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J. Cole: 'Born' winner
The dark-horse rapper returns with an 'organic' sophomore set

By Kathy Iandoli
Special to MSN Music

In 2011, rapper J. Cole released his debut album, "Cole World: The Sideline Story," and as the first artist signed to Jay-Z's Roc Nation empire, Jermaine Lamarr Cole had several hurdles to overcome by the time that project landed. He was the assumed mentee of Jay-Z (despite never claiming to be) and was continuously questioned about having Hov directly involved with his tracks, while being pressured by the label regarding a solid release date.

With Cole's follow-up, the just-released "Born Sinner," things have changed drastically. J. Cole has proved he has the rap star power (his first album sold more than 218,000 its first week) to join the ranks of his hip- hop predecessors in the hopes of becoming one of the greats. He checks in with MSN Music to discuss his decision to compete with Kanye West and how an organic approach to good music can go a very long way.

MSN Music: How did your mindset change coming into this second project?

J. Cole: I just freed up, like, a lot of space in my head that was being used, always running a million miles per minute. My brain just works like that. The minute the first album dropped, it was like OK, it freed up. It was like I could breathe. So that right there took me to a place where it was like, freedom! There was no pressure. The album was out, so whatever I wanted to say, whatever beat I wanted to make, I could make it. It wasn't necessarily for anything. It was just for the fun. It was just for the moment, because I wanted to make it, as opposed to the past two years when it was like everything I was doing was for the album. It was just way more self-freedom, less brain capacity and pressure being used.

Do you feel that by having that stress off you, creating this project almost felt more organic?

Definitely. Every song on this album – and even songs that didn't make the album – every song that I made during this last year and a half was organic. There were hard points where it was like, some were harder to figure out than others. Just to get "Crooked Smile" to that level required more work than maybe another song, but the initial idea and the reason why we were doing that work was way more organic. It wasn't like [pauses] it wasn't trying. There was a point during the last album where it was like five-six months of trying. Just trying to make a single, just to make the label happy, just to get a release date! That's what the album's about really. That period in time where I was just like, f---ing depressed and didn't even know it. Under mad pressure and stress, just trying to find this s--- and making terrible music. Not terrible, but terrible for my standards. Uninspiring music. So, none of that this time. It was all flowed out organically.

At the 2011 session for "Cole World," when "Mr. Nice Watch" came on, everyone was exhaling, because they're like, "He got his Jay-Z verse!" Now it doesn't matter.

Yeah, exactly.

How has your mentality on that shifted? In the beginning, when "Cole World" came out, you were like the Roc Nation signee. People were really rooting to have you be that position next to Jay and now it's like, you don't need that. You're J. Cole.

Yeah! Yeah, that's a blessing that it happened like that. I used to fall under the same pressure too! Like, I used to be the same way, like, "Damn, is he really going to get on this album? Is he going to do it? Is he going to do the verse?" Because I wanted him on a whole different song, and he ended up liking "Mr. Nice Watch," so ... But I used to do the same thing. I realized quick like, "Aw, man. That doesn't define me." Like, I don't need a Jay-Z feature. That was all from the outside pressure, too. Before I even had my first interviews, like a couple months or a few months after "The Warm Up" came out, they were like, "So, is Jay-Z going to be on the album?!" Next interview it's like, "So, are you going to get Jay-Z on the album?" So that's just like, two years of people asking me that question and I'm like, "Well s---, I hope so!" I realize now that's so small in the grand scheme of my career and where I want to be.

Bing: More on J. Cole

This project doesn't have a lot of cameo features at all.

I was at the end of the album, and I had already said everything that I felt like I needed to say. And people were interviewing me like, "So what features do you have? Do you have any features on the album?" I was just like "Uh, not right now! But you never know!" I started to feel that same pressure, similar to the Jay-Z pressure. People expect you to have features, expect Jay-Z to be on your album. The difference between this and last time: I learned from the first album like, nah, I actually don't want many features! So why would I go look for somebody just because I feel like the people want it? I've already said what I needed to say. Everybody that's on this album is on there because I felt like they would sound good doing what they're doing.

Being a producer and a rapper, how hard is it for you to decide that your tracks are perfect, like a finished product?

It's mad hard, when I think about it, but I just do it. I don't know if I'll ever be completely 100 percent satisfied with anything. Like, I'll always be able to listen and be like, "Ah, man! Maybe I could do that! Maybe I could have did that." I can go back to mixtapes or the albums or even this album and I'm listening through it, and as great as it is, I'll always be able to find something like, "Aw, man, I could have said that one line slightly different!"

How did it feel to have the power to go ahead and determine that you bumped up your release date? On top of all that, putting it against "Yeezus." You came from a situation with "Cole World" where you're like, "Is this ever coming out?" Now you're like, "You know what? I'm going to move it up a week. I have that power now."

Yeah, that's a good point! I mean, when you word it like that, it's incredible. I never looked at it like that. That's just me realizing my own worth and my own power and not waiting around for a label anymore, but having them follow my movements. Like, "We're going to move it up a week. Just make it happen." But my initial thoughts was like, initial confidence was like, "Man, f--- it, let's do it!" And then when I finally announced it, it was like, "Oh s---! Yo, we're really doing this!" It was like, a different feeling. It's almost like when you get on a rollercoaster and you realize, "Oh s---, I can't get off this bitch until it's over!" You know what I mean?

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So what brought on moving the album date up?

It was like, self-preservation. When I dropped "Friday Night Lights," that was self-preservation because I didn't have a release date. So in order to survive – because I had fans that were waiting for a year and a half for an album, and I was already doing interviews for like a year about the album. I had to release music, which just happened to be some of my album songs. A lot of my album songs I had to sacrifice for that, but it was all for the greater cause. It was all just to stay afloat and to stay alive, and raise my profile at the same time. So, same thing with moving the date. I'm not going to come a week after Kanye West. I worked too hard! I'm trying to get to where he's at. I'm not going to come a week after him, and just be surrounded in the shadow of all the hype about his album. You know what I mean? Nah. I believe in what I have, and the quality of what I have. If I didn't believe in the quality of what I had, I wouldn't have done it. But I know what my album is, so I'ma go see him on his date and let the people decide. You might love both. That's fine, but I'm going to put my name in the conversation.

Kathy Iandoli has written for publications including The Source, YRB, BUST, XXL,VIBE, RIME and Vapors, and her work has appeared online at MTV, AOL and MSN Music sites. She is the former Alternatives editor of and the current music editor of

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