Published Nov 29, 2010Like his previous tape, The Warm Up, as well as Drake's So Far Gone, Nicki Minaj's Barbie World and so many others that have come out in the past two years, J. Cole's Friday Night Lights is a mixtape in name only. The songs aren't actually mixed at all and there's no DJ hosting the tape. Friday Night Lights is a full-fledged album released for free on the Internet. In a lot of ways, J. Cole is the quintessential modern rapper: he has enough street cred to hang with the Clipse on "Looking for Trouble" without looking like a tourist; he's smooth enough to pair up with Drake on a "for the ladies" joint like "In the Morning"; and he's introspective enough to verge on conscious rapper territory on "Too Deep for the Intro." All that and he makes his own beats. The problem is, there's a thin line between being diverse and being hollow. With so many different faces, it can seem like Cole is trying to be everything to everybody. So, who is the real J. Cole? The answer lies in the autobiographical "Home for the Holidays." He's a great lyricist with a talent for painting verbal pictures, but fundamentally, he's most comfortable as the hungry everyman. And that's not a bad niche to have. Hip-hop has tons of bad men, loads of lotharios and heaps of political scientists, and that's great, but it's nice to listen to an MC who can make art out of everyday life.
What's the difference between a mixtape and an album in 2010? I ask because, I was re-listening to The Warm Up and that sounds like an album to me.
It's really only because I haven't come up with a name clever enough to describe it, but that's really what it is. It's more like an album than a mixtape, but the term "mixtape" is easy to use because people are so familiar with it. But that really doesn't do it justice. The term "mixtape" doesn't do The Warm Up justice or Drake's So Far Gone justice or even what I'm about to put out, Friday Night Lights, it definitely doesn't do that justice. So, for me, the mixtape is more like a [free] album than anything else
You produce a lot of your own stuff. How did that happen, you becoming a rapper/producer?
It just came from me being young and rapping. About two years after I started rapping, I just realized, "What am I really rapping on? All I'm ever really rapping on is other people's beats, the instrumentals that I get off of these singles. If I buy the single than I get the instrumental." So, I was like, "Man, how do I rap on my own beats?" I reached out to these guys doing music around my way ― they wound up becoming, like, my mentors ― by the name of Bombshelter. They were a duo, one rapped and one rapped and produced. I figured I'd just get beats from him, if he was nice enough to give them to me. He was nice enough, but I realized right away that he didn't have time to worry about his group and produce for some little 14-year-old kid. That's when I decided, "Okay, I'll make my own beats then." It's kind of crazy when I look back, the audacity of me to just think I could pick up and do it, but that's how I felt at the time. I was begging my mom for a beat machine and she bought one for me, and the rest was history. I just came home from school and made beats every day.
Do you consider yourself a producer or rapper first?
I'm definitely a rapper first, but I think it's very close. My love for the production side, and beat making, is very, very high up there. I think I make more beats than I write raps.
Are you just producing beats for J. Cole or are you looking to produce for other people?
Right now, I'm just technically producing for me. I have a lot of beats for other people, but it's just about time. I'm so consumed with touring, trying to finish the album, putting out the mixtape, I don't have a lot of time to produce for other artists. But that's my first goal as soon as the album's out: produce for other people. That's my 2011 goal: to really step my production up and get my credentials up, 'cause I'm a new rapper, but I'm an extra new producer.
What about this work rate? We have two mixtapes, one came out a little over a year ago, one just came out. The album's coming out soon, you're touring constantly, you're guesting. Can you keep this pace up indefinitely? When do you sleep?
I never sleep. I hope that once the album drops, I hope that I can be on a little more regular of a schedule. Once the album drops, I'd like to put out an album every year and tour. I can keep up with that pace, but with the quality of the music I make, I definitely don't plan on releasing a mixtape and an album every year. Really, this mixtape right here, I don't know if it's my last, but because it's album quality, I hope to never have to put out something free this good again.
Do you have an official release date for the album yet?
I don't have a date, but it feels like March. That's how it's feeling; I don't know exactly. I've learned I can't call these things, but it feels like March. (Roc Nation)