Fresh prince

Four years ago, J Cole stood outside a New York recording studio waiting for Jay-Z to emerge. When the rap superstar eventually materialised, after three hours, Cole tried to hand over a CD of his work, only to be brushed off with a curt, “I don’t want that.” The younger man felt crushed. But he didn’t give up.

A year later, he succeeded in finagling a meeting with Jay-Z, which led him to become the first rapper signed to Jay-Z’s record label Roc Nation. Then came another long wait as his debut album’s release date was repeatedly delayed. Jay-Z, first as label boss at Def Jam, now as owner of Roc Nation, has a reputation for holding back the acts he signs until he feels they are completely ready. In Cole’s case, the delay wasn’t harmful. When Cole World: The Sideline Story came out at the end of September, it went in at number one in the US charts, selling more than 200,000 copies in its first week. The “heir to the throne”, as Cole raps in one of his songs, has finally arrived.

Or at least in his homeland he has. Britain lags behind, which is why I meet Jermaine Cole in a west London hotel that, while stylish, doesn’t have the pharaonic splendour you might associate with a chart-topping rapper. Our room has a couple of sofas and a large flat-screen television but it’s modestly sized: Jay-Z probably owns bigger walk-in closets to house his trainer collection.

Cole, 26, doesn’t seem to mind. The virtue of patience is one of the themes of his album, which takes his struggle to establish himself as its principal dramatic focus. It marks a shift in tone in mainstream hip-hop, away from street-lore towards a more personal, emotive style. Cole, college-educated like Kanye West and Drake, believes the change was necessary, that rap had grown “monotonous”.

“You can’t out-hustle Jay-Z, you can’t out-gangsta 50-Cent,” he says in a southern drawl. “These avenues have been exhausted. At least give them time to breathe.” In the meantime, a space has opened up for a new breed of rapper, less encumbered by notions of street credibility, more interested in ideas of emotional authenticity. “Rap is definitely story-based, character-based,” Cole says. “When you rap, it’s a performance, it’s a persona. But, speaking for myself, I try to get it as close to me as possible.”

He grew up in Fayetteville, North Carolina, home to Fort Bragg military base. He was an army kid, born in Germany, where his soldier-father was stationed at the time – although the father abandoned his family when Cole was a baby, leaving his mother, a mail courier, to raise him and his older brother alone. He remembers walking past military recruiters on the way to lunch at high school. “I only realised when I got older how wrong it was. I feel like they target poor people, they target black people.”

Unlike many of his Fayetteville friends, he avoided the lure of the army. Instead, he won a scholarship to St John’s University in New York, where he studied communications and business, graduating magna cum laude. His eyes, however, were fixed on his childhood dream of being a rapper. “I never had plans to get a real job,” he says.

His album presents two faces of J Cole: one is a good-time twenty-something living it up in clubs, the other is concerned with more serious matters, such as the track in which he talks about shedding tears over his father’s disappearance. “I can play both sides, I can give you the deeper material, of substance, and I can give you what a lot of people want, which is party records, stuff they can ride to. It’s like I’m stuck in the middle of both because I love both.”

Is there a commercial pressure to go more for the party side? His album, after all, was delayed for more than two years because of its perceived lack of singles. “At the end of the day, it’s a good pressure. Stevie Wonder had party songs, some of my favourite artists had party songs. That’s how you reach the masses, draw them in to what you really are about.”

Cole World is largely self-produced, with samples ranging from obscure Finnish jazz to Curtis Mayfield. Unlike many mainstream rap albums, the results aren’t overblown or full of filler. “I almost did that. I wanted to put 17, 18 songs on there,” he admits. But his manager and Jay-Z dissuaded him. “They were like, ‘Yo, you don’t want to have an album that’s too long, you want to get in there and out.’ ”

Jay-Z pops up on the album with a guest spot in which he imagines a younger rapper coming along to usurp him. “I just know that he’s a competitor, he’s like [basketball player] Michael Jordan. If Kobe Bryant comes along, then Michael Jordan in his mind thinks he’s the greatest. I feel like Jay-Z is that type. You can call it rivalry but I feel like it’s just a competitor’s nature. It doesn’t matter who you are, young, old, new, signed to him or not – at the end of the day he’s still a rapper, he’s a competitor.”

In the past, rap rivalries were played out as violent beefs: East Coast versus West Coast, Tupac versus Biggie. J Cole represents a more mature phase of development, one that tries to nudge the consciousness-raising tradition of underground hip-hop towards the mainstream. “You’ve got to be careful to get a balance,” he says. “[Underground rappers] Talib Kweli and Lupe Fiasco speak some of the most intelligent raps ever but it’s almost like the people listening, they already know, they already get it. It’s like preaching to the choir. How do we reach the people who don’t know and don’t really get it?”

J Cole is on tour in the UK until November 23

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