Rapper J. Cole recently announced a string of $1 shows to commemorate the fifth anniversary of his now classic mix tape, The Warm Up. To mark the occasion, he'll be performing the album in its entirety, including hits like "Grown Simba" and "Lights Please" — the tracks that first introduced audiences to the then-unknown artist.
While Jay Z signed J. Cole to Roc Nation on the strength of "Lights Please," before the mix tape was even released, there's no doubt that The Warm Up kick-started Cole's career. He has since gone on to garner two Grammy nods, including one for Best New Artist, and to release two gold-plus albums: 2011's Cole World: The Sideline Story, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Top Albums chart and 2013's Born Sinner, which ousted Kanye West's Yeezus from the top spot on the Billboard 200 and went gold in just 4 weeks. But it all started with The Warm Up, an album filled with unbeatable hooks, driven beats, storytelling freestyles and high-concept tracks that showed how hungry he was to succeed.
TIME talked to the rapper about his tour, the enduring appeal of The Warm Up and what's next:
TIME: Why $1 shows?
J. Cole: A lot of reasons! It makes it so much more of a gratifying experience to see one of your favorite artists perform one of your favorite albums and knowing you only paid a dollar has got to be a crazy feeling. It was kind of an excuse to. Last year when we did Dollar and a Dream, I thought, man, if we only charged a dollar, I could play whatever I want. There’s no letting you down if you only paid a dollar! I can go deep in the crates and perform any older song that I wanted and I know that I can’t let you down, because you only paid a dollar. When you do these high-level tours, ticket prices can get up there, so people want to see the hits and the songs that they know. But if I’m charging you a dollar, I feel more justified in performing these classic songs that might not go off well in the arenas. A lot of people at the arena shows know me for the hits and maybe not for some of the older stuff. That’s how the original idea came up.
Do you think ticket prices are a barrier for fans?
Oh of course, for sure. The only concert I ever went to as a kid was because I had a friend whose parents had really nice jobs and DMX came to Fayatteville and his parents bought him and me a ticket and we went to see DMX and it was crazy! I was in the 8th grade or whatever and it was the wildest experience for me. But kids don’t have $100 a lot of times to go to a concert. Even $60 is hard to come up with. Ticket prices can keep some fans away, but that’s the beauty of growing older and getting a nice job and being able to do things extra with your money, if you’re blessed enough to get there.
Was DMX your first show?
No, my first concert was probably James Taylor. My mom took me and my brother to see a James Taylor concert up in Raleigh, which at the time I was like, mom, you are not dragging me up to see a James Taylor concert. But now I’m glad she did. My mom took me to see Peter, Paul and Mary. My mom was into all kinds of stuff from folk music to rap to soul, so she took us to some cool concerts.
Do you think that listening James Taylor growing up has affected your music now?
For sure! I think it’s somewhere in my subconscious. My melodies and my melodic sense come from artists like James Taylor. Anybody my mom was listening to when we were kids, like The Eagles or the Smashing Pumpkins, all those melodies and lyrics are in there somewhere, subconsciously and it comes out sometimes. I couldn’t pinpoint where exactly, but I think it’s in me.
What song do you think your fans would be most surprised to find out was on your iPod?
I don’t think they would be surprised by anything, because I’m a producer and I’m always listening. Like right now I’ve got “Abbey Road” playing on my laptop and before that I was listening to Outkast and Slick Rick.
You've produced most of your own music, what lead you into producing?
The first song I ever recorded, I wrote and produced when I was 15 years old. The reason I started was because when I was rapping when I was 12 and had been rapping for a few years, I realized that I was the best of my age and even way better than all the kids who were older than me. I was just tired of not being able to make songs. I was tired of having to rap over instrumentals we would go buy. We would go get the single in the record store, just so we could have the instrumental and rap over it. I got tired of that and wanted to make songs like the ones that were actually on the radio.
So I reached out to these older guys hoping that they would be my mentors and hoping that I could get some beats from them, but what I saw was that they weren’t going to give me the best beats, they were going to keep the best beats for themselves. That was only natural. If you make a beat that’s amazing and you have a group, you are definitely going to keep it for yourself. I realized that when I was about 14 years old and realized that I had to make my own beats. No one was going to give me the best ones, so I had to do it myself. My mom got me a beat machine when I was 15 and it all started right there.
Producing is part of my artistry now. It fulfills me as an artist. Lately I’ve been working with other producers and its nice just getting to rap over a beat and not have to do all the groundwork, but there is nothing more gratifying to be able to make a song to completion. Being able to make a song out of thin air, where it didn’t exist and then an hour later I have a beat, words laid on top of it and a hook. There is no better feeling than being part of that. I will always do that. Like Prince.
Because you wholly create the songs, does that make them more personal for you?
For sure. You get way more of my soul — and I don’t mean that in the cliché I put my soul into this — I really believe it! Because I create the entire song and it came from me, all of it, there’s an element of me in it. The rhythm of the snare drum, the rhythm of the high hat, the sample, the way it’s chopped, the poetry, the bass line— it all came from me. You get more from me in one song than from another artist who just wrote the words. I believe that.
Do you think that’s why people connect with your music?
Absolutely. There’s more opportunity for people to connect. Even when you got back to listen to The Warm Up, five years later, it wasn’t the current sound of what was happening in rap at the time or what was considered mainstream, but it will last forever, because not only is the rapping amazing, but the music is literally my sound. It was just me in this bedroom making beats and they all came from me. Those other songs, you’re going to listen to them and they sound like five years ago. But you’re going to listen to The Warm Up and it doesn’t have an expiration date, because it doesn’t have any time. It’s just from one person’s soul and you can’t put an expiration date on soul.
Which track are you most proud of from The Warm Up?
There are way too many songs on it. I can’t answer that. I can’t believe I put that many songs on that project. Honestly, I really can’t answer that. I could throw out like five songs on still wow me to the day, like “Can I Live,” “Grown Simba,” “Lights Please,” “Hold it Down.” I’m proud of the whole thing, but those songs I listen back and thing, wow.
Looking back with five years more experience under your belt, is there anything you would have done differently on The Warm Up?
No. I would have sold it, that’s it. If I knew then what I know now, if I had more confidence and knowledge of the industry, I would have sold it. But my whole plan, after this next album where I come and destroy the game, I will just put out The Warm Up for sale and give it its proper treatment. There’s no reason that I should have to go to DatPiff and download my own classic.
Did you have any idea that the mixtape would become such a hit?
Oh yeah. I knew because we used to drive around with those songs, before my record deal, and say, oh man, this is the song, this is the album. It was just because when we got the deal, it was the way the game worked at the time. We had to sacrifice these songs and put them out for free for people to know they are good. I — and the music biz —didn’t know better than to not put it out for free. But it’s cool. It all happens for a reason. It added to the evolution of rap music, period. The whole music business learned from that. I’m very grateful for everything, for where I’ve come from and where I’m about to go.
A lot of your press releases mention the fact that Born Sinner overtook Kanye West’s Yeezus in the number one spot on the Billboard charts. Was that a big day for you?
I’m not going to front, yeah, it was. I don’t like to rub it in, because I have so much respect for Kanye, but yeah, of course. I changed my date to his date, because he suddenly announced that he was going to drop his album the week before mine and I didn’t want to come in the shadow of his, I would rather go meet him. So I did it, just to see where I stood at that point in my career. It was a great payoff and was very gratifying, but it wasn’t the highlight of my life or anything. If it was, there would be no reason for us to even be talking right now. I don't want "Beat Yeezus" on my tombstone or anything.
Earlier you mentioned an album you are working on that will "destroy everything". What do you have in the works?
I can't say anything yet, because it's not done. I'm definitely in it, but I've learned my lesson about saying anything too early.
You are heading home to North Carolina on your tour this year. Are you excited to play this album there?
I wanted to make sure that I did a date in North Carolina and I had to fight for it. I made The Warm Up in New York, but it’s all about Fayatteville, where I am from. It’s about Carolina and New York. I didn’t get to do it last year for the Dollar and a Dream tour, so it’s only right that with such a classic for me to come here and perform it and give people in Carolina a chance to see it. I’m proud about that.