It's been said that every rapper wants to be a baller and every baller wants to be a rapper. Jermaine Lamarr Cole—you know him as J. Cole—is one of the few who had a plausible future in both trades. When it came time to cast his lot upon arriving at St. John's on an academic scholarship in 2003, the Fayetteville, N.C., native chose music -- and not much has gone wrong since. After becoming the first signee of Jay-Z's Roc Nation label in 2009, his debut album Cole World: The Sideline Story shot up to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and earned him a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist.
Cole's sophomore effort Born Sinner had been due out June 25 -- right up until Kanye West announced plans to drop his equally-if-not-more-buzzworthy Yeezus LP on June 18. Never one to back down, the 28-year-old emcee moved up his release date one week to coincide with West's. I caught up with Cole last week to talk about the album, his lifelong love of basketball and what it was like to come thisclose to playing for St. John's. And, of course, Jordan or LeBron.
So, not afraid to go up against Kanye, huh?
The average person is going to be like, "What? Is he stupid? Is he crazy?" But I couldn't live with myself knowing that I missed the opportunity to compete, not even in terms of sales but just in terms of product. Let the people decide.
That's admirable. Now, it's been almost two years since your debut. You must be excited to get the second record out there.
J. Cole: I'm actually mad the time is moving so slow, more anxious than nervous. I just really want the people to hear the music. When I tell you time is moving slow, it's like a kid at Christmas: It's December 12th and Christmas is two weeks away.
It's funny you say time is moving slow because otherwise it seems things have moved very fast for you. You went from a run of mixtapes to having the No. 1 album in America in two years. And I heard that you lectured at Harvard?
Yeah, that happened a few months ago.
What was that like?
It was incredible, man. A bunch of kids way smarter than me came to listen to me speak about music and how I got where I am, but also how I see the business and hip-hop and its importance to the world.
You say kids a lot smarter than you, but didn't you graduate summa cum laude from St. John's?
Well, magna cum laude. But I was close to summa.
You nearly played ball for the Red Storm too. Tell me about your background with basketball.
I was always in love with basketball as a kid, but I thought I was way better than I really was, because I didn't have a male figure around to show me how to actually play. Me and my brother just kind of figured it out playing rec ball. I went to a middle school that didn't have a team. That kind of set me back.
Then when I got to high school, I tried out for the team my freshman year and I got cut. I couldn't understand because I thought I was really good, so I blamed the coaches and thought they had it out for me. Then I went out the next year and I got cut again. And that's when I really had to take an honest look at myself and be like, yo, why did this happen? It's got to be on me now. I can't blame anybody else. That was the first time I started working like a real basketball player: a thousand shots a day, sprints, minute drills, one-on-one full court with the star player on the team, every day, literally, for the entire school year then the entire summer. Then I also sprouted up to 6-foot-2. By the time next season came around, I made the team. By the time I was a senior, I was finally starting. I wasn't the star player, far from it, but my growth was so quick that by the time I was a freshman in college I had the talent of someone that should have at least been on the bench at a D-I school.
Then you went to St. John's on an academic scholarship, but you tried out as a walk-on? Who was the coach?
First it was Mike Jarvis. Then he got let go and Norm Roberts came in.
What were the tryouts like?
I didn't go out for the team my freshman year. I should have but I didn't. I was new to New York. I didn't get the physicals. I was kind of just new to the whole process of being in college. My sophomore year is when I went out. There was maybe like 70 or 80 kids trying out, and they called back 10 for the next day. Of course I'm one of the 10.
The next tryout was the next day at 6 a.m. and I was having anxiety all day. I was just imagining myself going to the tryouts, making the team, then being a walk-on. I had a couple of friends that were walk-ons my freshman year and I knew what their lives were like. I had a fear of actually making the team and quickly losing my college lifestyle. I would have had to turn into this guy who had to practice two or three times a day and wake up at six in the morning.
Plus I was in love with music and I knew I wanted to rap. So I had to make a decision that I knew was going to change the trajectory of my life. I called my coach from high school. I called one of my friends who was a star player in high school. And I didn't go the next day. In my mind, I'd have made the team. Who know what would have really happened? But I knew I wasn't ready for that type of commitment and that lifestyle.
Seems like that was a pivotal point in your development as an artist.
That was the moment where I decided that basketball was a pipe dream. It wasn't what I wanted to spend my next three or four years chasing. And that music was absolutely what I wanted to do. It was a hard decision, and that's assuming I make the team. Knowing my personality, not only would I have made it, but I would have done my best to be something of a player and get clock. I'd have been like a Jamario Moon, one of these guys that worked his whole life just to get to the league. I just got that type of spirit that does not quit.
You're still a massive basketball fan. How do you engage with the game? What role does it play in your life?
Sports is where it started for me. It parellels my life. Rap is such a competitive thing. That's why I have to watch sports. I got to keep up. It's my life in just another form. Think of the competition: K.D. trying to get a championship and having to fight against LeBron James. In any other era, K.D. is the best player in the league hands down. He just happens to exist in the same time as LeBron James. I look at that and parallel it to rap music, 'cause it's such a competitive game.
I'm a players' fan. I've been a players' fan since the '90s when I was a huge Penny Hardaway fan as a kid. So that made me an Orlando Magic fan, but I had to follow him from team to team -- so I went from the Magic to being a Phoenix Suns fan to being a Knicks fan. Now I just pick the players that I love and enjoy the games like that.
With you growing up so close to the Hornets, I'm surprised you didn't get sucked in by Grandmama.
I did! I did, actually. I rocked with Larry Johnson for a second. But he didn't appeal to me as a player, his style. Penny, I liked the fact he was a tall guard who could dribble and do it all. That was more impressive to me than Larry Johnson as a power forward. I wanted to be a guard, I kind of looked like [Penny] -- I was a skinny, light-skinned kid -- and that's why I gravitated towards him.
Do you have a favorite sports memory from growing up?
Watching Michael Jordan hit what was supposed to be his last shot against the Jazz over Bryon Russell. Just watching that was such a magic moment that I'm grateful I saw live. Not in person of course, but just on TV when it happened. Just that whole time period, there was a couple years' stretch where I was going to this basketball camp in North Carolina and the Finals were always on during camp, so it was always me and a bunch of dudes I'd never met before all gathered around watching the Finals. For a bunch of 12- and 13-year-old kids watching the Finals and seeing something like that was crazy.
Did you ever get a chance to meet Penny?
Yeah, I met him at the Celebrity All-Star Game not last year but the year before. I got the chance to meet him and play with him on the same team, the same game when Kevin Hart threw me the alley-oop.
Point blank: LeBron or Jordan?
You're going to have to put my whole quote in there. Right now: Michael Jordan. Come on. He revolutionized the game as LeBron is in the process of doing. But he never lost in the Finals. And his sheer willpower, his killer instinct from the very beginning, is unmatched.
I'm sure when it's all said and done, LeBron is going to have a lot of rings. But I don't think Michael Jordan was supposed to be Michael Jordan. There were guys that were shaped like Michael Jordan at his position that didn't do the things that Michael Jordan did. Like Clyde Drexler didn't do what Jordan ultimately did. LeBron James is incredible, he's great, but he's also a freak of nature. He's doing things nobody's ever done at that position. Michael Jordan was just like a regular guy with superpowers.
I don't know, man. You're talking to a guy that definitely respects the new generation and knows that there's new legends and new greats and LeBron James is clearly one.
The thing that's always struck me about LeBron is he's the first true megastar athlete to grow up in this social media age where if he picks his nose in public it will be on Twitter in 30 seconds. Can you connect with that in any way yourself as an artist coming into fame in the Internet age?
What you brought up is an excellent point, because you see the same thing in the rap world. Everybody is so reachable now and so accessible now that the world won't even allow LeBron James to be as great as Michael Jordan, because at this point Michael Jordan is just an untouchable legend. He's a myth at this point. He's like a tall tale that only gets bigger with each passing year.
LeBron James, it's like -- I could just add him on Twitter right now. I can reach him. So as great as he is, the mystique is different. It's like that in rap too. With information flowing as fast as it is right now and with pictures and Twitter, there's probably never going to be another Tupac.
You draw a lot of parallels between sports and the rap game, but during the creative process are you consciously putting yourself up against other artists?
As a whole overall, yeah, I want to compete against them. My overall intention is to be mentioned in the same breath as the greatest to do it one day. But I'm not making songs like, "Aw, man, this is going to beat out Jay-Z right here." I'm making the best songs I can make and the best album I can make. Then I'm going to let the people decide if the legacies can compete with each other. My intention is just like LeBron. He wants you to say he's greater than Jordan one day. He's not going to say that, but that's definitely on his mind. Who wouldn't want that? Even though it seems so impossible to the generation that watched Michael Jordan, to the new generation he already is. They already look at him like he's beyond Jordan because they don't know what Jordan meant to us, or even the generation older than us.
So in this year's Finals, it's the new Big Three vs. the old Big Three. Who do you got?
I'm going to go with the Heat. I would not be surprised if that well-oiled machine from San Antonio puts up a crazy fight, but I got to go with the Heat because I got to believe LeBron James is not going to allow himself to lose, even if he has to put the entire team on his back. I just believe he has that killer instinct now. It might get to a Game 6, it might get to a Game 7, but he's not going to allow them to go down.
But, man, the Spurs. I don't even know how they do it. Tim Duncan is really an incredible story. He's been in the Finals in three different decades now. He's an ACC guy, so I got a lot of respect for Tim Duncan. People hate him because he's got a boring game. He's not flashy, just straight to the point with those little 15-footers off the glass. No flash to his game. But you've got to respect he's one of the greatest to ever do it.
I know you're a diehard Tar Heels fan. Who was your favorite Carolina player?
I had different moments. Definitely my favorite ever was the Antawn Jamison-Vince Carter era. That was the most amazing thing to watch at one point in time, when Carter was jumping out of the gym and Jamison was college player of the year.
Which Duke players did you hate the most?
Shane Battier. Ha-a-ated Shane Battier so much. Any Duke player. Wojo, couldn't stand him. Corey Maggette, didn't like him. Grant Hill was the only Duke player I really respected. Kyrie Irving too, because he never really suited up. I really despise Duke players. As a fan. I just got that about me. Just two days ago I got into an argument about Carolina-Duke. This guy I know has a Duke tattoo and I was like, "Yo man, are you serious?"
And now, all these years later, you're seeing Battier in the Finals.
Yeah, absolutely. He's still doing it. And he's got a jumper now. It's just crazy.