, ah, that’s when I know.

Tavis: But the stories that you tell–and this is true for some artists and not true for other artists–the stories that you tell are, especially on this project, such personal stories.

Cole: Right.

Tavis: And it seems to me–I’m not an artist–but it seems to me that one has to get to a place of feeling a certain level of comfort to be transparent enough to share those stories. So how does one navigate to that particular place?

Cole: You know, it was funny. I was telling these stories just–I’m a bedroom artist. I come from the bedroom generation of artists where we could just–I got my first beat machine. I was making beats downstairs in the house. I was writing in my room. You know, I had this door closed.

So when you got the door closed and you’re writing these songs, no one’s around to hear them. So I had these songs that were like, say, super personal details about my life would like really give you insight that some people might find embarrassing or might not want to reveal that type of information. But for me, it was like no one was listening.

It was like, you know, I don’t really talk about my problems with my friends. I’m a real introverted person, so that was my way of getting it out. And I never thought about the other part that was like, oh, somebody’s gonna hear this. You know what I mean? One day, somebody’s gonna hear some…

Tavis: In your case, a whole bunch of people are gonna hear it, yeah [laugh].

Cole: Right. So I got in the habit of telling those stories when no one was listening. It just so happens now we’re at a point in my career where like everybody’s listening. You know, it’s cool.

Tavis: There’s something about the relationship that some artists have to certain places, obviously, people and things. Tell me about “2014 Forest Hills Drive”.

Cole: That was the last home, I guess, that I had. You know, the last place to call home. It’s the last place I lived in in Fayetteville, North Carolina where I’m from. And to move there from where we were coming from was like an ultimate come-up. It was like, you know…

Tavis: You went from what to what?

Cole: I went from 807 Lewis Street to 2014 Forest Hills Drive. Before 807 Lewis Street, we were in a trailer park in Spring Lake. So from the trailer park at Spring Lake to 807 Lewis Street which was a tiny house, like still amazing.

Compared to the trailer park, it was incredible. It was like me and my brother shared a room, like small brick house, you know, tiny. The furnace was on the ground. You had to tiptoe past the furnace or you may burn your feet.

A tiny house, but it was like if I’d have spent the rest of my adolescence in that house, it would have been cool. But my mom got married and you take her $30,000 a year income with my stepfather’s $30,000 a year income and we just entered a whole new tax bracket. You know what I mean?

So it was like she comes home and tells us that we’re moving and it was about a mile and a half away to 2014 Forest Hills Drive, which was like I got my own room now, my brother got his room, we got a front yard. There’s trees. You know what I mean? There’s a back yard. We had space for like dogs. We had like six pit bulls in the back.

And, mind you, this neighborhood was not built for pit bulls. This neighborhood was like 70-year-old, 80-year-old ladies that had been there their whole lives. It was like here we come, this young family playing Tupac loud, Stevie Wonder on weekends, spades tournaments and all that. You know, like…

Tavis: And pit bulls in the back yard [laugh].

Cole: And pit bulls in the back. Like we was in over our heads and, you know, guess who just moved into the neighborhood. That was us. But for me, it was like, oh, my God. That’s what that house represented to me. It was like I can’t believe we’re here. And then it was the place that I started dreaming about doing what I’m doing right now.

That was the house that I started rapping in. That’s the house where I made my first beats, wrote my first raps, had my first real crushes, my first real job, made the basketball team. A lot of my great memories from my teenage years are in that house.

Tavis: So you start there and I get that journey. And every Black family is they’re blessed, every family if they’re blessed, has that journey where they’re like George and Weezy. They’re moving on up, right? Then you end up in college. Great school. You end up being a magna cum laude graduate.

Cole: Yeah, St. John’s.

Tavis: St. John’s. I think a lot–I’m asking this for a particular reason. I think you’ll get it. How does a magna cum laude college graduate end up being a rapper? You take my point, obviously.

Cole: Yeah, for sure. It’s definitely an unlikely story. You know, in the story line of rappers that have come before or what they try to portray a rapper to be or what rappers have portrayed themselves to be, it was not cool even for a rapper to even go to–even Kanye was the closest one, but he had to be the college dropout [laugh].

You know what I mean? All right, you dropped out, so we like you. But to be a college graduate, you know, with amazing grades like wasn’t the typical story. But the thing for me was I was always a great student.

I don’t know if I was–if I could go back and do it again, I would have really learned the material. I was great being–I knew how to pass the tests. The night before, study, cram, go in, knock the test out. I do my work, I do my papers. But in terms of retaining the information, I don’t think I did a good job of doing that.

And I don’t think our school systems are set up–if a guy like me can have straight A’s and graduate college magna cum laude, but still now just turn 30 and feel like, man, I didn’t really retain it, then I feel like that says a lot about our education system. That you can like squeeze by and know how to get by. You know what I mean?

Tavis: But it says more than that. You’re being modest, but what it says is, with all due respect to teachers who I think are the most under-appreciated, under-valued resource in our country…

Cole: For sure.

Tavis: No doubt about that. But what it says about the system is that the system teaches to the test now more than ever. So if you can master the system of, you know, acing the test, then you get through.

Cole: Absolutely.

Tavis: Don’t mean you learn nothing. I’m not saying you. I’m just saying that it means that–that’s what it means, though, and that’s an indictment, to your point, on our system writ large.

Cole: I wholeheartedly believe in that and agree with that. I feel like I hope the day comes when it’s not about the tests. Because everybody learns differently. Everybody learns at different paces and different speeds.

If you learn something during this chapter this week, this might not have been my strong point. But if I don’t catch it this week, it’s done. We’re never coming back to this. You know, it’s over. But my point is that I was a great student in that regard. I knew how to pass the class and I wanted to.

I’m a competitor, so I didn’t feel good if they passed back the test and somebody got a 95 and I got an 85. I’m gonna feel a way. It’s like that with rap too. It’s the same thing. I’m a natural competitor, so my pride for myself, I was always on the path for college.

My mom tells the story about when I was in first grade, you know, they have parent-teacher conferences. She came to my first grade teacher and the teacher was like, “What are you doing at home?” She was like, “I don’t know. What’s going on?”

She was like, “Well, he comes up to me every day asking me what his grade is.” Every day in first grade, I would go to the teachers like, “Do you have my average?” She’s like, “Yo, it’s first grade.” You get a satisfactory or unsatisfactory.

Tavis: You’re not even getting grades yet [laugh].

Cole: You’re not even getting grades, but I was already on it. Like what’s my average? You don’t have an average, kid. So I was always on the path for college. Before I ever dreamed about being a rapper, I was dreaming about going to college.

Tavis: There are a lot of folk who have these dreams of being an artist in whatever field it might be, and they can’t compartmentalize. That is to say, they can’t put those dreams on hold or work those dreams out in the best way they can while they work toward getting their degree. We see it, of course, with athletes all the time.

Everybody wants to go hardship. I’m not demonizing people. I’m just asking how it is that you stuck with it. Put those dreams wherever you needed to put them to get the degree and then you come back and you still have phenomenal international success.

Cole: I think I wanted all of those things that bad. A lot of people have dreams, but how bad do you want that thing? Because if you really want it bad enough, you’re gonna find a way to make it happen. And for me, I wanted the degree since I was a kid.

I wanted that for my mother. I’m the first person in my family to go to college and graduate. My mom didn’t get a chance to go to college. My brother, he didn’t go to college, you know. And my father didn’t go to college.

I’m the first one to do that. I’ve always wanted that and then I wanted to be a rapper. I wanted to make it so bad and not just make it, but to go down as one of those guys really bad. I wanted both of those things. One doesn’t take away from the other. It’s an excuse.

Now if I didn’t really want the degree, I could use my dream of being a rapper to like, you know what, I wanted to do this anyway, but I wanted both. I wanted both on my resume, so therefore I did what it took to get both of those things. That’s been my whole life.

In high school, I had the grades, but then I was on the basketball team, and then I had a job. I was working at the skating rink and then I was still going out on weekends and I had a social life. So I’ve always been able to juggle these things ’cause I wanted all of these things.

If you want something, you’re gonna find a way to make it happen. If you only want one thing, you’re only gonna focus on that one thing, and school’s gonna fall by the wayside or something’s gonna fall by the wayside. But I wanted it and I wasn’t gonna let it fall.

Tavis: In your field, how does one keep–we have so many examples of this. I could do this all night. But how does one keep the competitive spirit that artists in your genre, rap artists, have from becoming beef in the music? Or is that, you as you see it, just a way for people to sell records? The beef.

Cole: Yeah. Well, you know what? It’s both. On one level, it’s like a way to bring attention to yourself and your project is like beef, you know, drama, controversy, ’cause it sells. People like that. That’s why reality TV is doing what it’s doing. But on the other hand, it really is a petty level of like jealousy and envy.

I feel like we don’t have that much in today’s era of hip-hop. You know what I mean? But that’s a part of it. So on one hand, it is like just a quick way to get some attention on you. On the other hand, it is like a real petty jealousy, insecurity.

That’s what it all is because, even though I’m a competitor, I feel two ways about competition in rap and hip-hop because hip-hop has like the potential and at times has been like the most potent art form, the most powerful art form, because your ability to say exactly how you feel not in a vague way like how rock lyrics are or like how, you know, rhythm and blues like in a real vague.

No, rap is like very detailed and this is how I feel and this is exactly what I’m feeling. You know, so many words in one song. You have that power with hip-hop, so it could be the most powerful art form.

I feel like when you throw competition into the mix, it like dilutes it or like it takes away from the art form and it becomes about ego which is really just fueled by insecurity. I can’t speak for us all, but I could speak for myself.

Or even I can’t speak for Michael Jordan, but I always use Michael Jordan as an example. How can a man be so great to even where in his Hall of Fame speech he’s still like throwing shots at the guy that made the basketball team…

Tavis: We all say that, exactly, yeah.

Cole: I think it comes from rejection. Like that feeling of rejection was so intense when he got cut from his high school team that he never wanted to feel that again. He never wanted it. So ultimately your greatness is fueled by your ego which is fueled in this greatness is fueled by insecurity.

So it’s like that’s why I feel the way about hip-hop is so much insecurity within that competition. So even though I’m competitive, I try to catch myself sometimes. Like, well, why are you competitive? Like why do you want to beat somebody so bad? What place is that coming from?

Tavis: And what do you think drives that in you? I ask because–I was waiting for you to finish–I ask because while we’re all human, we’re not human and divine, we’re just human, so we all have insecurities and we all have issues, to be sure. We’re all cracked vessels, to put another way.

And yet, I don’t see the insecurity in your story. I don’t see the rejection in your story. I see a brother who has overcome and succeeded in a variety of ways who’s worked his hustle and has been rewarded for it now.

So, again, not everybody’s this way, but if rejection drives us, if insecurity drives us, what drives you? Because I don’t see where that plays a part in your story.

Cole: I’m not sure. But I don’t know if I’ve given it a whole lot of thought. You know, family issues, man. I didn’t grow up with my father. You know what I mean? I feel like that’s an early thing that people don’t really analyze ’cause we get over it so quick. You don’t grow up with your father in your life.

It’s like it just becomes normal, but that’s the ultimate attachment that’s not there. That’s a void in your life ultimately that’s there. You know what I mean? And my mother’s like she remarries, a stepfather who me and my brother don’t like. You know, we hate this guy.

He’s like, you know, I just feel like that–and her relationship with him. That’s weird with families. It’s like when your mother remarries, there’s a whole new love that’s given to like a new man. And the kids sit around like–and we don’t know it at the time.

I answered that by like going in my room and like staying to myself. And my brother answered in his own way. But I look back and maybe those are the things that led to like, you know, I gotta go do something. I gotta be great.

You look at Steve Jobs. You know, read his biography, his adoption was like a fuel. I don’t think he realized until he got older, but his adoption was like a fuel for him. But that was the ultimate form of rejection, you know, like your parents, your mother after birthing you says I don’t want you. So before you even know it, like that’s the ultimate form of rejection.

So if I can answer that question, maybe just growing up without a father, you know, my mother being in another relationship, me just having to entertain myself. You know what I’m saying? And her working, so it’s like maybe, if I just had to throw it out there.

Tavis: I say this only to make a point, not because I’m trying to pump myself up. But when J. walked on the set today, the first thing he did–we’d never met before. He walked on the set and asked me if I would sign a copy of my book that came out a few months ago about Dr. King.

I’m blown away. I’m about to meet J. Cole [laugh] and he walks in and asks me to autograph a copy of my King book for him, which I did before we sat down to start this conversation.

Cole: Thank you, man. We can start on it, man. It’s all good.

Tavis: No, no, no. I’m only raising it because you’ll take my point. I’m raising it because you walk in with a book in your hand that you asked me to sign about Dr. King. You know referenced in this conversation having read the book about Steve Jobs. It’s clear to me that you are a reader.

You know the old adage. Reading is fundamental. But for a rapper, how does being a voracious reader, reading the variety of stuff that you obviously read that I’m picking up on this conversation, how does that aid and abet your artistry?

Cole: Well, I can’t really make a correlation between the two because I’m only now in my older age, you know, I just turned 30, so in the past few…

Tavis: Oh, older age [laugh].

Cole: Older than I was 10 years ago.

Tavis: Yeah, okay, okay, okay.

Cole: Not been rapping for a long time and only in the past few years have I tried to make a commitment to reading. So to call myself like a voracious reader, I can’t even take credit for that. It’s like I saw the video about your book and was instantly like I gotta get it. I got on my phone and I bought the physical.

So right now, I’m like shuffling between four books. I’m trying to train myself in the past few years to become a reader so that by the time I’m 35, 40, 45, 50, I am a voracious reader.

Tavis: So let me rephrase my question then. What sparked that?

Cole: The feeling that I told you about earlier which was kind of a regret that, back in school even though I got the grades, I didn’t…

Tavis: Retain it.

Cole: Retain it, and I didn’t put the importance on it. I didn’t know that I would want to know this stuff when I was older. I did know that I wanted good grades. I knew that I didn’t want to be one of the kids failing. I did know that I wanted to go to a great school. I didn’t know that I would want to know these things later in my life.

And now that I’m older, I want to know about King’s final year. I want to know about Malcolm X and like, you know, I want to know about American history, the real American history. I want to know about the history of North America, period.

I want to know about these things and I want to be informed because, as I read and learn more about that, it helps me see where we’re at right now and the lay of the land right now and exactly what we’re going through as a people, as a country, as a world.

So that’s what’s sparking it right now. I didn’t know this when I was 16, 20, 21. You know, even though I was more so than my friends, I was interested in these things, I still wasn’t as much as I am now. So the goal is, by the time I’m 40, I want to be addicted to reading.

Tavis: I want to come back to “2014 Forest Hills Drive”, the new project. You have a beautiful way, as I said at the very top of this conversation, of telling stories and you do it without being preachy, without being didactic. And having a beat underneath it obviously helps. The right beat helps.

Cole: Thank you.

Tavis: But you get these messages out and you do it in a variety of ways. I’m gonna just run through some tracks right quick on this new project. Tell me about “Tale of 2 Citiez”.

Cole: “Tale of 2 Citiez”. The perspective on that song is I’m speaking from two different perspectives. The first verse is like more of my perspective as someone who, now that I’ve moved to this new house in this new neighborhood, I’m more like a foreigner to this old neighborhood.

But I have dreams. I’m now getting a more aerial view of the city. And not only do I have an aerial view of the city, I know that there’s more in the world that I want.

I got dreams of being a rapper or being something greater and doing something with my life and getting out of this place. So I take a trip to the other side of town just to get a peek, just to get some inspiration. You know what I mean? Just to tell a story.

And my dreams of getting out of this place and maybe becoming a rapper, maybe making some money off of this thing and buying my mom a house, those are my dreams and this is the way that I see it. Because a new opportunity has been given to me, I have more doors that have opened up in my mind.

The second verse is someone with similar ambition, maybe the same level of ambition as me, but he’s still from this side. He’s never left this side of the world and he probably will never leave. So therefore his ambitions lead him to not dreams of going to college, not dreams of being an artist who makes money off of his art.

As far as he can see with this ambition is illegal, which it’s illegal to the world, but it’s not illegal to us. It’s normal for us. This is the way you do it. You want to make some money, you start here at this level. You break this down, you chop this up, you bag this up, you make a flip, then you re-up. You keep doing that until you reach a certain level.

He has the same ambition as me, but we’re from the same city, two different parts of the city. His ambition is leading him to prison or the cemetery. My ambition is leading me to college. You know what I mean? So it’s like that. That’s the logic and the story line behind that song.

Tavis: “Fire Squad”?

Cole: “Fire Squad”. That’s just an assault. That’s that competitive deal we talked about [laugh]. That’s just letting the world know like, as a rapper, I’m not to be messed with. That’s as simple as that.

Tavis: There you go. I thought I’d give you a chance to put that out there [laugh].

Cole: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Tavis: And last but not least, “Love Yourz”.

Cole: “Love Yourz”.

Tavis: Great track.

Cole: Oh, man, that sums up the entire album and just what I’ve learned in my career, and that’s what this entire album is about. When you’re young, or when I was young, I thought that success was all I needed.

That’s what was gonna bring the happiness, buying my mom a house, the fame, the accolades, having people say, oh, you are the best in the game. I thought those would be the things that would bring happiness. And then when those things came, the happiness wasn’t there.

I realized why that was. There was such an attempt to achieve these things and to keep going that you lose sight of the people and the blessings that you have around you. You’re so focused on the next success, the next step in your career, the next check, whatever it is, and you forget the fact that you have these things that seem small if you’re looking that way.

But if you look this way, you realize they’re the only things that matter. That’s your mother, that’s your family, that’s love and that’s what that song’s about.

Tavis: “Love Yourz”.

Cole: “Love Yourz”.

Tavis: And very quickly, “2014 Forest Hills Drive”, you own the home.

Cole: Yeah, I bought the house. I didn’t even tell you. The house got foreclosed.

Tavis: Got foreclosed.

Cole: Yeah, they foreclosed that on my mom when I was 18.

Tavis: But you bought it back now.

Cole: I bought it back.

Tavis: What you gonna do with it?

Cole: So we’re giving it away. Hopefully by the end of this year, we’ll have a family pick. Every year, every one or two years, it’ll be like a haven for a single mother that needs it. I just want her kids to feel the same way that I felt when we got there, you know, to have their own room and a front yard.

So that’s what–I don’t need the house, so it’s like that’s what we’re gonna do with the house.

Tavis: He is the best his generation has produced and the name is J. Cole. If you don’t know about him, ask your kids [laugh]. The new project is called “2014 Forest Hills Drive”. It’s a good one. You can get this one for your kids and for yourself. It’s a great project and, J. Cole, I am honored to have you on this program, sir.

Cole: Thank you, brother.

Tavis: A delight to meet you, man.

Cole: Pleasure.

Tavis: Stay strong in your work and your witness. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: July 24, 2015 at 2:23 pm