When J. Cole‘s album, Born Sinner, dropped in June, the music world took notice. The 28-year-old’s second LP elevated his status in the hip-hop community and has been praised for its high production value and epic storytelling. Cole reveals the meaning and origin of Born Sinner track “Crooked Smile” in his Life & Rhymes special with MTV, as well as takes us along on trip to his old neighborhood.
From the days of college roommates to his love of TLC, Cole proves himself to be an interesting and articulate artist with a message. Below, check out five things we learned about the North Carolina-bred rapper.
1. He considers himself an underdog.
Despite co-signs from the likes of Jay Z, J. Cole can’t escape that underdog mentality. And maybe that’s a good thing? “Ultimately happiness is the most important thing, and the pure happiness, I think, is finding happiness with yourself, how you are,” he explains.
2. He’s walked the same streets as 50 Cent and Nicki Minaj.
Living in Jamaica, Queens while attending St. John’s University, the Southern gent was surrounded by hip-hop history. But being an outsider in a city where everyone is trying to make it only led him to work harder. “Just being from Fayetteville, North Carolina and coming to New York City, the odds are against me,” he says. “I got a long way to go and I know it, but I’m not going to stop until they give me my props.”
3. He’s a generous roommate and a responsible tenant.
Cole settled for the smallest room in his college house, understanding that simply having a place to lay his head was more important that having superfluous space to bask in. Despite its shortcomings, Cole considers his Jamaica home an integral part of his journey to success. “Waking up in this every day is like so far from where I wanted to be,” Cole says of his modest digs. “But this is the room where it started feeling real.” Cole also introduces us to the notorious Mohammed (owner of the “Mohammed crib” we heard in “Power Trip”) who supported his dream so much back in the early days, he allowed Cole to put some of his rent money on layaway. But don’t worry–he payed back every cent he owed.
4. He’s a TLC fan.
“First of all I’m just a fan of them period,” Cole says of his collaborators. “But they have these monster records that are these uplifting records, and to me ‘Crooked Smile’ is that same type of vibe. So that’s why they popped in my mind immediately.” Wanting a track that was “bigger than a rap song,” Cole went through three verses before landing on a winner, writing and re-writing his way through a trip to Atlanta. Perhaps he felt the spirit of one of these 20 successful acts?
5. He’s not willing to let anyone tell him what he can’t do.
Suddenly being dropped into the public eye has caused old insecurities to resurface. But Cole isn’t going to let the opinions of strangers force him to change. “I know what’s going on up here; I’m not worried about that. So let me use that as a way to, like, empower other people.” Setting the goal of creating a song that can spread a message to the world is a good start. “[‘Crooked Smile’] is just reminding you that, like, ‘Yo, man you’re gonna be all right.’ It’s all good, you can still be happy how ever you are right now in this moment.”