J. Cole: 'Ain't Enough Of Us Trying' : Microphone Check "I want to get whatever's on my chest off my chest when it feels right," says the rapper, who makes songs that turn the personal into the political.

J. Cole: 'Ain't Enough Of Us Trying'

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This next conversation takes us to "2014 Forest Hills Drive." That's the name of the latest album by J. Cole, whose albums typically debut at the top of the charts. Here's Steve Inskeep.


"2014 Forest Hills Drive" is also a street address where J. Cole once lived growing up. And on one of the tracks in this new album, he sings of his regret that he wasn't more supportive of his mom.


J. COLE: (Singing) Think back to Forest Hills, no perfect home, but the only thing like home I've ever known until they snatched it from my mama and foreclosed her on her loan. I'm so sorry that I left you there to deal with that alone.

INSKEEP: J. Cole's music mixes these personal reflections with political thoughts. And we're going to discuss him with Frannie Kelley and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, the team behind NPR's hip-hop podcast Microphone Check. Welcome back to the program.



INSKEEP: Why is he sad about his mom?

KELLEY: I don't think he's sad about his mom. I think he loves his mama. The whole premise of the album is that 2014 Forest Hills Drive is where he lived with her after they left a trailer park and they moved into a more secure house with - as he says, you can see the sky and there's trees on the front yard.

But the story didn't end well. Basically, she ran into financial trouble and lost the home after he had gone away to New York City for college. And so the significance of the address is that that's where he really grew up. That's where all his firsts happened. That's where he learned how to drive, first girlfriend. But then the house was gone, and he told us in an interview that he just bought it back.

INSKEEP: Is this is a common theme for him, Ali Shaheed Muhammad?

MUHAMMAD: I think it's common for J. Cole to be really vulnerable. And I believe that's why his fans really identify with him.

INSKEEP: Is J. Cole always plumbing his personal life in this way?

KELLEY: Feels like it, yeah.


KELLEY: And that has sometimes been, you know, the criticism of him. It's been like, oh, that's not hip-hop. It's too soft - whatever. But it has become more acceptable and even more required. People now seem to think it's a good sign, and it means you are more real than it was maybe 15, 10 years ago.

MUHAMMAD: Absolutely. And I think that the stories that he raps about, being that they are real, it's exactly what a whole bunch of other people are going through. And not a lot of people are driving Rolls-Royces, you know? People connect with him. I mean, there's so many different subjects that J. Cole goes into, even talking about the first time he ever had sex. He doesn't really go for this machismo sort of a thing. He speaks about the vulnerabilities of not knowing how this goes.

INSKEEP: Well, now, how does a man whose music is so personal also make it political? Because many people will know he had a much-noticed release over the summer that was about the police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.

KELLEY: I think there's the obvious first response, which is the song that he released the week after Michael Brown was killed, which is "Be Free."


J. COLE: (Singing) All we want to do is break the chains off. All we want to do is be free. All we want to do is be free.

KELLEY: But then there's the sort of fourth or fifth step, which is this song called "Love Yourz," which is processing what has happened and then saying, you know what is actually the most egregious part of this whole situation is that people are being denied their humanity. And a more revolutionary act is saying you know what? I love myself despite you, and I love myself in the face of your hatred. And it's corny, but it's crucial. So for visible people - influential people - like J. Cole, the impact reverberates.

INSKEEP: Frannie Kelley and Ali Shaheed Muhammad co-host NPR's hip-hop podcast Microphone Check. Thanks very much.

KELLEY: Thank you.

MUHAMMAD: Thank you.


J. COLE: (Singing) No such thing as a life that's better than yours.

GREENE: They were speaking with our colleague, Steve Inskeep.

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