RALEIGH, N.C. — Ask J. Cole about when he realized that the traditional life of a platinum rap star didn’t suit him and he’ll tell the story of the 2013 BET Awards, when a stylist dressed him in a loud Versace sweater that two other people ended up wearing on the red carpet. He’ll talk about meetings with label executives and personal heroes who encouraged him to make musical decisions that, deep down, he never felt comfortable with. He’ll recall an awakening to the potency of the love of the woman he’d been with for years. And he’ll remember his trip in the wake of the k!lling of Michael Brown to Ferguson, Mo., where the most valuable thing he found he could do was just to listen.
And so, a couple of years ago, after he’d released two platinum albums, he began to make changes. A move back down to this part of the country, not far from where he grew up, in Fayetteville. Meditation every day, or as often as he could manage. Marriage. A commitment to asking about the needs of others rather than only his own. And a decision to make music that spoke to his own creative and emotional idiosyncrasies, no matter how far it strayed from that of his hip-hop superstar generational peers.
He retreated from the spotlight so thoroughly that one recent weekend found him at a Boys & Girls Club here, firing perimeter shots in a playoff game in a local recreational basketball league, largely left to his own devices apart from a handful of picture requests and a couple of mixtapes shoved into the hand of his security guard.
“The other side, it’s what we grow up believing that we need and want. It’s everybody’s dream,” he said, pulling away from the gym in his black Range Rover. “Who doesn’t want the pick of the litter on this, that and the third? Money, women, cars. And beyond all of that — which I really wasn’t into — praise.”
He continued, “It’s addictive. To recognize it, it was the first step.” And to change it required overcoming internal fear: “I had to recognize, well, where’s the fear coming from?”
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