Unlike when Rell and Young Steff were signed to Roc-a-Fella, we feel pretty safe in assuming that when Jay-Z signed J. Cole as the first artist to this Roc Nation imprint, he wanted him to be a star. Our assumptions were verified when we learned the North Carolina-born rapper was going to be featured along side Hov on his much anticipated album The Blueprint 3 on a song called "A Star is Born." It seemed pretty fitting, given the buzz Cole has been generating for himself, first with his "The Warm Up" mixtape, then with various features and freestyles. And to think, only a couple years ago, he was rockin' a t-shirt saying "Produce for Jay-Z or Die Trying" hoping to get Mr. Carter to notice him.
Suffice to say, being featured on a Jay-Z album is more than a big deal. Besides the world knowing your name, being deemed worthy enough to share some track time with Hova is an honor in of itself. To find out what he's been up to and how it really feels to appear on a Jay album, Complex caught up with J. Cole while he was in Manhattan beginning work on his Roc Nation debut. Clap for him!
LISTEN: Jay-Z f/ J. Cole "A Star is Born"
from The Blueprint 3 (2009)
Interview by Damien Scott
Complex: How were you approached to be on "A Star Is Born"?
J. Cole: I had a show in show in Virginia. This was back when I was just opening up for Wale on like a few dates. So, I was in Virginia, and I had two shows, one in Norfolk, and one in Richmond. I get a get a call from Mark Pitts and he's like, "Yo nigga, Jay just hit hit me. He said he got something big for you." I was like, "Oh shit, what you mean?" He said, "He got this Kanye track... something about a star is born...some shit about a star." I thought, from his explanation, because you can tell he wasn't too clear on it, I thought Jay just had a joint for me. I thought it would be mine, and I was on some shit like, Ahhh, I don't like being told "get on this" or whatever. But I'm like, Damn!
Complex: Even by Jay-Z?
J. Cole: Even by Jay-Z, yeah. That's when the reality set in: Well, yeah it is Jay saying it, and it's Kanye, so what the fuck you gon' do? You gotta do it.
Complex: Hell yeah, man. People would die for that opportunity.
J. Cole: Exactly! So I'm like, Okay, this is big right here. I'm just thinking I'm going on a Kanye song, or something. A couple days later, it got a little more clear: it was his song. I was like, Oh shit, that changes everything! That's even bigger than what I originally thought! I think about a week and a half, two weeks later, I got the call, "Yo, can you come to the studio tomorrow?" So I went there, waited like 40 minutes for Jay. I got there at three on the dot. I think i was 5 minutes early, yo! I was there at like 2:53! Got there, and he came in...
Complex: Who was in the studio when you got there?
J. Cole: When I got there, nobody was there but Young Guru. I think he had slept there because he was working on some shit all night. So Guru was the only one there. About 45 minutes later, I see Jay's security guys come from the studio room. I was like, Damn, how the hell they get in there, 'cause they wasn't just sitting there. So, they were like, "Yo, J. Cole?" I'm like, "Yeah." He's like, "Jay's ready to see you." [laughs] I walk into the room, this shit is mad weird. I'm walking on eggshells basically, nervous and excited at the same time. I walk in the studio and Guru is in there, then I look at Jay, I say what's up, pleasure, nice to see you again. Then I look up and Beyoncé is sitting right there. I'm like, Oh, shit! Damn! "Hello, how you doing? It's a pleasure, nice to meet you!" Then we sat down, and we got right into it, basically.
Complex: Did he explain what he wanted you to do? Did he give you any guidance with your verse?
J. Cole: Nah. Before we even got to the song, it was like 45 minutes of just playing songs. He started off by saying, "I'm gonna play you two or three songs off the album." He ended up playing like 10 or 11.
Complex: How was that?
J. Cole: You can tell he loves his shit. He got a listening, he wants to play it for you and get your reaction. He cares, because if not, he would've stopped at like two or three. But, he played 10-11 songs. Most of them were Timbaland joints. I was like, Damn, where's Kanye?
Complex: Given the controversy over the quality of tracks that Timbaland gave Jay, would you say that the ones you heard before were better than the ones that were on the album?
J. Cole: I'd say they were on par, like, of the same quality. Whatever you feel that quality was. He didn't leave any crazy Timbaland joint off.
Complex: So you're going through all these Timbaland tracks...
J. Cole: He's playing mad Timbaland tracks. Of the Kanye tracks, I heard "Haters," the intro, it really wasn't that many that I heard. So after he played like 10-11 songs, he was like, here goes the joint, plays it, the beat was hard, it's right up my alley. I was praying too, like, "this better be up my alley". It was right up my alley, dawg! It was soulful, Kanye shit! The hook was incredible, I'm like, aw man! I'm listening to his verse, I automatically see what he's talking about, and I literally felt like, Oh shit, this is an alley-oop! You know what I'm sayin'? This nigga's setting it up for me. Now I'm like, Yo! is he sure? Is he sure he wants do this? Are you sure you want to make this statement? So at that time, it was only two verses on there: The current first verse and the third verse, and I guess he felt like he had more to say, so he added another verse. So yeah, he played it once, then he played it again. and then I was like, "Lets go!" I started writing.
Complex: How long did it take you to write the verse?
J. Cole: Probably about an hour. It felt like forever, because I was so nervous. But in actuality it was only like an hour, if that. 45 minutes, maybe.
Complex: What was your process for writing the verse?
J. Cole: I'll tell you this: the first five to ten minutes was spent with me trying to clear my mind, because 90 percent of my thoughts was like, I'm in the studio with Jay-Z. He's sitting on the couch watching me write, watching my process. He was trying to act like he wasn't watching. He was on his laptop, threw his headphones on, but his head was boppin' to the studio beat, so it was like, "You not foolin' me!" So I'm half like, Oh shit, this nigga's watching me, analyzing my process, maybe trying to see how I'm working, and the other side was trying to think of lines. So after the first ten minutes, once I was like, "Yo, nigga, get to work!" that's when it all started to flow. I really just tried to have to have faith in myself. I didn'tÂ race in or nothing like that. Whatever I put on the page was pretty much what i ended up saying. And I thought it was ill, but it wasn't until the last line, when i was like, "The flow cold as the shoulders of gold diggin' hoes when a broke nigga approaches"... whenÂ the line came to my head, it was almost like that scenario can't really rhyme that well! And then I was like, Oh, shit, it does! I was as confident as i could be in a verse, given the circumstances.
Complex: Did you feel any pressure to follow the model Jay laid down with his verses?
J. Cole: Nah, because I didn't have nothing to do with that. I've seen no stars, I've seen no stars [laughs]. All I felt was the necessity to, cause the beat is fast, so a sixteen on that kind of beat don't really last that long. So i was like OK, if I only got 16 bars, I want to tell as much of my story as possible. So I definitely wanted to shout out the 'Ville and let people know that i came up. I didn't want to just come on with a bunch of punchlines for no reason. I wanted to give them my story if i could.
Complex: Did Hov say anything to you about the verse?
J. Cole: He just asked me how I was feeling and I just told him thank you. That's it.
Complex: He didn't say good job or anything?
J. Cole: No, that day [he did]. We only got up to writing the verse, then I had to go lay the verse. So I lay the verse, I get it real good on my first take, but I felt like I was just warming up. Once I spit it, and finished with it, I was too nervous to look out and see their reactions, but from what I seen and from my boy Ib told me, when I spit that same line I was talking about, him and Guru was like, "Woooooooooo!" Like, "Oh shit!" I was just like, "Oh, man, let me get it again, let me get it again."
Complex: How was your anticipation for people to hear it?
J. Cole: Oh, man, it was huge. And I couldn't say shit, cause I was like, who am I to start leaking information? So i just kept quiet about it. And people were always asking me like, "Yo, you on The Blueprint? Oh, man, he got X,Y,Z on there and you not on there? That's fucked up!" I'm just sitting back like, Ahhh. I wanted to tell people so bad, but it made it all worth it in the end. And I knew he was recording so many songs, I wasn't even sure if my shit was going to make it.
Complex: What'd you do the day you found out you were on the album?
J. Cole: We went and celebrated, dog. We was getting drunk [laughs]. It was like a big celebration, it was almost as big as the celebration for when i got signed, it was just one of those moments. There are very few moments when i just sit back like, Wow. That was one of those "wow" moments. Then the day the song leaked and I got to hear it. You know I didn't hear the song...
J. Cole: The day I left the studio was the last time I heard it until the day it leaked. He gave me the last little drop on the song, if you listen it's like, "J. Cole..." He was like, "Yeah, that's your compensation for not bringing this home [laughs].
Complex: Have you heard anything from them since then? Jay or his team?
J. Cole: Yeah, from everybody. I was in L.A., seen Jay Brown, saw the CFO of the company and he was like, "Somebody killed a verse!" You know one of those company lines [laughs].
Complex: If you could sum the whole experience being on the album up in one word, what would it be?
J. Cole: I would say a blessing. That's really two words, but that's how I feel. 'Cause he didn't have to do that. I feel like lucky, 'cause he didn't have to throw me on there. As a matter of fact, he has three verses on the song, he could have just like took me off the song. And people say, Oh, he gotta put you on, you're a Roc Nation artist. But he doesn't have to do shit. He put on a million motherfuckers in his life, there's no rule saying you have to do that. So the fact that he ended up putting me on is a blessing. And I like the fact that people are talking about that song.
Complex: I think people were expecting you to be on the album once they heard that Drake and Kid Cudi were on the album. How'd it feel to be the only one with an actual verse?
J. Cole: It feels good. Those guys are good though, they got hit songs on the radio. They don't need verses. But it's definitely one of those moments when you're like, OK, I can claim that one. At least I got one thing under my belt.
Complex: What are you working on now?
J. Cole: I'm working on my album. Feels like I've been working on it for years, but now I'm officially in the studio working on it, like hashing shit out.
Complex: Can you mention anyone you've been in the studio with?
J. Cole: I'll just say, me. If I mention anyone people are gonna be expecting some shit, so I'll just say, me.
Complex: Will there be any other projects before the album?
J. Cole: There will definitely be another project that will drop before my album. I tried to be stubborn and say I already gave them 22 songs, but nah, that's just the way game works. You gotta stay relevant some way. But i don't plan on promoting it. I'm just gonna drop it. I'm gonna make sure it's classic, I'm not gonna put out anything half-assed, but I think it will have a bigger effect if it comes out of nowhere.
Complex: When's the album slated to drop?
J. Cole: I say spring 2010. I think the label is thinking early summer, but I'm thinking spring.
Complex: You think you can get it done in time?
J. Cole: Not if I go on the tour. But if I stay up here then I'll be good.
Complex: You can record it on the bus like Lil Wayne.
J. Cole: You know what, though? I feel like that happened to Canibus. He got a crazy buzz, and his buzz was so big that he had to do his album on the road with Wyclef, and they went on the Smoking Grooves tour. I feel like if you're not Wayne, if you're not already on that level, then nah. You can't make no classic on a bus.