J Cole: The college kid shaking up hip-hop

Rapper J Cole rejected gangsta culture to hit the top spot in the US with a positive message. Even so, he can't avoid controversy, he tells Gillian Orr

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The Independent Culture

J Cole is sitting in a hotel room in Miami, showing me his teeth. The 28-year-old New York-based rapper is trying to prove to me that he does indeed have a “Crooked Smile” (the inspiration behind, and name of, his new single). It's past 1am, and Cole has just performed to 5,000 adoring fans on the first night of his What Dreams May Come US tour. While he is a fast-rising star in the UK (his latest album, Born Sinner, hit No 7 in the charts, and this December he will play sizeable venues such as London's Hammersmith Apollo), evidently in America he is already a Very Big Deal.

At the gig earlier in the evening, the crowd went wild in their affection for the hip-hop artist. His live show is brilliantly over-the-top with dramatic videos, guest appearances, and three outfit changes, usually the sort of detail reserved for pop's upper echelons. When we first meet in the hotel lobby, we even have to move to a private room to escape some rather ardent fans.

In the US, Cole might have just achieved his second No 1 album, but there's no sign of it going to his head just yet; he is warm and open, if a little weary. “Can I have a hug instead?” he declines my attempt at a handshake with.

Unlike a lot of hip-hop around, “Crooked Smile” (which features guest vocals from TLC) has a positive message about loving yourself despite your physical setbacks. “It's definitely a good message, without being cheesy,” Cole insists. “I'm shining a flashlight on one of my biggest flaws and using it as a way of making other people not feel so bad about whatever their flaw is. It gives people the opportunity to feel like all that doesn't matter. Cos it doesn't, actually. We make it matter as a society.”

Jermaine Cole was born in Frankfurt, Germany, to parents stationed in the military before moving to North Carolina eight months later, where he was raised by his mother. He fell in love with rap at a young age and recalls covering his walls with posters of Kool Moe Dee. He moved to New York to attend college, believing it to be the best place for him to try to break into hip-hop, gaining a degree in communication and business from St John's University in the meantime. After college, Cole's 2007 debut mixtape, The Come Up, caught the attention of Jay-Z who made Cole his first signing to Roc Nation in 2009. Two further mixtapes followed before his first album, Cole World: The Sideline Story, was released and debuted at No 1 on the US Billboard 200 in 2011.

He was immediately touted as the next hot MC, one who was part of a new wave of rappers, along with the likes of Kanye and Drake, who over the past decade had turned their backs on the gangsta bravado that had permeated hip-hop for so long. Cole is proud of going to college, especially because he thinks it offers a different back-story to a lot of rappers out there.

“I have a perspective that no other rapper can really express,” he points out. “A lot of rappers are still caught up in trying to portray such a hardcore image: either drug-dealing or something gang-related. And I just went totally left of that. The advantage is that there are so many kids out there who relate to my story more than theirs; or the story they're trying to tell. But I can still reach the drug-dealers, cause I can easily tell those stories too, because those are my friends. I know them just like I know the college kids.”

Cole claims that he predicted this evolution in hip-hop back when he didn't have a record deal. “I was saying how bad rap was. I was like: 'Just watch; it's going to turn a corner. People are going to be so tired of the bullshit.' When The Warm Up [Cole's second mixtape] came out, it was like a breath of fresh air.”

But don't assume this all means Cole is free from controversy (after all, hip-hop rarely is). This year he issued a full apology for an offensive lyric about autism in a guest spot on Drake's “Jodeci Freestyle” (“Go check the numbers dummy, that's just me gettin' started/ I'm artistic, you nigger is autistic, retarded”). It was an unusual move for a rapper to apologise for offending someone (hip-hop tends to do that). When did he realise he'd gone too far?

“It was the reaction. I wouldn't have thought about it. I didn't think twice about the line ever, that's why I wrote it,” he says. “Sometimes I'm just offensive on purpose but there was no purpose behind that; I was just unaware. There's a ton of people that I've offended but that was the first time somebody had said something and I actually saw what they said and understood it right away. I was like, 'I see exactly what you mean; that's terrible.' Now if I was a different type of person I could have just got real defensive and been like, 'nah fuck that, it's rap music'. Which it is. A ton of rappers say worse shit than that but it's just how I felt.”

Cole agrees it's tricky to call what is going too far, and it's something that he grapples with. “I don't want to change my writing style but you have to be careful. It's like comedy; sometimes you're going to cross the line, that's the nature of it. Whatever your line of decency is as a rapper, you just gotta gauge that.”

Another controversy Cole is happy to discuss is homophobia in hip-hop. On the Born Sinner track “Villuminati”, Cole includes the line, “And I don't mean no disrespect whenever I say faggot, okay faggot?” He claims to have included the derogatory gay slur in order to “start a discussion” and he questions how people will react in the future.

“Society is moving forward, as it should. I'm an observer. I thought to myself, 'this is interesting.' Because some of the biggest rap artists that are still relevant today, in 20, 30 years when being gay is completely accepted all across the board, you'll look back on their catalogues and it'll be flooded with 'faggot this' and 'faggot that'. Can you imagine what that word is going to sound like then? It will be like listening to a song from the Thirties, some country or folk song, singing about ”nigger“. It will sound like that, it will sound crazy.”

It's time for him to hit the road. On the way to the car he stops for a few more pictures with fans, who seem to be an even split of men and women. Then he hops in a giant blacked-out SUV and speeds off. The changing face of hip-hop.

J Cole's new single “Crooked Smile” is out now. His UK tour starts on 1 December

(Portrait by Joshua Prezant)