Chapter 1 – Two Mountains
The noisy digital clock had a wooden surface and a black screen with glowing red numbers on it that read “6:00.” I opened my eyes and quickly rolled over to stop the alarm, mindful of my two roommates who shared the tiny dorm with me. It was still dark outside. “If you’re gonna go, you need to leave by 6:15,” I said to myself. It was about a 10-minute walk across campus to Taffner Field House, the newly-built practice facility for the Men’s basketball team at St. John’s University, where the second and final round of tryouts were to be held this morning at 6:30. I was one of the 10 hopefuls that got a call back from day one. I stared at the ceiling while lying in bed, contemplating my final decision.
On paper, the thought of potentially making a college basketball team roster should have been exciting, but for the past 24 hours I was going through it. A year earlier I had failed to do the proper paperwork and missed my opportunity to try out as a freshman. I promised myself I wouldn’t make the same mistake again. I spent that entire school year playing five days a week on campus against some quality competition from across the country. St. John’s had some hoopers. There were a lot of dudes on campus that played high school ball and some could have easily played for a low level division I team. For what it’s worth, in this small basketball community of non student-athletes, I was one of the top players.
I was a late bloomer, though. I played in high school, but had only started to find real confidence after my senior year was over. I was 6’3″, athletic with a high motor, and highly competitive. What I lacked in fundamentals (which was a lot), I made up for in creativity, finesse, and will power. If there was one word to describe my game at the age of 19 it was, potential.
Courtesy of J. Cole
That potential was on display on the first day of tryouts, with me and about 50 other kids essentially battling for a chance to permanently ride the bench of a major Big East program. On the court that day, to put it simply, I was on my shit. As we played game after game and ran through drill after drill, the initial nerves I felt at the start of the day were replaced by a confident realization that I might have been the best player on the floor. “Oh shit. You about to fuck around and make this team,” I thought. When my name was called as a part of the 10 players invited back the next day, things got real for me.
Without a doubt, I felt a child-like joy at the possibility of walking onto the team. Throughout the day, I imagined throwing on that red jersey and playing in Madison Square Garden (and by playing, I mean participating in the layup line and clapping real loud at the end of the bench). Also there was something very special to me about being a part of a team again. There was a feeling of family and belonging that I missed from high school. On top of countless jokes and classic memories, playing on a team provides you with strong bonds and a sense of identity, even if your position on that team was at the bottom of the totem pole. But here’s the thing. I knew myself. If I did in fact make the roster, I had no intentions of staying at the bottom of that pole.
I’ve learned that a fundamental part of my anatomy is this: I have a relentless drive. When I really want to achieve something, I dig deep and find the work ethic, the foresight, and the patience needed to make it happen. My mother has pointed to this next story as the first and clearest example of that. As a teenager with vivid dreams of one day playing in the NBA, I got cut from the JV team both my freshman and sophomore years. Each time broke my heart. The first time it happened, my 14-year-old ego said, “I know I’m better than a few of them white boys that made it. This some bullshit.” When I got cut the very next year, it was the sobering reality check I needed, telling me that, clearly, I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. I took that wake-up call and began to put in real work on my game for the first time in my life. I would go on to make the Varsity team my Junior year, getting very little clock. I spent another summer putting in work, and was a starter by my Senior season. This accomplishment might seem insignificant to most, but for me it may have been the key that unlocked the rest of my life. It was proof to myself that I could climb mountains.What I lacked in fundamentals (which was a lot), I made up for in creativity, finesse, and will power.
The mountain I saw before me that day stretched much higher than being a D1 walk-on. In my heart I knew that if I did make that team, it would reignite my lifelong dream to one day reach the League. I saw myself putting in countless hours to get better, and to hopefully get a small amount of playing time by my senior year. Next, I saw myself graduating and becoming the underdog journeyman, fighting for roster spots in overseas leagues, all with the goal of one day making it to the ultimate mountaintop, the National Basketball Association.
As I envisioned this future for myself, there was a truth that I couldn’t escape. I came to school in New York on a different mission. There was a different mountain that I promised myself I would climb. A mountain just as steep and just as easy to fall from. A mountain that took even more delusion to believe that it could be climbed in the first place. I came to New York to be a rap legend. When I fell in love with the craft at 13 years old, I tore the basketball posters off my wall and hung up pictures and lyrics of hip-hop greats to replace them. Unlike basketball, in rap I was highly advanced beyond any of my peers. Going from Fayetteville, NC, to New York was step one of my quiet but focused journey towards that goal.
That morning, as I lay in bed, I was at a fork in the road. Turn left and live a life dedicated to basketball and the long and arduous pursuit of a far fetched NBA career. Or turn right and go do what you came here to do. As the clock struck 6:15, I rolled over, covered my face with the comforter and went back to sleep.
Chapter 2 – We Meet Again.
I signed my record deal on February 24th, 2009. I had just turned 24. That date is easy for me to remember because it’s the day before the birthday of one of my closest friends and business partner, Ibrahim Hamad. That day, we both took an elevator way up to the fancy office of a high-end entertainment law firm housed in a New York city high-rise. Far from what I would have imagined, the actual moment of signing the contract was relatively unremarkable. Ib and I sat in a small, quiet conference room across from an associate of my fancy new lawyer. The mountain of papers in front of him included multiple copies of a record deal that I never actually read. The associate pointed at the area of each page that needed my signature, and when all the copies were signed, Ib and I probably dapped each other up and said some shit like, “Aight my dawg. Let’s get it.” With empty pockets, we hopped in the dented black Honda Civic and slid down to the Lower East Side of Manhattan to celebrate at a bar with some of our homeboys. RJ was in town, Mike Rooney was there, Proof fell through, Ted and Elite showed up. The sun was going down and the happy hour crowd was filling in. There was a surreal feeling that came with having just officially signed to Jay-Z. The man was a mythical figure to me that I had only met one time a few months prior. Friends would congratulate me and follow it up with a “Nigga!!! How you feeling?!!” I imagine that the thought of one of their homies getting a deal with somebody we all idolized had to be mind blowing. But the truth was that the enormous level of excitement I felt was somehow subdued by the amount of focus I knew I had to have for my ultimate mission. I came to New York 6 years earlier on a partial scholarship with one ridiculous goal in mind: to one day sit in the same seat that Jay and a only a handful of other rappers previously sat. Signing to one of my biggest inspirations was an unexpected blessing, but even on that beautiful night of celebration I understood it was just one giant-step towards something much more far fetched.
When you’re on a mission that big, it leaves very little room in your mind for anything else. However, that night, after returning home from celebrating, I used the last little bit of my mind’s real estate to do some quick mental math. First the thumb, followed by the pointer, and then with the middle finger extended I counted to myself, “If I can blow up in the next three years, that means I’ll only be 27. That still might give me enough time to train and pursue a professional basketball career. I’ll work hard enough to go play overseas and then try to work my way to the NBA.” I smiled at the possibility. Still holding on.
In reality though, it would take me way more than three years to feel like I reached the mountain top in this rap game. Shit, sometimes I still feel like there’s more climbing to do, but more on that later. 2015 was the first time in my career that I felt I could actually take a moment to catch my breath. It was a year after the release of 2014 Forest Hills Drive, my fifth full-length project since 2009 and my third commercial release. I was both grateful and shocked at how massive the album became. I had just finished a world tour and now found myself lying comfortably on the couch of my apartment in North Carolina with a wedding ring on, doing the type of regular shit I hadn’t given myself permission to do for the past 5 or 6 years. I was watching shows like Narcos, How to Get Away With Murder, Odd Mom Out, Caribbean Life. I challenged myself to finish books instead of putting them down after the first chapter. I watched NBA League Pass nightly, catching every Warriors game I could. For the first time since my college days, I felt I had some time to waste. It was a beautiful feeling, even in it’s briefness. Most of all though, I spent this time hooping. Everyday. Wherever I could find a run, I was there. I even joined an adult league playing with dudes that had full time jobs and loved the game just as much as me. And slowly, the dream of playing professionally began to make its way back to the front of my mind. I was approaching 31, four years older than I thought I would be, but still possessing most of the athleticism I had in my 20’s. “If you’re gonna do this, now is the time.”
One of the biggest hurdles I would have to climb was my skill level, or lack thereof. Considering the amount of delusion in my dream, I was pretty realistic about my ability as a player. There’s levels to this shit. I was, at best, a Lifetime Fitness All-Star. I recognized that, yeah, in a 5-on-5 pick up game at a random gym I could maybe be one of the best players on the floor, but when somebody real stepped onto the court, a player with college or overseas professional experience, the truth came out and all of the holes in my game were exposed. My biggest problems were an inconsistent jumpshot due to a raggedy form, a weak left hand, and a lack of confidence that came from the fact that deep down I just wasn’t as good as I wanted to be. Once again, I could see how steep the mountain was, but still I wanted to climb. Not because I thought I was good enough, but because I believed that maybe I could be. Not because making it to the mountaintop was something that I needed to do, but because not trying was something that I couldn’t accept. But Father Time was ticking.Not because making it to the mountaintop was something that I needed to do, but because not trying was something that I couldn’t accept.
Time wasn’t my biggest source of conflict though. On a spring day in 2016, after running some pick up games with the lunch time crowd at Lifetime Fitness, I found myself downstairs in the basement of the Sheltuh, a home studio I set up in the suburbs of North Carolina. Alone, and surrounded by walls covered with timeless images of heroic black artists, I sat with pen in hand, notebook on lap, and a beat playing loudly on repeat. Hours passed as I struggled to find motivation to write. As an artist, this wasn’t that unusual, but what was strange for me is that this had been my dominant mood for the past 6 months. Generally uninspired. Sure, every now and then I would stumble upon some intense creative alignment, a rush of inspiration, that would lead to songs I considered to be some of my best ever, “4 Your Eyez Only,” “False Prophets,” and some never heard by the public, but these moments felt few and far between. Most of the material I was writing was aimless, unfocused, and honestly kind of depressing. As I sat there staring at the empty page in my notebook, I asked myself, “What’s up?” My relationship with music felt like a marriage that was at a crossroads. There were no arguments, just occasional bland conversations followed by lots of silence that said it all. The fire was gone.
“Do I still love her like I used to?”
That afternoon, I would come to realize that the newfound comfort and freedom I felt in my everyday life had created a quiet distance between me and my passion for the craft. As I looked inside of myself, I noticed an absence of something that had been with me for well over a decade. The hunger was missing. When I started rapping it was the competition that drove me. I had a burning desire to be the best in the world and to prove it with every verse. In my younger days, that hunger showed itself in the bars. But now, at 31, I became an artist who barely cared for punchlines, wittiness, or for the standard measurements of what determines a rapper’s fitness. I was much more concerned with story, emotion, and message. And while these elements led to a lot of fulfilling moments for me, I couldn’t deny that the competitive edge was missing. The desire to prove something to myself and to the world was on its deathbed. While that sounds liberating, for me it was worrying. Trying to prove something was all I had ever really known, and truly I loved the pursuit. I wondered if this was the very spot on this long journey that all my favorites — the ones that lived long enough — had reached before. The moment where the blessing of success places a curse on the very same drive that brought it to you in the first place, and the words you write moving forward never surpass the ones you wrote in the past. I had to have an honest talk with myself.
“Nigga, is that what you want? Are you done here?” It was a question that I needed to hear. The answer that I felt swell up inside was a resounding, “No.” “If your career was over tomorrow, would you have any regrets? Things you didn’t do that you wish you had done?” I felt a clear “yes” fill my body.
Courtesy of J. Cole
The first thing that rushed to my mind was the missed opportunity of community. A combination of a competitive ego mixed with a deep fear of rejection had kept me from collaborating with peers that I respected all of these years and prevented me from building real friendships with them. I had spent my career closed off. I didn’t want that to be the case forever. The next thing I thought about was Dreamville, the label. It hadn’t yet been cultivated to the level that I had always envisioned, and I felt that in order for that to happen, I would have to be operating at a high level as an artist in order to add significant energy to the movement and to the careers that we were helping to build. During this conversation with myself though, the strongest revelation I had was this; I wanted to rap again. Rap, rap. I missed rhyming the way I rhymed on The Come Up (my first ever mixtape released in 2007) the same way that I missed being able to dunk how I was dunking at age 23. Father Time might not bring my bounce back, I thought, but if I rededicated my time and attention to my craft and allowed myself to fall back in love with the sport of rap, then I could far surpass any level that my pen ever reached in the past. I knew this would take time, patience, discipline, focus, and a willingness to step out of my comfort zone, but I believed it would be worth it. And so it was decided. Basketball would have to wait one more time.
A month later, I packed my bags and hopped on a plane to Laguardia Airport. A couple weeks prior I learned that I would become a father. It wasn’t a surprise. I had been taking steps to change my life for the past couple years, and I felt ready. After grabbing my luggage from the baggage claim carousel, I hopped in a black SUV. The car service drove me to Jamaica, Queens, dropping me off at Mohammad’s crib, the house that I once lived in from my senior year in college up until a couple years after I signed my record deal. It was the last place I had ever been broke in. Lucky for me, the upstairs apartment that I used to rent was vacant. I decided to move back in for a while. I carried my bag up several flights of stairs and got a rush of nostalgia. The smell, the carpet, the dust. Everything was exactly as it used to be. For me, this house was a physical representation of the hunger that I craved—in a rap sense and in a literal sense. In the nearly two years between my college graduation and my first recording advance, many days were spent under this roof with no money to feed myself. At times, I had just enough change to purchase a dollar-slice of pizza from Hillside Avenue, which I would buy at exactly 7pm, a time that I had deemed optimal for managing the pain of an empty stomach during my waking hours. For the next three months I would wake up in that old, familiar room, putting myself through morning writing drills before heading off to Electric Lady Studios with a short term plan to finish the 4 Your Eyez Only album before the arrival of my first child, and a long term plan of becoming the best rapper I could possibly be before hanging up my jersey, leaving nothing on the table when all was said and done. The seeds for The Fall Off were planted.
Four years have passed. In that time I’ve been blessed with two sons, learned the delicate art of balance between parenthood and career, had the pleasure of working with a ton of talented artists as a featured rapper, spent 10 magical days recording a Dreamville album in Atlanta, and put a lot of time and energy into sharpening my sword and growing as an artist. The fire that was once dying out has returned, and for that I’m grateful. On my career bucket list, there remain a few more items to check off before I give myself permission to enter whatever the next chapter of my life may be. However, as I approach the summit of this mountain, I still find myself staring at that other one in the distance, wondering if I can climb. At 35 years old, I know that sounds crazy when said out loud, but I believe all of the best dreams do.