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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

And I'm Guy Raz.

A couple of years ago, the rapper, J. Cole, was working for $10 an hour as a bill collector. Today, he has one of the biggest hit records on the Billboard charts. It's called "The Sideline Story."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SIDELINE STORY")

J. COLE: (Singing) ...about the world and about just who we really are and where we've come and how we still have to go really far. Like, baby, look at how we live broke on the boulevard.

RAZ: J. Cole's story is somewhat unusual in the world of rap. For starters, he was born in Germany. Both his parents were in the military and he didn't grow up in a big city, but rather in Fayetteville, North Carolina. He also graduated from college, St. John's University in New York, and magna cum laude, no less.

In 2009, J. Cole was discovered by hip-hop mogul, Jay-Z. It's taken him three years to complete this debut album and it's been attracting critical acclaim, not just for the rhymes, but for the stories J. Cole tells, as well. He came into our New York studios.

COLE: How you doing, brother?

RAZ: I'm great. It's great to have you.

COLE: Thank you for having me.

RAZ: I have heard you describe yourself as a storyteller. What are the stories you're telling on this record?

COLE: My own, first and foremost. Just this journey of being this kid who had this dream to be this rapper for such a long time and then the obstacles I had to go through just to get signed and put out an album. But other than that, I'm telling a lot of life stories, things that I feel like people my age go through. And there's a song on the album that deals with abortion where I, like, kind of tackle young pregnancy, basically.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOST ONES")

COLE: (Singing) Frankly, I'm feeling like we ain't ready and it's, hold up now. Let me finish. Think about it, baby. Me and you, we still kids our self. How we going to raise a kid by our self?

I love to tell stories. I didn't start off as a storyteller. I started off as a bad rapper, but I just really drifted toward storytelling for some reason.

RAZ: Tell me about your upbringing in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

COLE: Man, I feel like it was the best. At least for my line of work, it was the best upbringing I could have had. I started off on a military base and I remember moving. I guess this is after my parents got divorced, but I remember moving from there straight to a trailer park. And it was, like, one of the scariest places I've been to because I was always worried about my mother. I grew up with, you know, a white mother and we're in this all black neighborhood, trailer park. And around the fifth or sixth grade, I moved from there into a nicer house where I had my own room, you know, so I saw life at all levels.

So I'm half black, half white. So, basically, put it like this, I could fit in anywhere. That's why I write so many stories from so many different perspectives because I've seen so many.

RAZ: You did, and you can move in and out of different worlds. I mean, you talk about your mom, on the one hand, driving you around Fayetteville with public radio on in the car.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COLE: Yeah.

RAZ: And on the other hand, you could hang out with all kinds of kids from different walks of life.

COLE: My mom is probably listening as we speak and this is not just because I'm on here. Like, she really listens to NPR. What's up, momma?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RAZ: Your father left the family when you were very young and you sing about that in the song, "Breakdown."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BREAKDOWN")

COLE: (Singing) Yeah, look, I just shed tears, homie. Now, I ain't too proud to admit it. Just seen my father for the first time in a minute and when I say a minute, I mean years, man. Damn, a whale could have swam in those tears, man.

RAZ: You describe seeing your dad as a kid and, presumably, you didn't see him often. And you have a line in that song, a whale could have swam in them tears. That's pretty intense stuff.

COLE: Yeah, I appreciate that. But what I was trying to say in that song is that I didn't grow up in the same city as my father, in the same place. So, I graduated school and he came to my graduation because he, you know, he is that type of father. But it was around the time of my life I started to just analyze and be like, man, it just felt so good to see my pops. Man, I wish I - you know, it was one of those breakdown moments.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BREAKDOWN)

COLE: (Singing) But I want a father so bad, I can't help but breakdown. I breakdown.

And that's another thing rappers don't really talk about. They don't really discuss, like, you're a man. You better not cry. So that's why I kind of get excited to tell the world, like, yo, I just shed tears. Like, if you hear me, I'm almost proud of it.

RAZ: I'm speaking with the hip-hop artist J. Cole. His debut album is called "Cole World: The Sideline Story." You graduated from St. John's University in New York magna cum laude.

COLE: Yes, sir.

RAZ: I'm not sure if that was a help or a hindrance in the line of work you chose.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COLE: I think it's been a help, man. I just try to spin it into a positive because it is one.

RAZ: But you were a serious student?

COLE: I was. I'm a competitor. My mom tells this story of, like, when I was in the second grade or first grade and I would be at the teacher's desk every day, asking her, like, can I get my average? And the teacher would be like, man, you're in first grade.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COLE: Why do you want your average? But it was a competition for me. Like, I really - you know, I want to be the best. Anything I do, I want to do it well.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

RAZ: You're clearly driven. I mean, there's a story about how you tried to break into hip-hop. You actually recorded beats for Jay-Z. You were hoping to hand him a CD. This was back, I think, in 2007. You waited outside a studio for two hours. He finally pulls up in his fancy car. What happened?

COLE: Jay-Z - he's on the phone, like, he got an earpiece in his ear. He walks up to the door. I have a CD out. I took my time with this thing. I kind of decorated it. I put it one of his old albums trying to be creative. And I reached out my hand like, yo, Jay, here you go. And he just looked at me like almost disgusted, like, man, I don't want that.

You know, I was crushed. But I realized really quick, like, yo, this is not how you're going to get on. You got to get on through the music, like - and sure enough, a year later, he was asking to meet me because he had heard.

RAZ: You were just recording on your own and releasing music on your own?

COLE: Absolutely. I was recording in New York City, sneaking into studios. And, you know, it was getting out there. People in the industry started to kind of hear about me.

RAZ: J. Cole, I want to talk about how you bend words, how you make them rhyme.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SIDELINE STORY")

COLE: (Singing) ...Cobain, throw flames, liu kang, the coach ain't help out, so I call my own shots. I'm David Blaine. I'm breaking out of my own box. You stay the same, but homie, if you change, man, you change for the better. Back when Martin King had a thing for Coretta.

RAZ: You rhyme, throw flames, liu kang, when Martin King...

COLE: Yeah.

RAZ: ...had a thing for Coretta rhymes with better.

COLE: Yeah.

RAZ: Talk to me about how you think about rhymes and structure.

COLE: Man, those words to me are nothing. Those flows and those patterns, those rhyme patterns are nothing without meanings to the words. So, the fact that I was doing it and telling you a story at the same time was incredible. A lot of rappers can do those flows, but the raps aren't really about anything, which is cool sometimes. But to have the flow and the message is one of my favorite things.

RAZ: J. Cole, I want to ask you about the state of rap. One of your heroes is Nas and he's quite possibly one of the five or six greatest rappers of all time.

COLE: Absolutely.

RAZ: And he famously, of course, put out a record called "Hip-Hop is Dead."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIP-HOP IS DEAD")

NAS: (Singing) She's dead, she's dead.

RAZ: And in your song, "Rise and Shine," you say rap's very much alive.

COLE: Yeah. This is one of the greatest rappers ever telling you hip-hop is dead. But it was that hunger of the people to want something better that allowed artists like myself to even come out and have a number one album. It's because when people finally hear it, it's like, oh, yeah, this is what it's supposed to feel like.

And, by the way, there's a 12-year-old right now whose favorite rapper is J. Cole. And because I'm representing the true essence of what this thing should be about, this hip-hop thing, and I'm his favorite rapper and he decides tomorrow he wants to write rhymes, he's going to emulate me, which means that the future of hip-hop is kind of secure, you know, if we continue in this pattern.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RISE AND SHINE")

COLE: (Singing) In a game full of liars, it turns out that I'm the truth. Some say that rap's alive. It turns out that I'm the proof because the ones y'all thought would save the day can't even tie my boots. The ones y'all thought could hang with me can't even tie my noose. Let these words be my bullets. I don't rhyme, I shoot.

RAZ: That's hip-hop artist J. Cole. His debut album is called "Cole Word: The Sideline Story." It debuted at number one on the Billboard 200. J. Cole, thank you so much.

COLE: Man, thank you for having me. What an honor.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RISE AND SHINE")

COLE: (Singing) ...dreamin' 'bout the paper, get rich fore I see my life taper. Hope my mama's getting to see Jamaica fore she meet her maker. My hoop was never good enough to ever be a Laker, but these words I record got me ballin', Jordan. More than a rapper, this is a natural disaster. Boy, I'm meaner than Katrina...

RAZ: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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