Jay-Z's protege and opening act for the concert on Friday, J. Cole, called Music Editor Zac Hunter on a busy day in Austin, Texas, to talk about working with the hip-hop icon, making a name for himself and his diminishing basketball skills.
Versus Magazine: You're the first one signed to Jay-Z's ROCNATION Record Label. That means that one of the greatest hip-hop artists to date wants to start his new project with you. What does it feel like to have that kind of support?
J. Cole: Man, it's a blessing. I feel lucky, but at the same time I know there was a lot of hard work involved in it. It's kind of like a good pressure, you know? I don't want to let anybody down. It's a lot of important people supporting the project. So I just want to reaffirm why they even believed in me in the first place.
VM: Jay-Z is known to be a detail-oriented artist and business man with a hand in everything that goes on. How much is he involved in your recordings and performances and such?
J. Cole: How do I describe it? He's kind of like - you remember Go-Go Gadget? Remember that dude that was always at the end? He was like the bad guy, you knew he was behind all the bad stuff but somehow you never actually got to see him. It's kind of like one of those situations. He gives me a lot of freedom but at the end of the day it all comes back to him, he's got to OK everything. But he's got a lot of faith in me so there's not going to be too much conflict there.
VM: How's it been touring with him so far?
J. Cole: Man, it's been ill. It's a learning experience, really. I go on for my set to open up the show when the crowd is maybe half-empty. But then I get to come back out and watch his set and actually jump on his set to do "A Star is Born." So it's a lot of soaking up, learning, seeing what things I could be doing that I'm not doing. Just learning every night.
VM: You're coming here to Vanderbilt on Friday night. Are you looking forward to coming back to the college scene?
J. Cole: Yeah man, I am for real. That's going to be a good one. That's the last one, so you know its going to be a good one.
VM: You graduated Magna Cum Laude from St. Johns. That's quite impressive. Not in a snobby way, but do you think that education separates you in the hip-hop world?
J. Cole: Yeah, not in a snobby way at all. It's more like that's an experience I got that not a lot of rappers got, so it gives me a different perspective. I don't know, it was an important part of my life. It was fun. I learned a lot, met a lot of different types of people. It influenced me as a person, so of course it's going to influence me as an artist too.
VM: When most people graduate college they go to work in an office or a lab or something like that. You went to work opening for Jay-Z. How'd that transition go?
J. Cole: Man, that was the hardest transition ever. I had to graduate, then I had to be broke for like a year and a half, damn near two years, trying to get a deal and trying to get where I'm at now. It was a hard transition. But now that I'm finally here, it's all good. I'm going with the flow.
VM: Now that you are there and there's all of this hype and attention on you, how do you stay grounded?
J. Cole: You can't buy into the hype, if there is any. You just gotta understand that you haven't done anything worth changing about. I know a lot of people are looking at me like, "Oh he's on 'The Blueprint 3,' he's doing it," which is great. But at the same time I'm not satisfied. I've got bigger goals that I want to accomplish, so I understand my position, my place in the game and I don't hold much weight. So I'm trying to get to a place where I do, and then maybe I'll get comfortable.
VM: Talking about your music, what differences can we expect from your mix-tape to what you're doing now recording your first studio album?
J. Cole: It's like a whole different world going on. It's a mix-tape because I was willing to let it go, let those songs go for the sake of promotion and getting my name out there, giving people some material to believe in. But the album stuff is things I would never in a million years let go and just throw out there. So if people like the mix-tape, they can assume that the album is just that. But it's 10 times better. It's notches up from what was on the mix-tape. The quality of beats, quality of the rhymes and the concepts are on another level.
VM: Can you see yourself collaborating with a female voice on the new album?
J. Cole: Yeah, I do have a female voice that's recurring on the album. Her name is Kim Fox. And one thing I like is that she is appearing on a few songs. It kind of gives you that album feel. I think it's the little things that make the album cohecive, and that's one of them.
VM: Are there other musical influences in your music besides hip-hop? What are they?
J. Cole: There's a lot of soul in the album. There's even some West Coast. How can I describe it? I think of the guitar on the Red Hot Chilli Pepper's "Californication," like guitar sprinkled in. That's one of my favorite parts, just listening to the songs so far. That wasn't my vision, but it just kind of happened.
VM: I keep seeing pictures of you with a basketball. You play a lot?
J. Cole: Yeah. I actually probably suck now though. I haven't played in like a month and a half cause I've been on tour. But yeah, that's my real first love.
VM: We're excited about you coming on Friday, anything else you want to add?
J. Cole: Yeah, me too. Nah man, just Vanderbilt, it's gonna be fun. z