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J Cole graduates to the big leagues

By Michael Saba, CNN
November 8, 2011 -- Updated 1615 GMT (0015 HKT)
Rapper J Cole has been in the headlines quite a bit lately because of his music ... and rumors.
Rapper J Cole has been in the headlines quite a bit lately because of his music ... and rumors.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Rapper J Cole among the first signed to Jay-Z's label, Roc Nation
  • The artist can most recently be seen rapping in the video for Beyonce's "Party"
  • J Cole is headlining his own tour

(CNN) -- Get ready to hear a lot more from J Cole.

The rapper, born Jermaine Cole, has been making waves lately -- from rumors of an alleged sex tape with touring buddy Rihanna that the singer has dismissed as nonsense to a guest verse on the video for Beyonce's latest single, "Party."

Not too shabby for a guy who only a few years ago was graduating magna cum laude from St. John's University in New York. The up-and-coming artist -- who was one of the first signed to Jay-Z's Roc Nation label -- recently spoke with CNN about his album, "Cole World: The Sideline Story," why he needs to watch his jump shot, and who he rocks on his playlist.

CNN: You've done a bunch of mixtapes and had a few false starts before "Cole World" finally was released. How does it feel now that it's out, and the debut was so big?

J Cole: It's probably one of the best feelings I've had in a long time. It's relief. I've been carrying this since 2007, since right around when I was about to graduate college. In school, everything was a blur: fun, then partying, then homework, then rinse and repeat.

Then graduation hit me, and I was like, 'Oh, snap.' From that time in 2007, until right now, my life has been full of stress like you can't believe. One moment after another of: 'I gotta get this record deal. Oh, Jay-Z likes me, how do I get him to sign? He signed me! Oh s**t, now I gotta put out an album. I finished the album -- now I gotta drop a single!'

The past three years have been filled with that stress for me, like I've been under a constant heavy weight, a heavy burden. I don't jump out of bed every day and scream "Yeah!" but the relief is a great feeling. I feel free, for the first time in a long time.

CNN: What's been your favorite night of the tour so far?

Cole: This has definitely been one of the best shows I've done so far, just in terms of my performance and the crowd, the energy. I've had so many good shows on this tour so far. Like, legendary-feeling shows, so many sold-out dates. Toronto, Vancouver, Tampa, Denver, L.A., Phoenix -- so many of these places were showing me so much love.

Being on tour after dropping the album and doing all these crazy shows has probably been one of the best periods in my life.

CNN: That brace on your foot -- how did that happen? Was it a tour injury?

Cole: In Orlando, the night before a show, I just wanted to play basketball. I went to some 24-hour fitness center and got together some people for four-on-four. I pulled out for a jump shot, but some dude stepped in front of me and jammed on my ankle. The recovery time has been incredible though. I don't even really need the brace anymore. It's just for safety.

CNN: One thing that's been big on your mixtapes and "Cole World" is how you favor electronic, almost video game-like beats and melodies. Where does that come from?

Cole: I don't know what it is. It's not really a conscious thing, like I'm thinking my raps should sound like I'm in a video game. I just really love that sound. But yeah, if you listen to, say, 'Lost Ones,' you can definitely hear a video game-synth type of sound. I really dig that kind of production.

CNN: What's on your playlist when you're traveling from city to city?

Cole: Now that I've got more free time, I'm getting my iTunes right, getting some playlists together. I'm all over the place. One day, I'll be listening to a bunch of Ray Charles, the next day it's nothing but Red Hot Chili Peppers. The next day it might be Tupac all day. TLC, Eric Clapton, it's all in there.

Lately, I'll play what I'm working on before the show. Like, I'm working on a beat, and then I'll pause it before the show so that when I come back to the bus and hit play I can get right back into that energy.

CNN: How does it feel to be headlining your own tour now after opening for Jay-Z and Rihanna's tours?

Cole: There was a lot less pressure on me as an opener obviously. In that situation, it's almost like you're there to steal fans from the headliner, steal a little bit of the spotlight and make them your fans, too.

When you're headlining, people are paying to come see you specifically. It's a different kind of pressure, because you've got to deliver. You've got to give these people what they paid for. It's a different mind state, a different type of mentality, but it's honestly a pretty good problem to have, you know?

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