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Jay-Z Protégé J. Cole on Explosions, Catchphrases, and Working With Kanye West

Late last week, J. Cole — the ascendant New York–via–North Carolina rapper signed to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation — dropped his much anticipated third mixtape, Friday Night Lights. Short on the QB1 references but heavy on the compact, self-produced bangers, it’s another notch in the belt of the young buck on the way to his official major-label debut, Cole World. Vulture caught up with J. earlier this week.

Why did you decide to put out another mixtape before your official album?
Just for labeling purposes, we can call it a mixtape, but I knew what it was. I knew it was album-quality. I knew the quality of the raps, the production, and the story. But it was really just kind of a — not a frustration move, but coming from a place where I’m sitting on all these songs that are so good in my eyes and the people around me’s eyes and man, I wanted people to hear them. I knew a lot of these songs wouldn’t make the album. It’s for the super-loyal fans, who stuck around with me for like a year and a half without hearing much new material.

Speaking of your loyal fans — it seems like they’ve latched on to your catchphrase, "Cole World." Catchphrases are kind of a proud tradition in hip-hop. Were you concerned with yours taking off?
It was kinda planned, but I didn’t know they were gonna … I kind of hand-delivered it to them hoping they would take it and run with it and they did. I think it’s a sign of how strong the movement is and how excited my fans are. And that’s such a catchy phrase anyway. Cole World. I love it. Every time I see people saying that on the comments or on the Twitter, I love it.

For your single “Who Dat,” you did a one-shot music video. Was that tricky to pull off?
The video you actually see is the second take. The only reason we used the second take is because, on the first take, I hadn’t heard the explosions yet and they shocked me so bad that you can see me jumping. It was ridiculous; I literally physically jumped to my left. You can see me [on the first take] like, “Yo, what the fuck!” That day we did five total, but the take that you see was the second take.

Your verse on the G.O.O.D. Friday track, “Looking for Trouble,” has gotten a great response. How’d you end up on the song?
That was an incredible experience. This is what happened: I got the beat Friday before it came out. They sent the beat to my management and told them they wanted me on the song, but nobody told me they wanted it for that Friday. I was on tour so I was like, okay, I’ll write this sometime in the next week. Then the next morning, I get a call like nine-thirty in the morning — central time because I’m in Michigan — from Kanye. He’s like “Yo, what's up man this is Kanye” and I’m like “Oh, man, what's up?” and he’s like “Yo, I wanted to know if you could do that verse,” because he was trying to put it out that day. That was Saturday morning in Michigan.

I was like, man, I don’t know how I’m gonna do this verse, I’m in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He was like, “Yo, if you can’t do it let me know, I’ll try to throw you on something else next week or something like that.” And to be honest with you, I didn’t want to hold up his process, so I told him at first that I couldn’t do it because I had a radio promo event to do in Detroit that day, so I had to drive to Detroit and then drive back. But at some point in the conversation I figured, you know, I’ll find a way to get it done, don’t worry about it. So, on the two-hour drive to Detroit, I wrote the majority of the verse, then did the radio promo event, then immediately left the event and went to the studio in Detroit and finished writing the verse. Laid the verse, then sent it out to Kanye maybe four or five o’clock or something. He put it out that same night and the reaction was so incredible.

Do you have any plans to be working with him again?
I’m such a Kanye West fan. With people like that, I just like to earn my own way, earn my keep kind of. I would love to work with him on a major scale. Not just a song here or a song there — I would love to do something extraordinary with him, but I feel like I gotta step my game up and kind of earn my spot before I can worry about that.

Makes sense. Last thing: I know you went to St. John’s, but seeing as you’re from North Carolina, and I actually graduated from Duke …
Ohhh, man. [Laughs.]

I was wondering, do you have an ACC team …
I’m a die-hard Carolina fan, man. Always gotta be cautious about that because I love performing at Duke. But I’m a die-hard Carolina fan ever since I was a very, very little boy. That was always my dream, to go to Carolina and play ball for Dean Smith. So, you know, I’m sorry to hear that you went to Duke. Nah, I’m playing, Duke’s a great school.

Photo: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images