It's a 107-degree day in Dallas and he's due onstage in a few hours, but J. Cole has a mission he must complete. On “Album of the Year Freestyle” -- a song he released early in August to celebrate KOD, his most recent Billboard 200 No. 1, and preview a new project, The Off Season -- he shouts out Oak Cliff, a neighborhood in the city where the crime rate is twice that of the national average and poverty affects too many households. That’s where Cole and his small entourage are headed this afternoon, ahead of his tour stop tonight at the American Airlines Center.
Residents of the neighborhood have been tweeting at Cole, begging him to attend their drive for school supplies, the Back to School Festival. Cole made a plan to show up -- no advance notice or publicity -- with a U-Haul stocked with $20,000 worth of goods. But he forgot that families tend to come to these drives early, collect what’s needed, then move on to the next worry. Still, when we pull into the parking lot around 1:30 p.m., there are a couple hundred people hanging out in the park. The blacked-out Suburban SUV and its tinted windows are a dead giveaway that someone of note must be inside, and two kids guess it’s Cole before he even steps out.
Within minutes, Cole and his security guard, Elijah, are swarmed by fans armed with phones for selfies and newly donated backpacks for signing. “Oh, my God, I’m about to cry,” squeals a preteen girl from within the crowd. “Album of the Year” starts blaring over the speakers, and a young man on the sidelines plays along to its “Oochie Wally” instrumental on his trumpet.
Cole opts not to formally announce his donation, but instead to take pictures, give out hugs and autographs, and talk one-on-one with fans. “He got a show tonight, he didn’t have to come to this,” says one parent. Even after he’s whisked back into the SUV, he rolls down his window and offers a young woman with dreams of starting a charter school the email address of someone at the label he co-founded, Dreamville, who might be able to help.
“Even though I clearly am one, I don’t live my life like a celebrity,” Cole tells me when we eventually sit down to talk, backstage at the arena while his openers Young Thug and Jaden Smith perform. But his fame is harder than ever to ignore: In April, Cole released his fifth album, KOD (an acronym for Kids on Drugs, King Overdosed and Kill Our Demons), with less than a week’s notice, earning him his fifth consecutive No. 1 studio album. It was the biggest week for a rapper since his good friend and collaborator Kendrick Lamar released DAMN. in April 2017, the then-biggest week of the year and the then-third-highest streaming week ever recorded.
As a kid, Cole spent summers in Dallas with his father, an Army vet who had separated from his mother, a United States Postal Service worker. Cole, his mother and his older brother, Zach, relocated from a military base in Frankfurt, Germany -- where Jermaine Lamarr Cole was born in 1985 -- to Fayetteville, N.C. Nowadays, he’s back in North Carolina, living in Raleigh with his wife and toddler son. In Dallas today, he wears variations of the same outfit onstage and off: T-shirt or tank top, basketball shorts and sneakers. His shoulder-length dreadlocks and gangly, 6-foot-2-inch frame are the only way to clock him in a crowd. To those who pay celebrities no mind -- Cole’s ideal consumers -- he might as well be a Mavericks rookie who got separated from his team.
“I’m a different artist than Cole,” writes Young Thug over email, acknowledging that the two of them touring together might be “unexpected.” In fact, Thug’s flamboyantly left-of-center presentation and sound make a certain sense paired with Cole’s proudly unflashy image. As Thug puts it, their connection is “deeper than music. It’s a vibe.”
The side of fame that he experiences at the charity event agrees with Cole. It’s why he protested in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014 and joined the 2015 Million Man March in Washington, D.C. “I love it in the sense that I’m providing something to you. I’m serving you,” he says. “It’s a real connection.” Then he grimaces. “But when it’s the world grabbing at it, I didn’t give you that. I didn’t authorize it. You’re just addicted to the drama and the gossip.”
Cole has done only a few interviews in the past two years, most recently with 18-year-old Miami rapper Lil Pump -- to bury the hatchet following a minor dust-up that resulted in the KOD track “1985,” a paternal rebuke to the SoundCloud generation of rappers -- and radio host Angie Martinez. “Might he sell a few more albums or get a few more clicks if he talked more? Maybe,” writes Martinez in an email. But, she continues, “in a time where people chronically overshare, there aren’t many artists that make people stop what they’re doing to hear what they have to say. Cole holds one of those few prestigious slots.”
In our interview, though, continued after his own set, Cole is anything but quiet, often clapping his hands for emphasis as he wrestles with ideas about compassion, cancel culture and his own ambivalent relationship to fame. Cole, who is executive-producing the upcoming Swizz Beatz album, Poison, plans to take next year off from touring to work on The Off Season, which may become an EP or a full mixtape; his next album, The Fall Off; and a side project for Kill Edward, the pitch-shifted alter-ego he debuted on KOD. He’s also devoting more energy to Dreamville, recently aiding Hurricane Florence victims in Fayetteville through its foundation and planning the first-ever Dreamville Festival for April 2019 in Raleigh. “I swear to God, I be thinking about how to get unfamous, but I know it’s impossible,” he says. Instead, he’s just looking to stay purposefully relevant -- because it could be worse: “You can be irrelevant and still be famous.”
Why have you opened up to more press recently?
You want to know the honest truth why I did this interview?
Ib [Ibrahim Hamad, Cole’s manager] and the team thought it would be good. No disrespect to Billboard, but I literally was not in the mood. I was fine.
Fine how? Not needing this?
Just [not] having the desire to do it. And sometimes, when I do do [press], I end up feeling like it wasn’t fulfilling. But I also understand I’ve been stuck in my ways. 2014 was probably the year I decided, “Fuck it, I’m through trying to play whatever game is going on.” Then shit worked so well I fell all the way back. I’m on the other extreme now. I don’t want to be so stubborn where I don’t listen to people. I’m also building a company, a record label, with other artists. Their success, in some way, may depend on me being a little more present or accessible.
Do you think it benefits celebrities to only engage with media on their terms?
It’s hard for me to answer. I live very low key but also accessible, so I can’t even speak for them. I go to the store, I go play ball. You wouldn’t know because it’s not anything newsworthy, but I see real people every day. When you mention celebrities, I view them as a fan who’s like, “Oh, wow, that’s Beyoncé. That’s Taylor Swift.” And I don’t view myself in the same light.
You do numbers like them.
For sure, I’m aware.
That crowd earlier today -- they love you. It’s worship, but rooted in love.
I spend too much time focusing on the negatives of it, and it makes me resistant to embrace it. I consider love [to be] respect, acknowledgement of skill and talent. That was always the rush I got from rapping. Of course, there was a money aspect to it. I want to take care of my mom and my family. The part that I never considered was being famous. I overlooked the shit that would come with [success]. Now I’m like, “Fuck, I can’t.”
What gets on your radar? How much media do you consume?
I’m in the Dreamville [group] chat on the executive side, and in there, there are updates about such-and-such dropped an album. Then I’m in the sports chat, which also bleeds over into everything. There’s not many big things that miss me.
What keeps you from sharing your opinions on Twitter?
If I’m in a conversation with somebody and it’s natural and it’s organic, I’m going to speak freely. But rarely do I feel the need to hop on Twitter or social media and chime in, especially on rap and music shit. This shit is not real. This shit is fucking fake. This shit is high school. This shit is fucking celebrity worship. In college, we had this running joke that all our meetings of the Black Student Union -- that I ended up becoming president of, but I was just a member my freshman and sophomore years -- always eventually ended up talking about Jay-Z. No matter what black topic, social issue or community shit we was talking about, somebody brought up fucking Jay-Z. It never failed.
Celebrity drama is one thing, but what about serious matters like politics?
I might not be on Twitter at that time. I might not be in the mode of confidently expressing my opinions via text. I speak better from the heart, out loud. And when it really moves me, I’ll do it. But politics really doesn’t interest me anymore. I try to stay as far away from politics as possible.
I don’t click the links. The headlines are enough. I understand there is a segment of politics where you have people -- and this is the part I respect -- who truly are trying to use it as a tool for change, and they devote their life to grassroots voter registration and shit like that. They’re living a life that’s unselfish. But the politics we’re talking about [slaps table] is Trump headlines.
What are your thoughts on those headlines?
We’re really silly. Human beings are easily manipulated and distracted. You couldn’t have told anybody 10 years ago that this would be the landscape of American discourse. That these would be the topics of conversation: fucking Kardashian drama and Trump drama.
Did you vote in 2016?
No, I didn’t.
Because Hillary Clinton wasn’t somebody that was motivating me to go vote. If it was Bernie Sanders, I would’ve showed up and voted. I would’ve been the first one in line, no bullshit. No disrespect to Hillary.
Did you do any campaigning for Bernie?
No. Because I don’t care to lend my voice for a politician at the end of the day.
Do you think that might change by 2020 or the midterms?
The next election? It depends on who they put up there. Trust me, I hate to be a person who’s even promoting that I didn’t vote. Actually, with Trump in office, I love that America gets to see the truth. If Hillary Clinton was in office, it would be the most fucking disingenuous shit because everybody would be thinking that everything’s cool because we got an incredibly qualified female president. Which would’ve been amazing on so many levels. But all the shit we see right now would’ve still existed; it would’ve just been quiet. And I prefer this shit to be out loud. I prefer an honest America. I prefer the world seeing that, yes, we’re a country that is dumb enough -- no disrespect -- [that] we got duped into electing Donald Trump.
Bringing it back to music: You’re famously averse to features and outside producers. Would experimenting with a camp and opening up your creative process ever appeal to you?
No, never. Being collaborative, yes, but being ultra collaborative, nah. I don’t want “Give me your best song” and pick from them. I don’t even have a lot of rapper friends.
Do you ever feel like you’re out of step with your peers?
I don’t look at it as they’re running left and I’m running right. I’m following my inspiration and where that’s going to lead me.
Your criticisms were fair, but some people saw “1985” as finger wagging. Do you think the song came down too hard on the SoundCloud generation?
I don’t look at it as being harsh. I look at it as being a rap response record. It’s not even to someone [specific]; it’s a group of people who were on some “Fuck J. Cole” shit, which, when I started peeking my head back into what was going on, was a shock. But even while I made the song, I was fucking with these kids. I was a fan. I was riding around playing Lil Pump just because I wanted to understand what it was, and the more I understood, it was like, “Damn.” I was writing that song from a place of, like, smacking your little brother. I still love you, but I’ma smack you.
Because you’re quiet on social media, no one knows where your mind is. It leads to misunderstandings about you.
Yeah, and they paint the narrative. That’s real. “Finger wagging,” that’s a phrase that clearly gets shared around. I’m like, “Y’all don’t even understand.” This happened when [2014 album] Forest Hills Drive came out, and I saw someone review it. It was this white girl -- no disrespect to white girls, that’s just what she was -- and she pinpointed a few lines and tried to make it sound like that’s what I was saying. I’m like, “Damn, you really missed what I was attempting to do.” I saw that with “1985,” too. I would just chalk it up to, they’re not rap fans. They don’t understand subtlety and nuance in the genre. But what you just said is way more of an on-point reasoning. I made that song a year before, and so much shit happened, mentally, leading up to the song and after it. And it’s like people never even get a chance to hear that side of me. But I don’t care to correct it. I don’t have an urge or a desire to be like, “Hey, y’all, you know when I did ‘1985,’ I wasn’t really finger wagging.” It’s not my job to correct the narrative.
When XXXTentacion died, you tweeted that he had “a strong desire to be a better person.” Did you know him?
I spoke to him on FaceTime one day in February for, like, three hours. His management reached out to Ib and asked if he could FaceTime me or call me. It was a super-intense conversation. He left a mark on me, just as a person.
What did he want to talk about?
Pssht. He started off the conversation literally on some, like -- he didn’t even say hello. He started off basically saying, “I’m not on your level yet.” He was talking about spiritually and mentally, and that was intense because I was like, “Huh? I’m not on no level.” He was praising me while also saying he was going to achieve whatever it is he felt that I had. I’ve dealt with mentally ill people in my life before, many of them. And right away, I notice that this kid is super passionate and smart, but I could also see that he was so deep in his mind.
When I found out [about the abuse allegations against him], my first response was, “Man, I hope maybe one day I’ll get a chance to talk to this kid and figure out if there’s any place that I can help.” Because anybody who would do the shit that he did… Hurt people hurt people. I’ve walked through prisons and talked to these dudes who got life. They took someone’s life at 16 or 17 years old. You haven’t had the chance to process your trauma at that age. I’ma be sympathetic to a kid who has clearly been through so much fucked-up shit that he inflicted this on someone else.
How did you process the allegations of abuse that Kelis made against your hero Nas, who was an adult during their relationship?
Yeah, that hurt. I ain’t going to lie. That hurts. [Pauses.] It feels weird because I fuck with Nas, but I just have to be honest. I came up seeing too much fucked-up shit for that to be acceptable. I don’t care who it is. I don’t fuck with people abusing women, and I don’t fuck with people not taking care of their kids.
Do you see there eventually being more consequences for this type of behavior?
So your question is, Will there come a day when news like that can shut down somebody’s entire shit?
Right. Do you think cancel culture has any legitimacy?
That’s tough because we’re talking about black women. If it was a white woman involved with these allegations, then sadly -- I’m realizing as I’m talking to you -- maybe people wouldn’t cancel them just as quick, but labels would be forced to cancel, because white outrage is way more powerful than black outrage, unfortunately. When white people start getting outraged about this type of shit, then maybe something will happen.
Despite your discomfort with fame, people look to you as a sort of moral authority. Someone said to me at the charity event that you’re like the Harry Belafonte of rap.
Really? He’s a legend.
Do you want that responsibility?
No, because there’s a long history of activism and standing for something, and I haven’t done enough. I’m too selfish for that, and one day, I hope that I’m not. Right now, it’s about me, family and the music or any creative pursuits that I do. That’s selfish. I hope I do more for the community. People give me props now, but the truth is, I live my life very selfishly. The little shit I did today, that’s nothing. Harry Belafonte put his money where his mouth was and in the streets. I haven’t reached that point yet.
Putting Dreamville On The Map
Four years ago, J. Cole began tuning out music industry chatter because “it was too draining to worry about that shit all the time.” But now, as the artists on his 11-year-old Dreamville label -- a roster of eight, including himself -- gain traction, his mindset has changed. Dreamville, a joint venture with Interscope (Cole is also signed to Roc Nation), “is bigger than me,” he says. “I need to know if there’s anything I can give to [my artists]. I’m more engaged right now because I feel like I need to be.”
“The label’s sense of community comes from Cole,” adds Ibrahim “Ib” Hamad, Dreamville’s co-founder/president and Cole’s manager. Three of the label’s most prominent artists are proving that, as Cole says, “the music is too good” not to support.
Known for his smooth, jazzy production, the 31-year-old Sudanese-American rapper from Queens has three Billboard 200-charting albums. His latest, Milky Way, debuted at No. 35 -- his highest placement yet -- and features collaborations with A$AP Ferg on “Boca Raton” and Cole himself on “Tribe.”
Dreamville’s sole woman signee, the 27-year-old Washington, D.C., native brings soulful R&B swagger to the label. In late August, Lennox tweeted that she might be “literally done” with music, but two days later decided “mental peace is most important” and soon after dropped her single “Whipped Cream.” When LeBron James recently curated an Apple playlist for Nike of 62 songs by women, he included “La La La La” off Lennox’s 2016 EP, PHO, which hit No. 20 on the Top R&B Albums chart.
The day before Mac Miller died in early September, he announced that his close friend J.I.D would go on tour with him. The 27-year-old Atlanta-born rapper’s tight verses and hazy productions get their best showcase on his 2017 debut, The Never Story. His upcoming project, DiCaprio 2 -- the follow-up to 2015 EP DiCaprio -- should arrive before year’s end.
-- LYNDSEY HAVENS