On a weekday evening in January, J. Cole, the 27-year-old rapper from North Carolina whose first album hit number one and who is about to put out his second album, is at the American Museum of Natural History.
More specifically, he is standing under the brontosaurus in the lobby, posing for a picture with two teenagers who look like they are in disbelief. He is not smiling, because he doesn't really smile when he poses for pictures. He's wearing skinny gray jeans, very clean Nike high-tops, a Moncler beanie, a $30,000 Rolex Presidential watch, and a leather jacket with a cotton hood sewn in.
J. Cole seems a little nervous for an interview, which you don't expect from a pop star who performs in front of thousands of people, but people have more palpable interiorities when you're one-on-one. Walking through the museum, he glances around the Hall of Mammals, focuses on the North American bison, and mentions that he came here recently with his girlfriend and her little brother. In a room full of ancient tools, he points out that it's difficult to enjoy a museum and conduct an interview at the same time.
A man pushing a rolling trash bin through the museum looks at J. Cole, stops pushing the trash bin, and gets his picture taken with J. Cole. He shakes J. Cole's hand vigorously and continues pushing the bin.
Ten minutes later in the Hall of Ornithiscian Dinosaurs on the fourth floor, J. Cole seems much more comfortable. The museum is almost empty, because it's 5:10 and the museum closes at 5:45. J. Cole stands in front of the stegosaurus.
DAVID SHAPIRO: You're lecturing at Harvard on [February] 26th, right?
J. COLE: [excitedly] Yes!
SHAPIRO: How did that come about?
J. COLE: I've been planning to do a college tour since I came into the game about four years ago. I've always envisioned going out on the road and going to colleges, doing a half-show, half-forum type thing. We actually talked about doing a college tour as part of the campaign for this album, and right after that, Harvard asked me to speak.
SHAPIRO: It was a coincidence?
J. COLE: Yeah. Just after we started talking about it, they approached us. I'm so honored to go speak there. But, like, what can I say to a Harvard kid, you know? [laughs] The day after I found out, I gave a 30-minute speech into my iPhone, just imagining what I was going to say. It came out dope as fuck. And as the time approaches, I'm going to practice even more, but I know that the best shit is going to be shit that's not even planned, like when I open it up for questions.
SHAPIRO: What inspired your interest in going on a college tour?
J. COLE: It was inspired by, when I was in college, seeing some incredible speakers come to my school: Michael Eric Dyson, Spike Lee, Nikki Giovanni, and other poets and writers. I always loved that experience: going and sitting in an auditorium and listening to their opinions.
SHAPIRO: Which speaker was most memorable?
J. COLE: Well, the thing was, I didn't even have to be a big fan of someone to enjoy hearing them speak. I remember when Nikki Giovanni came—I wasn't really familiar with her. But she said some things I'll never forget. Like, okay, for example, she was talking about the amount of beef that's in the world. There are so many McDonald's, Burger Kings, Wendy's.
J. COLE: You go to any town, any city, any state in America and there's always a McDonald's. In a lot of places around the world, it's almost the same thing. And Nikki Giovanni was like, "Damn, where are we keeping all these cows?" And it made me think to myself, like, "Damn, where are we keeping all these cows?!" It makes me think that the beef we're eating isn't even close to being real. [laughs] There can't even be enough cows in the whole world just to sustain the appetites of just Americans! I'll always remember that.
SHAPIRO: So how is your speaking event going to work?
J. COLE: We're going to have students ask me questions first. I know they've got some fucking great questions. And then I've got some questions for them! I want to know how kids five or six years younger are thinking and feeling about music and about society. So at around noon we're going to set up a table on campus where kids can come and hang out, talk, take pictures and get autographs, and then around 4:00 or 5:00 we'll all meet in the auditorium and have a big-ass open forum and discussion. After that I'll do a show. Depending on the college, it'll be either an intimate show or a big-ass show.
SHAPIRO: That sounds fun. Tell me more about being in college.
J. COLE: Oh, man, it was dope. I'm from a small town, and I was going to college in New York! It was the first time I wasn't living with my mom, and there were girls on the floors right above and below me.
SHAPIRO: What did you major in?
J. COLE: I actually started off majoring in computer science, but I knew right away I wasn't going to stay with it. It was because I had this one professor who was the loneliest, saddest man I've ever known. He was a programmer, and I knew that I didn't want to do whatever he did. So after that, I switched to Communications. I took some dope-ass classes: Poetry, History of Music, History of Film. We watched all these movies that wound up getting nominated for Oscars, like Slumdog Millionaire.
DAVID SHAPIRO: What did you do after college?
J. COLE: What do you mean? I got my [record] deal.
SHAPIRO: Right after college?
J. COLE: No, like, a little bit later. I thought it would come through right away but it took a little more time to get everything together.
SHAPIRO: What did you do in the interim, before you got your deal? I know you graduated summa cum laude, so you probably had a bunch of options.
J. COLE: [laughs] Ah, man. Well, actually, I graduated magna cum laude. And after college, man, that was... Well, I was broke as hell. I was renting an apartment in Queens with my roommates during school, and after we graduated, they moved out and started their careers. I didn't really have a career at that point.
SHAPIRO: What did they do?
J. COLE: One of them went to Complex, one of them started working at a PR company, one of them started producing TV. I was just waiting for my deal to come through.
SHAPIRO: So what did you do?
J. COLE: Well, I was hitting my mom up for money. I kept hitting other people up for money, too. I just felt like a bum. I owed thousands of dollars in rent and I was just waiting on my deal. My landlord was always letting me slide, but eventually I had to give him something, even just to show that I had income. So my homie hooked me up with this job at a newspaper.
SHAPIRO: Which newspaper? What did you do there?
J. COLE: I can either tell you which newspaper or tell you about the job, but not both. The paper was good to me, so I don't want to fuck with them. The job was flexible, so I could go to the studio at night and come in late the next day. They were great.
SHAPIRO: Well, tell me about the job.
J. COLE: I worked in ad sales. I would call up local businesses and try to get them to buy ads in the paper. The whole time, I felt like I was just scamming people. I would call a plumber and be like, "Can we get $400 for an ad?" knowing that the actual ad wouldn't do shit for his business.
SHAPIRO: Were you a successful ad salesman?
J. COLE: [laughs] Nope. I never sold an ad.
SHAPIRO: Not a single ad?
J. COLE: [shakes his head] My homie who got me the job used to throw me some of his sales so I could get my name up on the board so it would look like I was selling.
SHAPIRO: That was nice of him.
J. COLE: Yeah, it helped. But the job was only part-time. After a few months, I needed something with more hours.
SHAPIRO: What'd you do then?
J. COLE: Got a job doing bill collecting over the phone. That was full-time.
SHAPIRO: This is turning into a very recession-era tale.
J. COLE: Yeah. I saw, like, the prime recession. This was in '08. It was the worst. The good part was that I had two friends who worked there, and there were mad cute girls. It was like 50 young people in the office. Everyone got a firsthand look at the worst of the recession. I would call people up to ask for money, and these people would tell me their life stories.
SHAPIRO: That sounds depressing.
J. COLE: Yeah; to be good at bill-collecting, you have to ignore your feelings. I remember sitting there on the phone, listening to people tell me that they're losing their house, that their husband has cancer, and then I'm supposed to ask them if they have $50? I couldn't do that shit. Sometimes I would just listen to their stories and then say, "I'm sorry, have a good day." I couldn't even ask them for the money! And if a person didn't give you any money over the phone, you were supposed to schedule them back into the system so they would get another call in two weeks, but for a lot of people, like when you could really hear the pain in their voices, I would schedule them really far into the future. Months.
SHAPIRO: Were you better at collecting bills than selling ads?
J. COLE: [laughs] Well, MasterCard doesn't wanna hear any life stories. Visa doesn't wanna hear that shit.
SHAPIRO: Did you tell people at work that you were a rapper?
J. COLE: I never really told anybody. I wasn't walking around being like, "Yo, check out my mixtape!" It was more of a secret grind.
SHAPIRO: And then you got your deal, so it turned out okay.
J. COLE: [nods]
SHAPIRO: Do you still keep in touch with your landlord? The one who let you slide on the rent?
J. COLE: Yeah, definitely! That's my homie.
J. COLE WILL SPEAK AT HARVARD ON FEBRUARY 26. HIS FIRST ALBUM, COLE WORLD: THE SIDELINE STORY, IS OUT NOW, AND HIS SECOND ALBUM, BORN SINNER, IS DUE OUT THIS SPRING.