Tonight marks the second installment of Elliott Wilson’s “CRWN” interview series, and he’s sitting down with Fayetteville’s own J. Cole. With only weeks until the release of his sophomore album, Born Sinner, Cole hasn’t gone on the usual promo press run we’ve grown to expect from rappers, thus leaving a slew of questions unanswered. Wilson will surely unearth some of them, just as he did with Tyler, the Creator last month. The sit down kicks off at 11:45 p.m. at the Highline Ballroom, but we can’t help but speculate what the two will chop it up over. Fingers crossed, though, that some of the following are on Mr. Wilson’s question list.
Is there any real competition with Kanye?
Cole moved his album up a week, to June 18, to compete with Ye and his Yeezus release. He recently told Billboard that rather than follow up Kanye and his assumed greatness, he wanted to take the challenge on head first. “It’d be like, ‘Oh and J.Cole dropped too, a week later.’ Nah. I’m going to go see him on that date. He’s the greatest. So it’s like, I’m a competitor by nature so it was instant, it wasn’t even a thought,” he said last week.
But is there any real competition? The only two releases off of Yeezus, “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead” seem dramatically left of center. Since Graduation, Kanye has been steadily pushing the boundaries of Hip hop, while J. Cole remains true to the genres traditional center. Rap music has splintered with so many sub-genres and lanes, that the two can seemingly coexist, even on the same release week. Cole’s fans are loyal, and hungry. Is there even any real competition to be had? Or is Cole’s real opponent Mac Miller, who is also releasing his sophomore release, Watching Movies With the Sound Off, on that same day. Mac’s debut album posted impressive numbers (over 100,000 records sold in its opening week) and his career trajectory is much closer to Cole’s than Kanye’s is. Who will reign supreme, and who stands to lose the most from all the competition? Either way, the juxtaposition reminds us of 2010’s “Looking For Trouble,” in which Cole was featured in Kanye’s “G.O.O.D. Friday” series.
What has changed since his debut album?
It’s been nearly two years since Cole World: The Sideline Story dropped, which in rap terms, is almost an eternity. How is he approaching this album differently? What has he learned since?
The first single off Born Sinner, “Power Trip” feat. Miguel, is a much different beast than “Work Out,” the Paula Abdul-sampled tune he first touted out for Cole World. Though the single got spins, it left many wondering what Cole was thinking. For a heralded lyricist to rely on campy samples to generate album buzz was, well, disappointing.
So much so, that recent rumors suggest Nas reached out to J. Cole expressing the same sentiment. Ouch. It goes further, too, insinuating that Born Sinner has a song called “I Disappointed Nas.” Cole has since denied the title (“that’s terrible”) but not the motif. What has he learned since that alleged phone call or since his album dropped? “Power Trip” stands on it’s own, with strong production, vocals, and lyrics. Did Cole learn how to stay true to himself while still catering to radio? What did Nas really tell him?
Who else is on his collaborator wish list?
Born Sinner has no guest rap verses. You can see for yourself. But what it does have, is a slew of R&B features including T-Boz and Chili on a song titled “Crooked Smile.” Just as he did with Missy Elliott on “Nobody’s Perfect,” Cole is reaching into his past and hoping to revitalize a career. The Missy track was, well, perfect, and we’re hoping he keeps the streak alive with TLC. But who’s next? Drake and Chris Brown have recently put Aaliyah’s vocals on tracks, but who does Cole have his eye on in the future? It’s likely that he’d want to keep such wish lists secret, but what does he think about the Aaliyah samples and was there any talk to include Left Eye on the song as well?
What is his relationship with Lauryn Hill?
The former Fugee is featured on Born Sinner, and Cole raps over “To Zion” on Truly Yours, a two-part LP series he released to preface the album. What is his relationship with the singer? Can he shed any light on her recent legal troubles, or any upcoming music? Has she bestowed any advice to him?
What is his new narrative arc and how long will it last?
Cole played with sporting thematics for five years. His mixtapes reflected his rise to fame with athletic metaphors (The Come Up, The Warm Up, Friday Night Lights), and Sideline Story took it a step further; Cole had made it to the big time, but was struggling for playing time.
With Born Sinner, though, the narrative changes. When he released the albums artwork, Cole said “It’s not necessarily a church theme and it’s not really about church. I like my album themes to be metaphors because it gives me the freedom to speak about something else that’s going on in my life, so the Born Sinner thing is not about church, it’s not even about religion. It’s using that as canvas to get other messages across and that’s what the album will be.”
What interested him about that theme, and how will he use it as a canvas? Cole has long used the heaven/hell dichotomy in his logo, so what changes now that that has been brought a little more to the forefront? Will he extend this theme for many years as well?
Does he see his impact on hip hop already?
Cole produces many of his own tracks, a novelty that’s becoming much more than a novelty. We’re starting to see the same double-time work from rappers like Mac Miller. What is Cole’s stance on this growing trend? What advantages and disadvantages does it present?