About ten minutes into our phone conversation, J. Cole's disconnected. The Roc Nation rapper was at LaGuardia International Airport, catching a flight back to his hometown of Fayetteville, N.C., and about to name the exact inspiration for his highly-anticipated sophomore album Born Sinner. ("I knew from early on, maybe the first three or four months of making songs, there was definitely conflict involved," he said.)
But when he called back a minute later, he decides instead to refrain from telling Hive. "I kind of want it to be a surprise when people hear it," he says. "I could bullshit and give you some other reason, but I don't want that. Is that okay?"
Last October, J. Cole thought to drop Born Sinner on January 28, the day he turned 28. A month later he released an album trailer, then new single "Miss America." But in February, he instead released Born Sinner's new single "Power Trip" and his five-song Truly Yours EP. "It’s hard as fuck for me to keep all this music from you for so long, so I know it’s been hard for you to wait," he wrote.
With just a few more interruptions -- security check-in, a few fan encounters -- J. Cole spoke with Hive about why he delayed Born Sinner's release, how he's spent his time since his debut album Cole World: The Sideline Story and why he sympathizes with A$AP Rocky.
Born Sinner was supposed to drop January 28, but now you're taking this step back. What are you reworking?
I have a really hard time settling for second best, and I may do a song tonight that is clearly better than every song I had ready for my album. Three times through this process, I would do a different batch of songs and think, "We just got the album right here, like that. That's good," but then we'd do another batch of songs and I'd think, "Oh shit, I still got a lot of things to say." I'll see things from a different perspective, like it'll add another layer to the album. I did three songs in LA just two weeks ago. Then I did four songs on my way out, because it added a layer in there, deeper than some of the other songs. The other songs got a layer too, but these added another. For sure I had an album, but to have an album by that date, it wasn't going to work.
Was there a turn in plot?
I think there was more clarity of what the plot was. I could be more specific, I could really go on what Born Sinner was, as opposed to settling to what it was at the time. It still got the job done, it still would have been Born Sinner to a lot of people. It still might have been dope. It might have been great, if I put it out as it was. But I saw for my own clarity -- "Oh, it's really this. Ah, I can really see what it is." I basically saw what I was saying, and I wanted to kind of hone in on that more.
I've wondered how your year since Cole World has been. What were you doing in October 2011?
So, one month after my album come out? I was on tour in the U.K., or it might have been somewhere else. I was already back in work. It was the first night I made anything, and I had this terrible set-up in the back of the bus. I had my computer, keyboard and microphone so that I could make beats and that I could record. In a matter of 24 hours I had "Can I Holla at Ya?" I had, I don't know what songs I had, maybe four songs all in like a day. It was from late one night to late the next night, and I knew right there, it just felt like I was starting to work on something. I was on tour, doing [Cole World] overseas but I was still [sneezes] creating.
In January 2012, how many more songs did you have? Did you feel like you were about to have a full-fledged album?
Come January there was a new batch of songs -- seven songs, even eight coming from off the road; "Rise Above" was one of them. I'm back home, I'm off tour, and it starts a whole new wave: "I'm a Fool," "Chris Tucker." I did more joints on top of that, and that was just in New York. I'm slowly getting back into my groove of recording. From there we went to LA, and actually I was just cooking up to go to LA and pitching the album. We went to this crib over there, and I just went to the studio every day. We got the UK session, the New York session from January, the LA session in February, March -- and then, we hit the road with Drake. We got music from so many of these sections of my life, in the past year and a half. I was keeping the best ones at first, and after keeping those, that's when I started to hear what it is.
You were free-writing, and then you found this common thread.
It's like that book The Artist's Way. I don't know if you read it, but you're supposed to write three pages a day, and it's all free writing. [Author Julia Cameron] says don't read what you wrote for a while, just write it your three pages and go about your day -- but what you'll start to notice is a common thread or character or a theme.
At what point did you think that January 28 was going to be the release date, initially?
I don't know the exact time I thought that, [but it was] very close to when I announced it. We had planned shooting that video or whatever, and for Born Sinner to come out my birthday -- this would be epic, you know what I mean? I wasn't concerned about the single. I thought, "Yo, it could be dope to drop this album without a single.
Are you still adjusting to the major-release hype cycle?
It depends. Even with Truly Yours, it was on a whim. It's just the gratification, of that freedom and saying, "Fuck it, I want people to hear this right now." It reminds me of when I dropped Friday Night Lights, to see in real time how it affects people's lives, as opposed to an album -- which, as it should, take so long to work on. But then you got so much red tape, after fucking creating. You negotiate the samples, they try to kill you with percentages that they take, and then you gotta fucking get them to approve the artwork, and then you gotta turn the album in, only for that thing to not come out for another month and a half. Like for ASAP Rocky, [LONG.LIVE.A$AP] leaked so far early, it was just like, "Jesus Christ, what was the advantage there?" We work so hard on something, and you have no control over those leaks. I'm not frustrated by it, but it's definitely wack. I love how Watch the Throne came out; everyone got their share of the album at the same time.
I gotta throw the phone through the actual X-ray. I hope you're ready for this experience.
[He drops the phone. The x-ray system beeps as its conveyor belt churns.]
Oh man, okay. I'm back.
For albums you seem to want to take care of things yourself. Why is that priority?
Production-wise, that's just how it works -- it's not a priority. For [Cole World] it was like, "I can do this!" but I don't have to think like that anymore. It's my art, like asking a painter, "Why do you always use your own paintbrushes?" -- like, "This is what I fucking like to use, these paintbrushes." I make a fucking beat, I make a sample, and I write the words that I like. It's 4:00 in the morning, and I want tog get creative -- like "Power Trip." I don't solicit beats from other producers. I mean, I have on this album [Born Sinner]. Definitely I've done that more, but [it's] still not like a regular rapper would do.
What if someone asked for a J. Cole beat?
I'd get excited about that. Hold on, gotta take a picture. So sorry about this. I want to make beats for people. That's my next venture, after I put this album out and even awhile I put the album out. I can't wait to produce for people, not just rapper. It's not like I can only work for myself, but when it comes to rapping, that's just how I create.
What else can we look forward to in 2013?
Visuals are going to be really impressive, because I finally took control of my visuals. The last time [with Cole World] I was so caught up in the pressure, I couldn't even think of a dope treatment -- like, is this the same kid that was calling up BB Gun -- "Can we do this cool thing like the Nike commercial, where it's just following me?" -- and "Who Dat" comes out dope as shit? I've had these cool ideas collaborating with him on "Simba" and "Lost Ones," but through the pressure of the album, I remember trying to think of shit but I couldn't, my head space wasn't right. But as I'm writing "Power Trip," I already saw the video and it added a level of excitement. For my next single, I already know what the video is going to look like. Look out also for production -- there's going to be a few new things.