J. Cole’s Born Sinner has outsold Kanye West’s Yeezus by several thousand units, and he doesn’t seem to care. “I don’t wake up every day like, ‘I got a great status in the rap game.’ No, I feel behind. I don’t feel like I’ve done enough,” he explains over the phone. It’s press day for Cole’s involvement with Ubisoft title, Splinter Cell: Blacklist, and clearly he has a lot more on his mind than video games.
“I’m not a gamer, but in my heart I wish I could be. I got a homeboy that wakes up everyday, smokes, and plays Xbox Live. Sometimes I look at him like, ‘I would pay to be you for two days,’ but I would feel guilty like I’m missing out on creativity or something,” he continues. “It’s funny, because Splinter Cell was the last game that I ever had or ever even cared about, my sophomore year of college. The reason why I got into it so crazy was the online play.”
These days, J. Cole’s career is a lot different from how it was in college. His “Power Trip” single is certified platinum, his new album is certified gold, he just kicked off his What Dreams May Come tour to a sold-out crowd of 4,000 on opening night, and his Dreamville Foundation is sending kids from his community back to school with new backpacks and supplies. Of course he doesn’t have time to play video games.
“I only get brief moments to appreciate things. I might get a two minute thought of like, ‘Wow, you really did sell more than Kanye. You currently have sold more records than Kanye West’s album, which came out the same day.’ Then I’m back to focusing on what’s next.”
In this case, his new single, “Crooked Smile,” is what’s next. The TLC-featured track just broke into the Top 40 on the Billboard Hot 100, and currently sits at a peak position of No. 37. Now, with the momentum picking up, he’s releasing the short film music video. The visual is directed by Sheldon Candis, and dedicated to the memory of Aiyana Jones, an innocent seven-year-old killed during a 2010 police raid in Detroit. The message-heavy clip examines the impact of racial profiling. This is part of his occupation he enjoys the most. “I don’t live for the accolades. I’m more so about the music. Making it, and putting it out. Those are the two best feelings.”
The wins are accumulating, but J. Cole still has a way to go before he can lay claim to winning over the vast majority of rap fans. There’s still significant criticism levied at his approach to music, with many hecklers spinning the recurring joke that his music is boring enough to put you to sleep. But Cole knows that, and yes, he sees those jabs on Twitter. “It’s funny, but it’s sad. Everybody has their own style of music that they like. I could never let that affect me in the way I make music. The people who like Soul Plane are probably gonna think Shawshank Redemption is boring. It’s not the end of the world.”
J. Cole’s tactic is apathy. In the age of social media, it’s impossible to avoid seeing comments both positive and negative, but his game is not placing too much stock into them. “I just gotta disconnect from it, man. You can’t be a commentator and a player at the same time. I don’t have the energy anymore to care about the small talk. It’s cool that people care, because five years ago, nobody cared, but I don’t care about the chattering. It’s becoming more and more like noise to me.”
Some of the loudest chatter of the year comes in light of Kendrick Lamar’s name-calling tirade of a verse on Big Sean’s “Control.” J. Cole’s inclusion on the list of MCs whom Kendrick Lamar is “trying to murder” in particular raises an eyebrow because, for the longest, the two were in cahoots to release a collaborative project. Earlier this year, Cole called his still unreleased work with Kendrick “mad competitive,” and maintains a similar outlook on recent developments. Other than that, he has little to say about the subject.
“That’s rap, man. That’s rap music. That’s a part of the game. It’s natural. It’s fine,” he says as the call is ending. He’s sounds a little annoyed, but far from worried. One gets the sense that J. Cole has his journey mapped out, and perhaps getting called out by Kendrick puts some pressure on him to execute, but it doesn’t interfere with his vision for how he’ll go about it. When asked if he thinks that he’s the best rapper out, Cole confirms that he does: “That’s the feeling. That’s how I feel, period.” The next step is getting everyone else to agree.
Ernest Baker is a writer living in Los Angeles. He's on Twitter - @ernestbaker_