J. Cole has a huge appetite when it comes to his career.
Although he's got a platinum single, a gold album and a Grammy nomination for best new artist, he wants more.
"I'm grateful for everything that happened, but I'm not satisfied," J. Cole said. "There (are) still accomplishments that keep happening from the work that I put in last year and from the last two, three years ... but those are just reminders of the work that I did. That's in the past. Like, what's the next move? That's my mind state."
Call it the Jay-Z state of mind.
Jay-Z, who signed J. Cole to his Roc Nation imprint three years ago, said the 27-year-old is a true testament to artist development, which he believes is "missing in music."
"During that time he was out on the road perfecting his craft. The guy that's onstage now is not the guy who first walked through the door," Jay-Z said.
"Cole World: The Sideline Story" — J. Cole's debut that is mostly self-produced — was released three days before the Grammy deadline. His competition for best new artist at the Grammys, to be presented Sunday night at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, includes the ubiquitous singer-rapper Nicki Minaj, electronic DJ-producer Skrillex, critical indie darling Bon Iver and country trio The Band Perry.
"Whether they acknowledge him as the best new artist or not, he was. He put that work in," Jay-Z said. "He already won."
AP: It's rare to see two rap acts nominated for best new artist. How does it feel?
J. Cole: My album came out days before the Grammy deadline, and it's because I knew I had a shot. I thought my album was that good ... (and it's) just an honor to be on that list. Nicki is on that list. To have two hip-hop artists on that list tells you, it says a lot about hip-hop right now. And even Skrillex, who is a DJ, I know it's more of an electronic style of music, but the art of DJing comes from hip-hop. So that's crazy to look at that list and see how much hip-hop (is there).
AP: Lots of artists are selling singles, but cannot sell albums. Why do you think people are buying your record?
J. Cole: I think with my fans it's really more about they see themselves in me. Like, there are some rappers that you love them because they're everything that you will never be. Like, I love (Rick) Ross because he's telling stories, it's almost like I'm watching a movie when you hear him. I love that. He's painting a picture. But I feel like when they hear me, it's like they see themselves in me, like they're rooting for me like they're rooting for themselves. So when I win, they feel like they win, too.
AP: What have you learned from Jay-Z?
J. Cole: Early in my album process he was like, "When you're first starting out, it's good to not know everything." He made the analogy that when you're first starting it's almost like you're trying to get across a room, but the room is pitch-black, and when you finally get to the other side of the room and you flick on the light, you look back and you realize there were snakes over here, there was a hole over there ... but because you were following your heart, you made the right decision.
AP: He says you're a success because they gave you time to develop instead of rushing your album out when you had some buzz.
J. Cole: One thing I appreciate about Jay-Z is he let me do it my way and let me figure it out. ... He never compromised or interfered with my creative process. There was a never a point when he was like, "I need to come in and play big brother and show you how to do this." He let me figure it out, and it feels better to win like that. It feels better winning knowing that I figured this thing out on my own and if it wouldn't have worked, I would have been OK with bumping my head and failing on my own terms, rather than winning on somebody else's.
AP: Have you always wanted to be a musician?
J. Cole: I was always a kid that, like, whatever dream I had, I thought I could do it. I wanted to be an astronaut. When I was 6, 7, I (told) my mom I wanted to be a painter. I always wanted to play in the NBA, but I didn't halfway believe these things, I all-the-way believed them until the new thing came along. And then rap was the last new thing (and) I knew, "This is for real. This is what I want to do."
AP: You graduated from St. John's University with a communications degree. What would you be doing if you didn't get a record deal?
J. Cole: I was good in school, but I never one day imagined doing anything other than what I'm doing right now. I always knew, like, I never had a fallback plan. I was never like, "Oh, if this doesn't work out I'll just go get a job over there." Like, nah. Never. I couldn't. I can't even. Right now I cannot picture doing anything else.
AP: Did you think about skipping college to focus completely on music?
J. Cole: I didn't honestly. Nobody in my family went to school, and my mom put such a big emphasis on college. ... (For) me it wasn't ... music or college, it was both.
AP: How are you getting ready for the Grammys?
J. Cole: I got a suit ready to go. Suit is fire ... I'm bringing my mom. My mom got a dress. My girl got a dress. My homeboys got their suits. You know. We're ready. I'm trying to take it home.
Mesfin Fekadu covers entertainment for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/musicmesfin