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J. Cole's story is unusual for a rapper. For starters, he was born in Germany — his father was a G.I., and his mother is German. He didn't grow up in a city, but rather in a suburb in Fayetteville, N.C., an experience the rapper says was informative, influential and sometimes scary.
"I started off on a military base, and I remember moving — I guess this was after my parents got divorced — from there to a trailer park. It was one of the scariest places I've been to, because I was always worried about my mother," Cole tells NPR's Guy Raz. "Around the fifth or sixth grade, I moved from there to a nicer house where I had my own room. So I saw life at all levels. I'm half-black, half-white, so I basically put it like this: I can fit in anywhere. That's why I write so many stories from so many different perspectives, because I've seen so many."
Cole transcended his modest upbringing to become a serious student. He graduated college — magna cum laude, no less — from St. John's University in New York.
"My mom tells this story of when I was in the second grade or first grade, and I would be at the teacher's desk, asking her, 'Can I get my average?' " Cole recalls with a laugh. "And the teacher would be like, 'Man, you're in the first grade! Why do you want your average?' But it was a competition for me — like, I really want to be the best. Anything I do, I want to do it well."
Cole's approach to rapping is unconventional. He bends words uniquely in his rhymes, like on the song "Sideline Story," in which he enlists a video game character and a civil rights leader to participate in the same metaphor: "Throw flames / Liu Kang ... / But homie if you change, man you change for the better / Back when Martin King had a thing for Coretta."
Cole says the agreement between rhythm and meaning is central to his work.
"Rhyme patterns are nothing without meanings to the words," he says. "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."
When Cole finished his first mixtape, he went after the biggest in the business, camping outside Jay-Z's studio for two hours for a chance to connect with the mogul.
"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 in one of his old albums, trying to be creative," Cole remembers. "And I reach out my hand like, 'Yo, Jay, here you go!' He just looked at me like, almost disgusted, like, 'I don't want that.' I was crushed, but I realized really quick, 'This is not how you're going to get on. You've got to get on through the music.' "
Cole set out to do that. He recorded in New York by sneaking into studios, and supported himself with a $10-an-hour job as a bill collector. Eventually he caught the ear of some powerful industry figures, and a year later had signed to Roc Nation, a label owned by none other than Jay-Z.
"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, [if] he decides tomorrow he wants to write rhymes, he's going to emulate me," Cole says. "Which means the future of hip-hop is kind of secure, if we continue in this pattern."