J. Cole Just Wants to Be Himself

In the parking lot of the Sportsmen’s Lodge, an unpretentious Studio City haunt once favored by Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, and John Wayne, J. Cole sits behind the wheel of a rented Bentley Bentayga. The Bentley costs $700 a day, and Cole’s in Los Angeles for eight weeks. He’s been a millionaire since 2010 and still hates spending money, balks at even paying $15 for the Wi-Fi at most overpriced hotels, but this car, and the private jets he sometimes takes now, are things he can afford.

“I’m just like — ahhh, fuck it,” Cole says, shaking his head. “These are the fuck-its. And this is the fuck-it period.”

I get in, and he asks where I want to go. “You ever been to the forest?” I offer. He seems slightly confused, like, There’s a forest out here? Angeles National Forest is about a 20-, 30-minute drive, I explain, up in the mountains. Once you’re up there, you can see the whole city.

He sets his GPS and we start driving. Cole hasn’t done an extended interview in more than three years, not since 2014 Forest Hills Drive, his third album, the one that catapulted him to true stardom. “Nobody ever asks nobody shit, that’s the fucking problem,” he says. “It’s almost like we’re asking everybody — Hey, you good? You good, you sure you good, man? Okay, cool. Everybody’s fucking good. Well nah, actually everybody isn’t good.”

This is the theme of Cole’s new record, K.O.D. — namely, the pain that makes people escape into drugs, alcohol, money, sex, social media and other vices. Cole’s biggest escape these days is his work, and during the week in late March that I visit him, he is shooting two music videos. K.O.D.’s “A.T.M.” and “Kevin’s Heart” are costing him more than half a million dollars, making them his most ambitious and expensive productions to date.

It’s a far cry from where the 33-year-old was a little more than two years ago. He’d just released his fourth album, 4 Your Eyez Only, a bleak Shakespearean saga about black life in America; fans lapped it up, and critics did, too. But there was one giant thing missing — Cole himself.

“I wasn’t in the life space to promote that album,” he says. He’d recently married his longtime girlfriend (who he’d prefer remain anonymous), had a baby boy on the way, and was retreating from public life, committing only to things that brought him joy — family, meditation, basketball. The producer No I.D. called him the week 4YEO dropped and asked how he felt. He said he was fine, that he was lying on the floor in his house, putting together a baby crib. “No, no,” I.D. said, “about the album.” “Oh, yeah.” Cole said. “I did put out an album.” Still, the record was platinum by April, brought in $40 million on tour, and its entire promotional strategy boiled down to a tweet: “The fucking audacity, bro,” he says, laughing. “What the fuck was I doing?”

We’re in the mountains now, whipping around windy bends, me nauseated on the passenger side, him trying desperately not to drive us off the road. A few years ago, Cole was living in L.A. He had a house in Runyon Canyon, and behind the house was a little-used trail he’d hike with his friends. He shifts his head back and stares up at a cliff that must be a hundred feet high. “Shit, I wonder if I can climb this mountain?” He kicks off his black sandals, takes a pair of red and white Air Jordan I’s from the car, and puts them on. Cole is in a T-shirt, black cross-training pants, the legs hitched up below the ankles. He pulls an Interscope Records hoodie over his head. “It’s fucking freezing out here.”

Across the road, he starts climbing, firmly but cautiously. Periodically, he turns back, looking at me, looking at how far up he is. As he climbs back down, I wonder if he’ll make it, and if he falls, whether I’d be responsible. The business of J. Cole could die right here with one misplaced step.

He makes it down, unscathed. “My wife would kill me if she saw that,” he says, brushing the dirt from his pants. “She always jokes with me, like, this is my white side. Climbing mountains and nature. This is some white-people shit. I got 50 percent of that shit in me.”

Walking back to the car, the dirt crunches beneath his feet. “Look, empty shell cases,” he says, pointing at the ground. He pauses and stares down into the brown canyon. The sun falls behind the mountain. “This is beautiful,” he says. It reminds him of the Swiss Alps. On the Forest Hills Drive tour, his crew ate mushrooms and went up in the mountains, tripping balls. When he went on his own the next day, he was sober and drug free; at 7,000 feet, he had a moment of clarity.

“You could see crazy landscapes, crazy mountains, and just how beautiful it was,” he says. “And how impossible it was that this shit was created. It looked like folds; bunches in God’s clothes. Seeing that shit at one time hit me like, damn, the audacity of humans. It made me feel like humans were trying to be God. Because everything we’re doing is humans trying to prove we’re greater than God. And it felt like, how dare you, bro? Just looking at mountain ranges, like, you could never do that.”

If Cole comes off as earnest, it’s because he is. And he knows you think he’s boring, knows SoundCloud rappers diss him every second, and that Kendrick Lamar and Drake are mentioned before him in most best-rapper conversations. Once upon a time, maybe he cared.

But he also knows this — with his new record, K.O.D., he’s got the No. 1 album in the country, what’s projected to be the best-selling record of the year so far, and most important to him, it’s resonating deeply with his fans.

“Now it’s even clearer,” he says of his critics. “You’re a fucking idiot.”

When K.O.D. dropped last Friday, on 4/20, it broke both Spotify and Apple Music streaming records for most streams in a day — 36.7 and 64.5 million, respectively — knocking out the previous record-holder, Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do.” In the real world, too, it made a splash. Cole couldn’t find a copy anywhere. “They sold out,” Cole says, having come up empty at his local Target in Raleigh, North Carolina. “This is the first time I couldn’t cop like 40 physical copies of my own shit.”

Cole doesn’t actively use Instagram, but he downloaded the app last Thursday night, right as the album was hitting streaming services, and his DMs were flooded with personal stories about addiction, people promising to make a change.

“We live in a society where all this drug use is normalized, it’s the norm, it’s okay, it’s fucking encouraged, it’s fucking promoted,” he says. “You turn on the TV — you feeling down? Of course I’m feeling down, I’m a fucking human being. Try this. Whatever this thing is. Like, nah, how about you actually feel sad and figure out what the fuck it is that got you feeling sad, so you can work on that?”

Cole on the set of the “A.T.M.” shoot.

Opinions on the album were split. The Guardian praised it, Pitchfork panned, and old critiques of Cole’s work resurfaced — like, isn’t this a little heavy-handed? On social media, listeners were eager to discuss what — or more importantly, who — the album was getting at. While K.O.D. takes aim at drugs more broadly, there is a more pointed reading: that Cole’s a rap traditionalist wagging his finger at the generation of SoundCloud rappers like Lil Pump and Smokepurpp, who encourage excessive and careless drug abuse. The feeling is mutual: Last year, an unreleased Cole diss track by Lil Pump began floating around online; after K.O.D. dropped, Smokepurpp led a “Fuck J. Cole” chant at a show in Atlanta. The reason — K.O.D.’s closing track “1985 (Intro to the Fall-Off),” which finds Cole lecturing young rappers in no uncertain terms.

“It’s really a ‘shoe fits’ situation — several people can wear that shoe,” Cole says cryptically. “Why you yelling at your show? You must feel attacked in some kind of way, must feel offended, and if you feel offended, then that means something rings true, something struck a chord. That’s cool with me. That’s all I ever want to do.”

For Cole, the target is more general. He takes aim at what he sees as the cartoon version of hip-hop. “If you exclude the top three rappers in the game, the most popping rappers all are exaggerated versions of black stereotypes,” he says. “Extremely tatted up. Colorful hair. Flamboyant. Brand names. It’s caricatures, and still the dominant representation of black people, on the most popular entertainment format for black people, period.”

And yet, Cole is paying more attention to the newer generation than he has in years. He’s made his peace with the Lil Uzi Verts and Lil Yachtys of the world (who he is said to have collectively dissed on the 2016 loosie “Everybody Dies”), digs hip-hop’s newest problematic fave, XXXTentacion, “fucks with” Trippie Redd, and has had Lil Baby’s “All of a Sudden” stuck in his head for four days straight. “I’m now in a place where I can hear people and get excited, like this kid is dope as fuck,” he says. “I wasn’t there before — everybody was trash.”

In a tragic coincidence, the rapper Lil Peep, whose music he was just getting acquainted with, died of a drug overdose while K.O.D. was being made. “The album is already a warning,” Cole says, “and this kid dies while I’m sitting in the studio mixing the shit — do you know how creepy that was? That shit was heavy.”

On the surface, an album about pain and addiction from J. Cole is a little odd. Isn’t he — as his harshest critics might suggest — just another college-educated kid pretending to be deep?

Cole’s connection to addiction is personal. He grew up in Fayetteville, North Carolina, under the care of his mother, Kay Cole, a letter carrier for the Post Office. Kay struggled with drinking and drugs after Cole’s stepfather, Edward, left in 2003 (K.O.D.’s only guest features come from his alter ego, Kill Edward, inspired by his stepfather). She eventually got clean and sober, but Cole’s still wary of discussing her in interviews. The wounds are deep, and he fears her past may negatively affect her now.

But that doesn’t mean he won’t address it in song. On K.O.D.’s most personal moment, “Once an Addict (Interlude),” he raps:

Hate how she slurrin’ her words

Soundin’ so fuckin’ absurd

This ain’t the woman I know, why I just sit and observe?

Why don’t I say how I feel?

When I do, she’s defensive for real

Well maybe things get better with time, I heard it heals

Little did I know how deep her sadness would go

Lookin’ back, I wish I woulda did more instead of runnin’

“For him to tell it — does it hurt, it is a bit embarrassing? Yes,” Kay tells me. “But Jermaine was given a gift. Certainly he’s talented, intelligent, he’s a hard worker and perseveres. He was also given this gift of compassion. And patience. And unconditional love. Humans have been self-medicating since the beginning of time, but let’s talk why.”

There are several other addictions at play on K.O.D. — money (“A.T.M.”), social media (“Photograph”), sex (“Kevin’s Heart”). Personally, Cole says that when he first got into the music business, he felt inclined to drink every time he went out, and he was out a lot. (“I was never an alcoholic,” he is quick to clarify. “I’d be doing a disservice to real alcoholics.”). But what he was probably most addicted to was public approval. In 2009, Jay-Z inked him to his then-fledgling label, Roc Nation, which portended big things — he was Hova’s heir apparent. But it took two more years before his first album (2011’s Cole World: The Sideline Story) came out, and that was only after delivering a radio-friendly hit that Jay approved of (“Work Out”).

On his second album, Born Sinner, he stuck to the script, blending radio songs (“Crooked Smile” and “Power Trip”) with material he was more personally close to (“Runaway” and “She Knows”). This was partly due to label pressure, partly pressure he put on himself; he thought he needed to do things the way they’d always been done. But Cole had grown up listening to Tupac, Nas, Eminem, and Jay-Z. He wanted to be seen as one of hip-hop’s greats. When Nas confided in producer No I.D. he was disappointed that Cole turned to radio hits for success, it led to the song “Let Nas Down.”

“Let Nas Down” was part rap idolatry, part explanation, but it was also in line with Cole’s mentality at the time: His personal satisfaction was tied to external validation. Magazines told him he was too boring for their covers, interviewers Googled him five minutes before he walked in. “In 2012, it was infuriating, it was mad hurtful, it felt more like I was a victim,” he says. “Once I took control of my own shit, stopped giving power to other people for my happiness and success, it became like, Oh word, I’ll show you how boring I am. And it became another person to prove wrong.”

Around this time, in 2014, he began working on 2014 Forest Hills Drive; he rented a house in L.A., and on the patio outside, he began meditating. Ten, fifteen minutes a day, clearing his head. “I didn’t like how I felt about my life,” he says. “I’d been depressed for like three years. And I realized I was putting too much importance on what other people thought about me. Also, my mom going through her shit had a traumatic impact on me, and I never had a chance to process that shit. I just put my head down. I wasn’t having an honest conversation with myself.”

He plowed into 2014 Forest Hills Drive with renewed energy; he’d make the album he wanted to make, with no concessions. And when it topped the Billboard charts its first week of release, Cole felt relief. “He never wanted to be famous,” says his manager, Ibrahim Hamad, who runs Cole’s Interscope-distributed record label, Dreamville. “He always wanted to be respected as an artist and looked at a high level. In beginning, the fame part and the art part almost had to go hand in hand because nobody knew — you have to do these things for visibility and be as big as you can so your music can be as big as it can. He doesn’t have to do these things anymore. He can just be who he wants.”

What Cole wants now is to be a husband, father, and rapper. Family’s grounded him, put some of his lingering personal issues to bed. “I’m a fucking successful rapper, who can literally at the drop of a hat go anywhere, do anything, have mad adventures,” he says. “But there was no better decision I could have made than the discipline I put on myself of having responsibility, having another human being — my wife — that I have to answer to. Family can literally be the thing you always needed, bring balance and meaning and fuel your creativity, give you purpose.”

“Dave Chappelle gave me some baby advice,” he continues. “He said: You’ll hit another gear, you’ll hit a gear that you never knew you had when you have kids. It actually proved to be true.”

The seed for K.O.D. was planted one night in Detroit last year, at a Kendrick Lamar concert. Cole had performed a night earlier and hung out an extra day to support his longtime friend on the DAMN. Tour. Watching Lamar’s show, the energy that swept over the Palace of Auburn Hills reminded him of 2014 Forest Hills Drive.

“Kendrick’s show gave me chills because I got to see what it was like to have a hit album performed, and it set off a desire,” he says. “It was a recognition — like Oh, I’ll take that again. Like looking at a menu, I’ll have that again.”

Cole left the show and continued touring. He had a short break at the end of the summer and planned to vacation in Italy and Tanzania. But right before he left, he was hit with a burst of unexpected creative energy. Four songs in three days. He hadn’t been that productive in months. Still, vacation was calling. “I rent a private jet,” he says. “My wife doesn’t know where we’re at until we land in Rome and she sees the Italian flag. It just feels good, bro. This is my first trip as a family man, where I have my son with me and my wife.”

But he had trouble sleeping that first night, his mind bubbling with ideas. There was a spare room in the hotel suite. He walked in, sat down, and made a quick beat on his laptop. He’d packed a cheap radio microphone just in case. He plugged it in, pressed record, whispering so he wouldn’t wake his wife and kid.

Two nights later, he couldn’t sleep again. Out on the patio, staring at the twinkling lights of the ancient city, he spotted a small room that had been converted into a gym. He went inside and banged out another song. In just a couple of days, he had six new songs. “These joints are conceptual,” he says. “I see where I’m going, I see the message, I see the shape.”

The inspiration for another song came unexpectedly, while he was lying in bed with his wife. “Oh no, Kevin, oh my god, Kevin,” she groaned, while scrolling through her phone. “What did you do, Kevin?” It was comedian Kevin Hart. He had cheated on his pregnant wife, Eniko Parrish, and was apologizing on Instagram. Cole and Hart had been pals for a long time; they met backstage at one of Hart’s shows in Westchester, New York, at least nine or ten years ago. The news sparked a long conversation between Cole and his wife, about the nature of relationships and infidelity, a discussion that inspired the song “Kevin’s Heart.”

“I thought it was dope,” Hart tells me on set at the Los Angeles Theater, where they’re shooting the video for “Kevin’s Heart,” his wife and newborn son Kenzo within earshot. “It wasn’t done from a hateful or spiteful place. It was done with a smart intent behind it, which I think a lot of Cole’s stuff is done.”

Hart, who stars in the video, walks over and sits down; Cole is directing and tells him what to do. The song is loosely about sex addiction, and the video sends up Hart’s situation, imagining a day in his life after the cheating news broke. It doesn’t apologize for Hart, but encourages men to make better choices. In one scene, Hart shops for a baby stroller when he’s accosted by an eager fan, a 40-something mom with her son in tow, who wants a selfie. Hart’s been caught cheating, so the last thing he wants is to pose for the photo.

“Can you look a little more frustrated by the selfie,” Cole says. “Like, really fight it.”

The next day, when production moves to a public street in West Hills, Cole faces one of his biggest challenges — trying to fly under the radar while working on an album in secret. He’s spotted by a pair of kids across the street, and a mailman doing his job; both want photos. Cole tells the kids he’ll get the photo with them when he’s done; the mailman he tells to wait, then changes his mind and takes the picture.

J. Cole and Kevin Hart while shooting the music video for “Kevin’s Heart.” Photo: ANTHONY SUPREME

Cole and his crew wander down a side street that doubles as a production hideout, chitchatting between shots; the conversation turns to Donald Glover, who earlier that day tweeted out a 15-page script for his aborted Deadpool project. “That was just a flex,” Cole says. “Like, Here, let me show you what I can do.” As things wind down on set, Cole is ready to make moves: The Mavericks are in town to play the Lakers, and he’s excited about the game — 20-year-old North Carolina point guard Dennis Smith will match up with the Lakers’ super-hyped Lonzo Ball.

Back in the Bentley, he’s in the driver’s seat, pushing the speed limit as we ride down the 405, toward the Staples Center. He’s flipping through music on his phone. Anderson .Paak’s “Heart Don’t Stand a Chance,” comes on, he sings along, then switches to “Friend or Foe,” rapping Jay-Z’s lines word for word. Then another Jay-Z cut, “A Million and One Questions.” “Haven’t heard this one in a while,” he says. He skips Isaac Hayes “Walk on By,” and turns the volume up loud for Raphael Saadiq’s “Still Ray.” Suddenly, the car screeches to a halt. Cole puts his hand to the window — “my bad” — and shuts the music off. Someone’s in the crosswalk. Across the road, headlights flash. It’s the LAPD.

“You know he running the license plate right now,” Cole says, spying the cops in his rearview. Seconds later they’ve pulled up along the passenger side. Cole rolls down the window.

“What happened?” the cop says.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t see him.”

The cop pauses a moment. “It’s all right,” he replies. “Just be more careful.”

The window rolls up. “That was a close call,” Cole sighs, “’cause, boy, that license is expired. Expired on my birthday about a month ago.”

In the ICM company box at the Staples Center, Dreamville’s extended roster is on hand. Cole and Hamad have courtside seats, but they spend most of the game in the box. It’s not that Cole doesn’t want the seats. It’s that sitting down there, near the other celebrities, doesn’t excite him. He feels at home among his close friends, and opportunities to hang these days are few and far between.

But he’s trying. Trying to be more social, more visible, blend his new life with his old one, find balance. He’s pulled back far enough to be comfortable, but increasingly, he’s leaning back in. Not because he wants anything in particular; only because this time, he’s more sure of who he is.

“It’s appealing to be in a room full of famous people – it says I’m important enough to be here. But it [comes with] the pressure of wanting to be somebody — like, Who am I supposed to be in this party? Around all these famous-ass people, who am I supposed to be? You’re supposed to be yourself,” Cole says. “Now, if I’m going in, I’m going in as me.”

J. Cole Just Wants to Be Himself