My sitdown with Jermaine Cole is sandwiched between two tornado news stories that have nothing to do with the Carolina lyricist’s actual music. By now you might’ve heard a certain verse by Kendrick Lamar that all but says that he’d like to eat J. Cole’s face (lyrically!). At least three of Cole’s handlers insist he won’t be answering any questions about the mammoth track that was released more than a week prior—one urges not to even mention his rap buddy or frenemy or whatever. It’s tense.
Cole also fails to address the second hot topic of this interview hoagie—his rumored altercation with Sean “Diddy” Combs at a VMAs after party—mostly, if not entirely, because it hasn’t happened yet. It’s the Thursday before Miley Cyrus’ televised twerking trainwreck and we’re holed up in a Manhattan office’s “creative room” celebrating his long overdue haircut and first VIBE Magazine cover—one of his Dreamville staffers chuckles about his menacing mug on the front page. There’s a modern, cushy lime green sofa on which Cole is so reclined that he’s virtually horizontal. A Texas-sized flat-screen TV is mounted to the wall before us; an XBox 360 sits on a table, bringing Splinter Cell: Blacklist to life. The action-adventure video game (in stores now) features Cole’s song “Miss America” for its trailer. He’s not quite the gamer he used to be—first-person shooter Metal Gear Solid 2 and Dreamcast’s Shenmue were childhood faves—but Cole beams when reminiscing about college memories of gunning down enemies in Splinter Cell; evades when “Control” is inevitably brought up (argh!).
But our chat is not all fun and games. Between bites of pizza and Ceasar salad, Cole talks TLC’s doppelgangers, going half on an album with Wale, and nearly reuniting 50 Cent and Nas on wax, a near-feat that would’ve left no question as to today’s King of New York crown rocker. —John Kennedy
VIBE: Your song “Miss America” is featured on Splinter Cell: Blacklist. What drew you to this game that made you want to be a part of it?
J. Cole: They reached out to me, but it made sense because I played this game in college. It wouldn’t be like a fake partnership; it was a real thing. I have a history of playing the game. I told them I’m cool with it plus they went with “Miss America.” I love that song. I always wished it would’ve got more shine.
Do you think “Miss America” particularly fits the game?
Yeah, I watched the trailer. Just the attitude and the mood of it, like the rapper in the perspective of “Miss America.” He just sounds like a badass who doesn’t give a fuck. That’s that guy on “Miss America” and he’s got something to say and he’s got a cause and he stands for something. It fits. They picked that—I was impressed. Usually when the brand comes to you it’s like some corny idea. But this one was perfect.
OutKast’s “Da Art of Storytellin’ (Pt. 1)” was the perfect sample for Born Sinner. What made you lift that for “LAnd of the Snakes?”
Randomly one night I just started writing to [“Da Art of Storytellin’ (Part 1)”]. At first I just thought let it just be a freestyle and then I started thinking like “Why?” Who says I can’t just loop up this beat? On Friday Night Lights I basically just looped up Erykah Badu’s “Didn’t Cha Know” and made it “Too Deep for the Intro.” So it’s like why would I do this on a mixtape and then not do it on the album; these days it’s the same thing. I had that specific thought like, I’m going to flip this, loop it up, add a couple of drums and then flip it at the end, just because I can.
Just because you’re nice.
And just because it’s time. That song came out in ’98. That’s 15 years later and you’re telling me I can’t touch that? I actually thought there was going to be way more conversation about it, like outrage. Nobody was really mad. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t try do what they did—not try to out-story tell them. I wanted to make it totally left with that.
Then there’s still a nod to it, because you have storytelling on the third verse.
Yeah at the end. That’s why I added it there.
Sha Money XL told me once that he brought you to 50 Cent before you signed with Roc Nation. What do you remember about first meeting him?
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