J. Cole is one of the hardest working young men in hip hop and his grind has paid off. The North Carolina native already earned two No. 1 albums in less than two years. His most recent, Born Sinner, made history when it became one of four hip hop albums to top the Billboard charts over four consecutive weeks (the others were releases by Kanye West, Wale and Jay Z).
The nominee for Best Hip-Hop Video at this year’s MTV Video Music Awards lent his musical talents to Ubisoft’s highly anticipated video game Splinter Cell: Blacklist, which hit stores this week. BET.com caught up with J. Cole, 28, who talked about why he endorsed Splinter Cell: Blacklist — and it’s not just for the awesome graphics and non-stop action. Plus, the rapper goes deep about homophobia, racial profiling and color issues in hip hop.
Tell us about your involvement in Ubisoft’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist video game, which was named best video game of Fall 2013 by XXL?
Basically, they reached out to me. They wanted to use the song “Miss America” for the trailer of the game, which I thought was really cool. When you watch the trailer, it fits perfectly. You get a lot of partnerships that get offered to you but a lot them don’t make sense. This one felt like it made sense because of the connection I had to the game — I actually had played the game — and the song fit so I thought it was dope.
Are there any Black folks in the game — I saw a preview and thought, “Where are the brown people?” [Laughs]
Yeah, trust me, I felt the same way but there is — one of the main characters, the other bad a-- other than Sam Fisher, is a Black dude. I’m very conscious of that but this is a culturally diverse game — and the terrorists, they’re not all Middle Eastern, which is great. I hate those games where the bad guys are always Middle Eastern, it’s right into the stereotype, but this game isn’t like that.
You don't get this far without taking risks. What's been your biggest creative risk?
Producing all my own songs and refusing to go to the hot producer. That’s the biggest risk I’ve taken so far. Constantly taking that risk by not going to whoever is hot and still be as far as I am. It’s a blessing but it’s also been a huge risk because I’m not using the current hip hop sound. Whoever does the beats for people; I didn’t go run to them. Of course I will now because I want to now, I’m tired of having to make the beats from scratch. Up to this point, that’s been my biggest risk I’ve taken, deciding to do it all on my own, production wise.
You got some backlash for anti-gay lyrics and you gave a statement to the Huffington Post. Do you regret using the word “f----t”?
No, not at all. It’s much different than the autism thing, it wasn’t conscious; that was a slip-up, being offensive without intent. The line was to engage the conversation of homophobia in Black culture and in hip hop. I thought it was going to be a way more interesting conversation that came from it. Of course I made the statement, but I thought from that it would spawn better conversations like, “Why are we so homophobic?” Much more than I think any other culture, I don’t want to just compare it to white people, but in terms of jokes that you make — everything’s got to be “pause” or “no homo.” You cant even play basketball without someone saying, “pause.” I’m not innocent of it. I am part of that same culture – but why? That line was supposed to be offensive and confusing, but I was hoping to have more conversations about it.
There’s been a lot of conversation about the Trayvon Martin tragedy and what young Black men experience. Do you experience racism?
For sure, absolutely. I just got pulled over on 42nd street in Times Square for what I believe was nothing. They said it was for tints on my front window, which is barely tinted. I really believe it was because I had my hat low. I was driving through Times Square and I just didn’t want to be seen. So I had my hat low and I think I was looking “suspicious” just as a Black man with my brim low, when I was really just trying to cover my face. They came to my window, pulled me over. I feel like if I was a white man driving, they wouldn’t question me about my tints. They told me to roll down my back window; they look in my car as if they’re looking for something. I feel like that was the real thing, they were trying to catch somebody slipping. That just happened three days ago. I almost didn’t even name that because I am so used to that. That’s something that I feel like somebody my age that’s white doesn’t have to go through, especially in New York City. On the other hand, every time I’m on the plane in first class — this is a lesser evil but it still represents their mind state — I promise you, 60 percent of the time somebody asks me what basketball team do I play for or do I rap. [Laughs] I am a rapper. I wish I could tell them something better — that happens all the time and I hate it. I hate that we’re stereotyped and I hate that I’m fitting into the same stereotype.
You’ve talked about including dark-skinned women in your music videos versus all light-skinned women. The light-skinned, dark-skinned issue certainly affects women in hip hop; does it affect men in hip hop?
I can’t say it for sure but I just think we’re still in America. We’re still Black Americans. Those mental chains are still in us. That brainwashing that tells us that light skin is better, it’s subconsciously in us, whether we know it or not… still pursuing light skin women. There are some women out there that are like, “I don’t even like light skin men” and that’s fine. But Barack Obama would not be president if he were dark skin. You know what I mean? That’s just the truth. I might not be as successful as I am now if I was dark skin. I’m not saying that for sure, I’m still as talented as I am and Obama is still as smart as he is, but it’s just a sad truth… I don’t even know if this is going to translate well into text and people not hearing what I’m saying, but it’s a sad reality. So I can only naturally assume it’s probably easier for a light skin male rapper than it might be for a dark skin male rapper. It’s all subconscious s--t, nobody’s aware — I think that s--t still subconsciously affects us.
In ten years, you’ll be doing what?
In ten years, I’ll be… chilling, hopefully. Not retired, just able to sit down and watch a movie, follow a TV series. I’ll just be chilling way more than I am now, but I’ll still be doing music. I’m still in the establishment phase. People think because I’ve got some success, I’ve made it, but in my eyes it’s like, “How long has Jay Z been in the business? How many albums has he got?” Not that I’m trying to be Jay Z, but I am trying to be around for a long time.
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